LAWRENCEVILLE - When it comes to residential trash and recycling pickup service, Gwinnettians have had a rough year.
Because of the county's ongoing solid waste fiasco, which partly stemmed from the fight over a mandatory recycling initiative and the curbside collection of recyclable goods from residential homes, many residents aren't sure what they can and can't recycle. In fact, it's been hard to figure out who's in charge of collecting the stuff in the first place.
But recyclables are being collected, and in honor of Earth Day on Wednesday, we take a look at the facts, myths and process of recycling.
The No. 1 thing to remember is that recycling is open to anyone. If you're a homeowner and have residential trash pickup service, no matter who your trash hauler is, recycling is included with your service. That means homeowners can recycle upwards of 30 different types of materials, and they can be mixed together in what is called single-stream recycling.
If you're not a homeowner and don't have recycling pickup service, you can recycle the same materials by taking them to Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful's recently reopened Recycling Bank at 4300 Satellite Boulevard, or you can take them to SP Recycling Corporation in Lawrenceville. It's your choice.
If a trash hauler picks up your recyclables, LuAnn Chambers and Fred Johnson of SP Recycling said odds are the recyclables are going to SP's processing facility on Maltbie Street and fetch, on average, about $38 to $40 a ton. Chambers estimates that SP handles anywhere from 1,600 to 2,000 tons of Gwinnett's recycled materials each month, and about 8,000 tons a month from across metro Atlanta. That means a lot of used products get a second life with SP.
"To the best of our beliefs, 99 percent of all curbside recycled materials is going to our Lawrenceville facility," Chambers said.
"Every major hauler we know is coming our way," Johnson said. "If we've done our jobs, and I think we have based on the volumes, it's all coming here right now."
What isn't processed directly in Lawrenceville heads to the company's sorting facility in Forest Park, where it's further sorted, compacted, baled and sold on the open market, much like any other commodity. Johnson estimated that 35 percent of all the recycled material processed in Forest Park is first collected in Gwinnett County.
By participating in recycling, he said, people are not only helping the environment but supporting businesses and parts of the Georgia economy as well.
"These (recyclables) are valuable resources that without recycling are going to a landfill," Johnson said. "It costs money to put garbage in a landfill. And if it is something that doesn't have to go in a landfill and can be reused, then recycling is really providing a double benefit."
Connie Wiggins of Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful said since 2004 the amount of recycling collected and reported by trash haulers has decreased each year. She said for recycling participation rates to increase, people need to look at the entire process of consuming and collecting a discarded item differently. She said getting people and businesses to change their thinking is a constant challenge.
"For so long, we've had this mentality that when we're through with something, we throw it away," she said. "We're not very mindful about reusing or refocusing something. So it's really an entire shift of mentality."
Wiggins said people need to look at recycling not as a waste management tool, but a resource management tool.
A great example is northwest Georgia's Mohawk Industries, which reuses and purchases many of the discarded plastic water and soda bottles (recycling arrow No. 1) to be used to manufacture carpeting.
Other examples of Georgia's recycling industry at work involve companies who purchase discarded aluminum soda cans or metal food cans. Those businesses melt the old metal and make it into sheets of new metal which can then be cut into more cans. Or think of the newsprint you are reading from right now. When recycled properly, it will eventually be made into more newsprint so that more newspapers can be printed.
There's a factory in Dublin owned by SP Recycling that buys 120 tractor-trailer loads of discarded newsprint every day so that 100 percent recycled newsprint can be made from it. So in addition to providing jobs in Dublin, recycling newsprint also allows SP to prevent trees from being chopped down to make paper. That's a prime example of how resources can be saved through recycling, and SP estimates that 40 percent of all recyclables it processes go toward the production of its 100 percent recycled newsprint.
There is no concrete number for how many Gwinnettians participate in curbside recycling. The number of residential recyclers reported to the county by the various garbage haulers varies, and there is no way to verify the numbers. The best estimate - a 34 percent participation rate - comes from Gwinnett's largest residential garbage hauler, Republic Services. Because of a recent merger, residents might recognize the company as Robertston Sanitation or Allied Waste Services, but the outfits when combined service roughly half of Gwinnett's 180,000 homes.
There is a caveat to that number, Republic spokesman Jack Perko said. The number of recycling participants was hand counted by the workers on the trucks.
"It's hard to tell how accurate that is because there is no electronic monitoring," Perko said. "I think recycling in Gwinnett has been level, but that it's certainly greater than it was five years ago."
The statistics say differently.
Perko said Republic would like to equip their collection trucks with readers so they could more accurately count recycling participants by attaching radio frequency identification tags to the recycling bins. He also said the company can't make that investment in Gwinnett until it knows it will be allowed to continue working there once a new solid waste plan is implemented.
"The real struggle is the need to know what is going to happen in the marketplace before we make a multi-million dollar investment," he said. "The unknown is what's holding us up right now."
If the goal of the county is to increase the amount of products recycled, which in turn contributes to less waste going to a landfill, increasing the participation rate among households is the key, Johnson said.
"Imagine how much you'd recycle if you had 50 to 55 percent participation," he said. "That would make a difference."
Or think of it like Chambers does.
"Thirty-five percent participating means there is 65 percent that aren't," she said.
It's those 65 percent she wonders about.
"Think of the hundreds of tons of materials that we handle here," she said. "Without recycling, that's all stuff that would go to landfills, and that is a huge ton of landfill space that has a huge energy impact. It doesn't make good environmental or economic sense to do it that way."
Both Johnson and Chambers said the key to a successful curbside recycling program is continued education, from the haulers educating their customers about what can be recycled to the continued efforts on the benefits of recycling brought to us by Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful, which has served the county as a Keep America Beautiful affiliate for more than 28 years.
Chambers said Georgia was the first state in the country to have a Keep America Beautiful program, and said the state has the largest amount of Keep America Beautiful affiliates in the country, with more than 70. She also said it's now up to both the trash haulers and Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful to clear the air in Gwinnett to ensure people know what can and can't be recycled.
"The biggest thing with recycling is the least amount of confusion and frustration for the homeowner leads to the most getting recycled," she said.