Visionary reduces contamination risk in Henderson County

By Emily Ostertag – eosterta@unca.edu – Staff Writer | April 1, 2015 |

Regional Recycling Solutions, a pioneering project new to the U.S. recycling industry, may drastically shift the waste handling process in Western North Carolina and eventually across the country, environmentalists say.

“It’s so harmful to take our waste and put it in the ground at the landfills. It can contaminate our water and cause big problems there,” said Ken Allison, managing partner of Regional Recycling Solutions and owner of Hillside Nursery.

According to the 2011 waste composition estimate for Buncombe County, only 18 percent of the residential waste stream is being recycled. These paper products, plastics, and glass totaled 145,182 tons – exactly 50 percent of overall waste.

Currently, Buncombe County has only two single-strain recycling centers that handle pre-separated materials, placed in blue bags by residents and businesses, Allison said. This system commonly leads to the unchecked disposal of non-separated recycling in landfills.

“Our facility is a multi-stream recycling facility. We can take material from the haulers, and process it through our facility,” Allison said. “We can get the recyclables out of it. It’s a new twist and a new technique that in Europe is very, very common.”

A business proposal three years ago, Allison said, got him thinking about the American recycling industry in comparison to Europe’s. A zero waste policy mandated in most of Europe banned the use of landfills, forcing many countries to invent alternative solutions in order to recycle 100 percent of their waste, he explained.

“We’re bringing in German technology and German recycling solutions to Buncombe County,” Allison said.

Along with this sorting facility, Allison said the 53-acre lot in south Asheville will also encompass a visitor education center. Hoping to serve the community as a helpful information outlet, he said he wants the center to target school groups, young adults and residents of all ages. A change in mindset and attitude creates an understanding of the importance of recycling, and this should start at a young age, Allison explained.

Rick Burt, a volunteer for Mountain True and chair of the organization’s south office recycling committee, said Regional Recycling Solutions will accept garbage from waste haulers around Western North Carolina, separate out the recycling and, hopefully, sell it for profit.

“In Henderson County we’re recycling only about 10 percent of our waste – not very much – because a lot of people just don’t want to bother or don’t know about the system,” Burt said. “You know, it’s an educational problem in Henderson County. We should be recycling closer to 80 percent.”

Burt said landfills created before 1995 lack recently-established precautions to prevent contamination, such as liners. When rain penetrates these mounds, the water extracts chemicals from the recyclables, and without proper barriers, these contaminants can leach into ground water, he explained. Recyclables placed in brown and black bags by residents and businesses, Burt said, cannot be sorted once picked up, because of certain federal regulations.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, although the number of U.S. landfills has steadily declined, the average landfill size has increased.

“Landfills are permitted to bury waste. They are not permitted to separate it,” Burt said.

Elizabeth Porter, economics lecturer at UNC Asheville, described recycling from a supply and demand standpoint. Alongside the educational problems Burt mentioned, Porter said the size of a city or community can also play a major part in its economic success with recycling.

Many recyclers rely on profit, she explained, and the necessities of their trade such as trucks and sorting machines require a good amount of income to remain in working condition.  While certain groups in Asheville actively source-recycle – by separating materials into blue bags themselves – the city’s size may still hinder the process, Porter said.

“So the bigger the place you go, the more demand, and the smaller the place you go, the less demand,” Porter said. “There are places here, locally, that don’t recycle at all and that just has to do with the economics of it. It’s too expensive to recycle.”

But to Allison, Asheville, he said, seemed like a great place to start. He said the waste Buncombe County produces, measuring up to several hundred thousand tons annually, revealed a business opportunity. Now at the permitting stage, Allison said, there are plans to have Regional Recycling Solutions under construction by June 1 and in operation by October. After Regional Recycling Solutions of Buncombe County gets underway, Allison said he hopes to expand toward the eastern region of the state and into Virginia.

“If it’s cost effective and he can make money off of it,” Burt said, “then yes, it is the way of the future.”

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