CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – When it comes to the accessibility of recycling programs in West Virginia the state Department of Environmental Protection says factors like economics, population density, geography and markets for recycled materials play a key role.

The agency says recycling is very successful in some communities but failing in others.

Many community recycling programs aren’t as robust as they used to be. The problem is more complex than you might think.

“I’m just doing my part,” said Tom Mullins of Charleston, WV as he dropped off recycling at the Kanawha County Solid Waste Authority at Slack Street. “I feel like if you can reuse plastic, if you can reuse paper, do it.”

Mullins has been recycling for decades. He and many other recycling faithfuls have witnessed significant changes in local recycling programs.

“It is just disappointing. You would think it would be a higher priority,” said Maryrita Miller of Dunbar, WV.  

Tom Mullins (Photo Credit: WOWK 13 News Reporter Nicky Walters.)

Municipal programs that once thrived are now idle or scaled down. In Dunbar, the truck the city once used for an active recycling program is parked and out of operation. Now, the only option is a few recycling containers at the Public Works facility.  

“You can see sometimes people will just pull up and throw it out here,” said Donnie Spradling, Public Works Director for the City of Dunbar. “We have to come out here and clean it up. It just got to the point where plastics and stuff like that, it just isn’t even worth it.”

Spradling said between snow removal, paving, building demolition and other tasks, his department can’t staff the bins to make sure people are doing the right thing. In the long run, the program itself, which now only accepts cardboard, paper and metal, costs the city money. Sometimes the loads go to the landfill anyway because of contamination.

“Each one of those dumpsters is $250 to take that and dump it. They are just taking it to Nitro and charging us that. But if somebody comes down here and mixes plastic into the paper then they take that to the dump and dump it,” Spradling explained. “We have to pay them to come pick it up, dump it at the dump and we have to pay a fuel surcharge for them to go back and forth. We have $500 to $600 in a dumpster that we don’t even get $100 profit off of.”  

Contamination is a major factor as small communities try to keep recycling programs afloat.

“I believe people are too lazy to do it right,” Tom Mullins said of his fellow recyclers. “They tell you to break down your cardboard, and they throw boxes in. They want to do the right thing, but they are too lazy to do the right thing.”

The City of Charleston has single stream curbside recycling. That means that items don’t have to be sorted. The city says making it easier has helped increased participation, but it is still expensive because it has to be hauled to Raleigh County, WV.  

“For the last probably 10 years it has been going to Beckley,” explained Brent Webster, Public Works Director City of Charleston. “We’ve said this a lot of times, they are great partners but geographically it is hard to do that. There is wear and tear on our vehicles and we are paying $175 a ton.”

The trucks and manpower to drive back and forth put limits on how much they can grow the program.

Dunbar Recycling Bins (Photo Credit: WOWK 13 News Reporter Nicky Walters)

“That’s one reason why we can’t get into the business community yet. Those vehicles that are taking the loads to Beckley. If you cancel out that trip couple times a week, that might be an opportunity to collect from the business community and schools,” Webster said.

Several years ago, the Kanawha County Solid Waste Authority had a sorting facility at Slack Street. Many years later that building was demolished because of structural concerns. There is now a small processing building at Eden’s Fork where one employee works to bale materials dropped off in recycle bins at Slack Street. Because they separate and bale materials the Solid Waste Authority is able to better market their materials. Where those materials go depends largely on who is offering the best price. But they still don’t necessarily make money.

“Once we weren’t able to send it overseas, which was a very economical way to handle our recycling, it became far more expensive,” said Amy Parsons-White, Sustainability Manager Marshall University.

Parsons-White said when China stopped accepting recycled materials from places like the United States because of contamination, recycling became much less affordable. She said that is because there isn’t much recycling infrastructure in place domestically.

“That is something that I feel like we really learned during the pandemic as well you know to stop relying on other places,” Parsons-White said. “We must recycle our own materials, and we can really build an economy on that.”

The obstacle there is finding the money.

“The only drawback with that is any time you change the way something is done, there is that initial cost to build the infrastructure or update the infrastructure,” Parsons-White said. “However, once we get past the initial cost, I believe that we will see, economically, it is just the right thing to do. We will be able to reduce energy costs. We’ll be able to reduce manufacturing costs and it will bring a lot more jobs.”

The national challenge of accessibility to recycling opportunities is being addressed through the Federal Infrastructure Law passed in 2022. The law provides $275 million over the next several years for grants authorized under the Save our Seas 2.0 Act.  

A representative for the West Virginia DEP says beyond grant programs, charging customers a fee to recycle would be the simplest and most effective way to improve accessibility to recycling opportunities throughout the state.

While recycling usually gets the bulk of the attention Amy Parsons-White said that it should still be thought of as a final step. She says the community can also help by reducing the amount of household waste and looking for ways to re-use existing materials.

For more information about how to recycle properly click here.

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