Can Cary recycle more than it wastes?

akenney@newsobserver.comAugust 9, 2013 

  • Who saves the most trash from the landfill?

    The North Carolina Division of Environmental Assistance & Customer Service provided these figures based on the most recent available data.

    Below is a list of towns and cities with recycling programs of more than 25,000 households, sorted by the percentage of their trash, including yard waste, that they divert for recycling and repurposing.

    1. Cary – Percentage diverted: 49.1%; tons diverted: 30,070.

    2. Wilmington – Percentage diverted: 44.0%; tons diverted: 18,289.

    3. Fayetteville – Percentage diverted: 39.8%; tons diverted: 93,651.

    4. Asheville – Percentage diverted: 38.9%; tons diverted: 14,296.

    5. Concord – Percentage diverted: 37.1%; tons diverted: 13,290.

    Raleigh and Durham check in slightly lower, each diverting about 33 percent of their tonnage.

  • Have your say

    What, if anything, should Cary do to increase its recycling rate? Would you be willing to pay more, or join a composting program? Write a letter to the editor, with your name and town of residence, to

— Town leaders want to push for a new recycling landmark: On Thursday, the Cary Town Council launched a new effort to save more than half the town’s waste from the landfill.

The town already diverts about 49 percent of its trash, the highest rate in the state for large municipalities, according to state data. That puts Cary tantalizing close to the 50 percent goal – and with unanimous council approval, town staff now are working on a menu of options, and the corresponding costs.

Staff and officials haven’t offered much detail on what options they’ll examine, but the possibilities generally fall into two categories: The town could convince more people to use the existing program, or it could break ground on new types of recycling.

Increasing participation

Recycling doesn’t work without residents’ help. After all, they’re the ones who have to put soda cans and paper in the recycling bins.

Compared to other towns, “Cary has a very high participation rate, but that doesn’t mean everybody’s on board,” said Scott Mouw, North Carolina’s recycling program director.

To encourage participation, Cary could:

•  Ask residents to recycle more. Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson, who launched the new effort, has suggested the town start a new education campaign, or make extra recycling bins easy to come by.

•  Make recycling easier. Councilwoman Gale Adcock asked whether the town could pick up recycling weekly and trash every other week.

•  Put a little money at stake. Some towns have offered an incentive for recyclers, such as a discount on rates, according to Mouw.

•  Institute a “ pay as you throw” model that would charge residents by the pound for trash. Some towns weigh trash or use technology to track trash cans, while others force residents to buy government-brand trash bags. This idea hasn’t won any discussion at Town Hall.

Breaking new ground

The options could push Cary past its 50 percent goal, Mouw said. But the largest gains in waste diversion might wait in fertile new fields of recycling – literally.

“The next big chunk they would have to go after,” Mouw said, would be “food waste.”

Thrown-away food makes up about a fifth of the “waste stream,” he said, and cities around the country are looking at it as the next frontier.

Since 2009, San Francisco has required that residents separate food scraps into green bins for composting. This year, Austin, Texas, mandated composting for businesses.

The model isn’t yet popular on the East Coast, Mouw said. It requires extra spending and a broad shift of habits for residents.

But Cary already is exploring the concept – it maintains a “compost education booth” at Fred G. Bond Park as a way to encourage do-it-yourself composting.

The town also recycles a broader-than-average range of other materials.

“In a lot of ways, the town of Cary is one of the most promising early adopters of food waste collection,” Mouw said. “We think, ‘Who would be the first to do this in North Carolina?’ Cary comes up first on our list.”

What’s next?

Plenty of ideas are in the mix at this early stage. At the recent council meeting, elected officials fielded prospects from composting to bicycle recycling. But it’s likely that the town will start small.

“This would be simple things, like encouraging people who have a second trash can to give it back in, or swap it out for a recycle bin,” Robinson said.

The town’s path also may depend on costs. Councilman Don Frantz already has warned that he’s unwilling to spend much extra money on the program.

There’s also the possibility that the town won’t hit its new goal due to outside factors. Much of Cary’s recycled tonnage is yard waste – grass clippings and leaves – and a drought could significantly reduce that volume, town staff said.

That prospect doesn’t worry Robinson so much.

“In the end, if we encourage more people, or enable to recycle more material, who cares if we hit that 50 percent number?” she asked.

But it’s useful, she added, to have a goal. Staff will return with suggestions for the recycling program in the coming months.

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