Since the late 1990s the citizens of Macon County have steadily embraced the idea of recycling and as the wait for a new Solid Waste Management and Materials Report begins, the county anticipates another high showing and hopefully even a number one ranking in the state for its efforts in recycling.
According to the Macon County Solid Waste Department, 80 percent of waste is recyclable or compostable. Some of these recyclable materials include corrugated cardboard, newspapers, various types of plastics, aluminum cans, glass, metal, etc. Some centers also accept materials such as used oil and used anti-freeze, tires, electronic waste, and used car and truck batteries.
Pursuant to General Statutes 130A-309, 136-28.8(g) and 143-58.2(f), the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is required to submit a report on solid waste management to the governor of North Carolina, the Environmental Review Commission, the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, and the Revenue Laws Study Committee by Jan. 15 of every year and this time around Macon County could sit atop the list.
All 100 counties in North Carolina offer recycling services, so to be ranked highly, especially number one would be quite an accomplishment. Macon has been ranked in the top 10 for the past several years, and according to Joel Ostroff, recycling coordinator, since 2001, Macon County has never fallen out of the top 10. Catawba County, which lies in the western Piedmont area of North Carolina, took the top spot in the 2010-2011 Solid Waste Management and Materials Management Report. In the same report, Macon County was ranked at number six behind Swain County at fifth while Jackson County ranked 25th.
Recycling conserves natural resources and creates less pollution, not to mention, everything that is recycled is sold to companies who make new products from the county's operation resulting in economic benefits to those who live within the area. It also saves space at the county landfill.
“The reason it is significant, is that the more we can recycle, the less we have to put into our landfill,” said County Commissioner Kevin Corbin. “We have extended the life of our landfill by 10 years.” This results in savings for the county since keeping materials out of the landfill means that landfills do not have to be built as often and therefore reduces operating costs.
Though recycling has gradually been introduced in Macon County over the past 15 years, two major improvements have been made to the recycling operation in the past five years. The first was a new baler at the landfill which is much more efficient, allowing employees to process more material than was previously possible. “When we baled cardboard for example, the completed bale had to be hand-tied,” said Chris Stahl, director of Solid Waste Management. “This process took two operators about 10-15 minutes. With the new baler, tying the bale is automated, meaning none of the operators have to stop processing materials and the bale is strapped in about 20 seconds.”
The other change that has boosted the numbers coming from the county landfill was the development of the recovery operation. Without opening bags in respect to people's privacy, employees sort through the waste looking for materials to be recovered such as cardboard, metals, unwanted electronic products, and clean wood waste. “We started this program about three years ago and we are averaging approximately 800,000 pounds of materials recovered per year,” said Stahl.
The Solid Waste Department moves its operations beyond the landfill by putting recycling containers in all county offices and making drop-off accessible to the general public by means of the convenience centers spread around the county. With the help of state grants, recycling trailers have been placed at a number of the schools. This helps to spark an interest in the children who are beginning to learn about recycling at an early age at home and at school. Containers have also been placed at the recreation park and facilities in order to collect plastic bottles and aluminum cans which have been banned from landfills in North Carolina.
Whatever the ranking achieved in the latest report may be, it is always contingent on citizen participation. Unlike some counties across the state, Macon County does not have a mandated recycling program beyond the landfill bans and therefore the public's willingness to recycle is essential. “I don't want to discount the efforts and the commitment of my staff, or the commitment the county has made to recycling, but our success this year and for over a decade really belongs just as much to the public for their investment and time and energy to achieve this level of success,” said Stahl when asked about public participation. “The fact that on a per capita basis, we can outpace counties with curbside recycling, pay-as-you-waste systems, or other mandated programs demonstrates the public's emphasis on recycling.”
Statewide, recycling can be credited with helping to provide 15,000 jobs. In Macon County, 51 people are employed in the recycling arena of the Solid Waste Department, four of which are full-time. Of those who work at the landfill and the Highlands transfer station, there are nine full-time employees. Also in the mix are three administrative positions and one Solid Waste Maintenance and Safety Officer.
“The staff at Solid Waste really do a super job,” said Corbin.
Eleven drop-off centers operate around the County including the landfill located in Franklin, Carson Center in Otto, the Buck Creek Center in Highlands, the Nantahala Junaluska Road Center in Topton and the Nantahala School Site in Nantahala among others. A complete list of convenience centers as well a recycling guidelines can be found in brochures available to the public at the above stations, the county landfill, the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce and the Solid Waste Management Office.