How to Recycle in Charlottesville Now!

Recycling Belt Photo by hroe/iStock / Getty Images

Recycling Belt Photo by hroe/iStock / Getty Images


(Note: C3 and Better World Betty co-produced this three part blog series. Read Part II and Part III.)

Part 1: How did we get in this recycling mess?

March’s announcement of the closure of van der Linde’s (vdL) Recycling’s household and commercial all-in-one bin recycling services sent shock waves throughout our community. Residents and businesses were left scrabbling to find alternatives.  

Pair that with China’s ban on contaminated recyclable materials, dubbed the “Green Fence,” and well… things in the trash world just got messier! So Better World Betty (Betty) and the Charlottesville Climate Collaborative (C3) teamed up for this in depth look at the state of recycling locally. 

This is a BIG topic, so we are breaking it down into 3 blogs. First, we’ll give you some background. Then we’ll share what we’ve found are the current options for City and County residents and businesses to recycle and where our recyclables are actually going. Finally, we’ll share some local perspectives on China’s Green Fence.

If it’s too good to be true, it probably is!

Before we begin, a brief primer on recycling terms is needed.  “Single-stream recycling” means collecting all recyclables into one bin.  It does not mean putting recyclables and trash together. The all-in-one collection or mixed waste processing method (which many mistakenly call “single-stream”) mixes trash and recyclables into one bin. 

The truth is the all-in-one method of recycling was not all that and a non-recyclable bag of chips!   

Mixing paper with dirty diapers and spaghetti was never the preferred recycling method. Mixing recyclables with trash results in higher contamination rates and therefore a lower quality material that obtains a lower price when sold.   

In fact, industry associations like The Recycling Industry Coalition, The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Steel Recycling Institute, Curbside Value Partnership, and the Paper Recycling Coalition all came out against the method. And the Container Recycling Institute and the National Waste & Recycling Association have highlighted how that system has resulted in significantly increased processing costs and contamination risk, and thus, reduced scrap material and other recyclables’ quality.  

Better World Betty along with others, most notably Albemarle County’s Solid Waste Alternatives Committee (SWAC) and GreenBlue, have been leading an uphill battle of educating the public about the problems with the “all-in-one” method since vdL’s “dirty MRF” (the industry term for mixed waste processing facilities) opened in 2008.  

In partnership with GreenBlue and its Sustainable Packaging Coalition, Better World Betty published a Recycling 101 guide for Charlottesville.  We talked about it frequently on 106.1 the Corner’s "Betty Show," and blogged about it. As a part of a grant to lower households’ carbon footprint, Betty gave over two dozen presentations that included how to recycle right. 

As much as people wanted to believe that all-in-one mixed waste processing was a panacea for our recycling sorting woes... it was not to be. In the end, vdL’s self-reported recycling rate to the Department of Environmental Quality was about 25% (in 2017).  

VdL Recycling’s business model was built on a belief that people just won’t recycle and that convenience wins the day. That may be true in the short term, but we are seeing the ramifications of that mentality now, especially in light of the growing awareness that plastic litter ends up in our oceans. If people understand the reason behind proper recycling AND it’s not overly cumbersome, they’ll do the right thing.  

In concert with this, in 2013 China began rejecting contaminated bales of plastic coming from the U.S. and others. Last year, China began to strictly enforce the ban on 24 categories of waste termed “Operation Green Fence.” Given that China used to take the majority of our waste, the impact has been felt nationally on solid waste service providers. Even globally. 

Locally we’ve been hearing that some residents are waiting for the all-in-one service come back. Others are skeptical whether any of their recyclable are actually being recycled at this point; and others are just flat out confused.  We’re also seeing that businesses and local shopping centers have discontinued recycling, are sending all trash (even cardboard) to landfill, and are in search of options.   

That’s why C3 and Better World Betty teamed up for this blog article.  Read our next blog (tomorrow) to learn what recycling options exist so that you can Recycle in Charlottesville Now!

RecyclingTeri Kent