CHARLOTTE, N.C. (PINPOINT WEATHER) — Twenty tons of our waste clank, move, and shake every hour on more than 100 different conveyor belts at Mecklenburg County’s Material Recycling Facility, that’s more lovingly called the MRF.

But while recycling is in its name, ‘somebody somewhere thinks that this is recyclable.’

It poses the biggest headache for workers.

“This is something that should have never been delivered to the MRF; it will be one of those non-program materials that gets returned to the landfill,” said Jeff Smithberger, director of solid waste management.

Smithberger gets frustrated, not just at the things that aren’t supposed to be here, but at the condition, they come in. 

“We have to pay to get rid of the glass because this glass is still dirty,” he added. “Everything that comes in here gets processed and goes back out, so think of this as just an intermediary processing station.”

Each dump truck unloads eight tons of waste, everything from cardboard to plastic and aluminum, and then treks down the conveyor belts to be separated in the sorting cabins.

“There’s been a shutdown, not sure why, but the plant shut down for some reason,” Smithberger explained.

Until they abruptly stop, again and again.

“When one thing stops, it causes the whole thing to stop,” he said.

The plant came to a screeching halt at least four times during our 60-minute visit.

The sorters pull anything off the conveyor belt that’s not supposed to be there, from plastic bags to wire hangers and Christmas ornaments.

But there’s so much impostor garbage it gets stuck in the machinery shutting down the facility and stopping work. 

“One of the operators could have pulled the emergency stop, or one of the pieces of equipment could’ve gotten so contaminated or fouled that it’s causing one of the maintenance people to have to go check on it,” Smithberger explained.

This plant is supposed to run for six hours a day.

“Any given day, we’re generally down about 170 minutes for unanticipated maintenance issues associated with things that are non-program materials,” Smithberger said. 

On the tour, we saw everything from shingles to crates and cords, even bubble wrap on the line. We even spotted CDs stuck in the cracks and crevasses of the machinery. 

Nearly half of their work time is often lost because we recycle incorrectly.

Plastic bags are the facility’s biggest problem. We spotted unrecognizable gears wrapped in multiple layers of a thin film that would need to be cut off by hand. Smithberger says when that happens, the machinery cannot work as it should.

“We want to make sure that people understand prohibited items have a real impact on our operation,” Smithberger said.

Their problem with plastic is only getting worse and more expensive. Smithberger wants it to make money sense to the public.

“It translates back into our costs and the cost that all residents pay for this process,” he said.

More than 20% of the garbage coming into the recycling facility is wish-cycled, meaning it’s not actually recyclable; we hope and assume it is. Sorting and disposing of those misfits cost Mecklenburg County $1.9 million annually.

An average of 375 tons of what’s hopefully our recyclable garbage comes through the facility daily. Once sorted through the line, it gets packaged by its material — cardboard, plastic, or aluminum. It then gets sold and hopefully becomes something else.

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But it can only get sold if it’s a suitable material.

This is why the city just approved a $25 million upgrade to help this old newspaper recycling center keep up with plastic by growing the machinery from 3 arms to 17; 

“The 17 will allow us to better be able to separate and classify materials both by the material type and their material color where we can’t do that in this plant,” Smithbeger said with optimism. 

More precise and robust sorting will also mean fewer breakdowns and stop time on the line.

But machinery can only solve some of our problems. The first step to resolving the facility’s headaches starts at home.

“People are surprised and amazed when they realize that just because it’s got a recycled number, they think it can be recycled, like your yogurt cup,” said Tony Dobson, vice chair of Charlotte Surfrider. “They’re like, ‘I thought that was always recyclable,’ and it is recyclable, but it’s not recycled.” 

The organization is a local nonprofit putting up a fight against plastic pollution. It recently held a class to help educate people on what goes in your curbside green bins and what doesn’t. 

The reaction from some of the attendees:

“I wish everything we threw in there would be recycled [laughs],” was one of shock and awe. 

“It’s a very eye-opening experience; hearing some of the stuff that you thought you were doing is correct is probably not really all the way correct [laughs].”

You’d be surprised what’s on the don’t list: like plastic bags and shredded paper. Batteries can start severe fires at the plant. Plastic take-out containers, even those holding grocery store fruit, are also not recyclable.

The ~only~ plastic that should go curbside is a jug or bottle with a neck. The cardboard must be flattened. Pizza boxes must be clean. If there’s too much grease, it cannot be reused.

“Recycling is great, but obviously, our ultimate goal is reducing and reduction,” Dobson added. “It’s better to not have that plastic bag, not have that plastic bottle. Go reusable.” 

He says that reducing is the ultimate cure. 

“Plastic never goes away. Even if you recycle, it doesn’t go away,” he said. “Every piece of plastic that is made is always going to be on the earth.”

That’s why there’s a new push to hold manufacturers accountable. 

“Right now, the plastic manufacturers make all of this plastic, put it out into the world, and have 0 liability after the fact,” Dobson explained.

The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act is a federal push to reduce personal use and include producer responsibility. 

“Our county and local governments are all tasked with the financial implications of having to do all this recycling, and they are completely Scott-free on it,” Dobson said.

Smithberger is on the front lines of these challenges.

“Unfortunately, the manufacturers that generally make plastic products make plastic products that are good for them in marketing,” he said. “Good for them in shipping, but very bad for us in being able to have a circular economy or to recycle.”

This leaves recycling plants like ours in Mecklenburg County constantly behind the times, reacting to new materials with old machinery.

“There are just too many various types of cheaply made plastics that don’t have an end use for reuse,” Smithberger added.

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The county works with the Product Stewardship Institute. This nonprofit tries to get manufacturers to understand challenges at the facility level and educate people about the problematic persistence of plastic. 

Smithberger says there are small steps we can all take can make a difference.

“Making sure you as a consumer make your voice known to the manufacturers because it is 100% imperative that someone buys the products that we reclaim from the recycling market,” he said.

Big production choosing cheaply made plastics, incorrectly marketed as recyclable, in colors facilities can’t sell a burden here at home. But our future cannot just be about recycling right, but instead, recycling with resilience.

“The future we’re investing in is one that will allow us to be able to separate more materials than we can separate today and more flexibly adapt to marketplace changes,” Smithberger said with hope.