Current city law in Charleston only allows plastic bags to be used to recycle, but the city’s Environmental and Recycling Committee is looking at bins as an additional option for residents.
The city’s free recycling bag voucher program officially ended July 1 with the start of the new fiscal year. The trash and recycling bags were among the many cuts made to plug a $3 million budget hole.
Since residents now have to pay for bags, Environment and Recycling Chairman John Bailey is looking for ways to help them use fewer bags. He introduced a bill at city council Monday night that would allow people to use bins for all recycling materials except paper or cardboard.
Paper and cardboard materials would still need to be put in plastic bags to avoid getting wet. Once paper and cardboard become wet the materials can no longer be sold and properly recycled.
“The purpose of the bin is to allow those houses that recycle a lot to use fewer bags,” Bailey said. “You can have your plastics and cans loose in the bin and not waste bag space on them.”
Bailey added that if the bill were to pass, the bins would be an option, not a requirement. Residents would still be able to put any type of recyclable into a clear plastic bag.
During the committee meeting, Bailey pulled out a 3-foot-tall, blue recycling bin that can hold about 32 gallons. He brought it to the meeting as an example of what kind of bins can be used. The bin costs about $15 from a hardware store, Bailey said.
“I think we need to have further discussions about how we can subsidize these or make them more available to the public, but at least that’s an option in the marketplace that people could use,” Bailey said.
However, the city used to provide bins for recycling before the bag program was in full swing. City council voted to do away with bins in 2015 because the Raleigh County Solid Waste Authority workers said the paper materials were getting wet, making the rest of the load unrecyclable.
This is why the city made the switch to clear bags, so the paper recyclables are sealed and protected from the weather and so workers can see there are recyclables inside the bag, said John Shannon, deputy director of the city Refuse Department.
Bailey said that’s the reason why the proposed bill calls for cardboard and paper to be recycled in clear bags.
“We’re being cautious so we don’t get rejected by the Beckley facility because until we have a more local solution, we’re at their mercy,” Bailey said. “We’re being more conservative then I’d like to be but I don’t want to put the whole program at risk by losing Beckley.”
Councilmember Sam Minardi, a Democrat representing Ward 15, said the committee should also be focusing on making the bags more readily available to the public.
“If we don’t provide clear bags, how are they going to get them?” Minardi said. “I’m afraid we’re going to do more damage to the program even though it’s not a very robust program. We could even see a steep decline.”
Minardi said he hasn’t seen the clear bags at larger retailers. But they are are available at more local stores. The three stores that carry them are Drug Emporium on Patrick Street and Piggly Wiggly and Drug Emporium in Kanawha City.
Those stores are chains that are locally owned so it’s easier to work with them to get the clear bags in stock, Bailey said.
“We’d have to go up 19 levels before Walmart would do it,” Bailey said. But he added that he will be in contact with larger retailers, such as Kroger, about putting the bags in stock.
As of now, Bailey said the committee needs to explore off-budget ways to subsidize bags.
“We need to make bags available in the cheapest possible way,” Bailey said. “We need to find it without asking administration for money.”
The city did apply for a $150,000 grant from the Department of Environmental Protection to do a participation study and fund education efforts. Bailey asked if some of the grant could be put toward the bags, but Matt Sutton, Mayor Amy Goodwin’s chief of staff, said it’s unlikely because they might not even get the full amount they requested.
“The DEP has tempered our expectations by saying ‘there is not a lot of money, but there’s a lot of participants,’” Sutton said.
Although Charleston has seen some adjustments made through its recycling system, it still has a low percentage of load rejections compared to its peers, Public Works Director Brent Webster said. He said officials from the Raleigh County Solid Waste Authority told him that the last time they spoke.
“That means the materials we do send in are actually getting recycled,” Webster said.