Monday numbers: A closer look at NC’s waste stream and recycling efforts

Monday numbers: A closer look at NC’s waste stream and recycling efforts

- in Environment, Top Story
Recyclable materials by percent collected by local governments, Fiscal Year 2018-19. Source: DEQ annual Consolidated Waste Report

In 1972, my family bought our first color TV, a 26-inch screen illuminated by cathode-ray tubes and encased in a behemoth cherry cabinet made by RCA that was roughly the size of a stove. But it was an upgrade from the 19-inch plastic black-and-white model on which we had watched Johnny Carson, Batman and Robin and the first moon landing, so my father’s near-hernia to haul in this exciting new piece of furniture was worth it.

That TV and its diminutive predecessor are both in a landfill now — probably an unlined one — leaking mercury and heavy metals into the groundwater.

Cathode-ray tube TVs were sold for decades and within the last 20 years many were diverted from landfills, where they take up a lot of space and release contaminants, to recyclers. The peak of recycling of the old cathode ray tube televisions in North Carolina occurred in Fiscal Year 2015-16. Since then, the tons of TVs has decreased, as consumers steadily replace the nearly extinct mammoths with lighter flat-panel display TVs.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality’s annual Consolidated Waste Report is a numbers geek’s dream. Hazardous waste, landfills, recycling, coal ash disposal, abandoned mobile homes, scrap tires: If it gets tossed in the trash or the recycling bin and can be counted, it’s likely in one of the report’s 415 pages.

Recycling gets its own section — the amount, the type, the price. There are nuances to the numbers that reflect market forces outside the recycling industry. For example, the recycled tonnage of containers, such as glass and cans, can decrease because manufacturers are making lighter products, such as pouches. The decrease in paper recycling is in part because of upheaval in the newspaper and magazine industries. Fewer publications are being printed, and those that have survived publish fewer pages, so there’s less paper being recycled. (Or being used to line bird cages.)

DEQ attributed part of the increase in recycled construction and demolition debris to hurricanes and tropical storms. After those severe weather events, people often have to repair their homes and businesses — or rebuild altogether — and the detritus has to be hauled away. The same holds true for “organics”: yard and food waste, pallets, oyster shells, and unpainted and untreated lumber.

The market for recycled plastic has affected what local governments will accept. Plastic bottles compose 92% of all recycled plastics collected by local governments. But there is less demand for plastic cups, tubs, clam-shell style containers and bulky rigid plastic items, such as buckets and litter boxes. And market prices for mixed paper fell by two-thirds in just a year, from $3 per ton to $1 per ton. And it actually costs money to recycle glass.


Here are some numbers about recycling programs operated by local governments:

1,770,364 — Total tons of recycled material statewide, Fiscal Year 2018-19

1,302,271 — Total tons in FY 2010-11

35% — Percentage increase in total tons from 2010-2019

272 — Total pounds of material recycled per person statewide, FY 2010-11

340 — In FY 2018-19

25% — Percentage increase, per person statewide, for all recyclables from 2010-2019

288% — Percentage increase in total amount of construction and demolition debris, over the same time period

80% — Percentage increase in electronics and TV recycling

7% — Percentage decrease in paper

13% — Percentage increase in glass

46% — Percentage increase in organic material: yard and food waste, pallets, oyster shells, and unpainted and untreated lumber

14 cents — Recycling market prices paid per pound for PET plastic bottles, such as those used for soda and water, summer 2019

17 cents— In summer 2019

53 cents — Market prices per pound for aluminum cans, summer 2019

80 cents — In summer 2018

$91 — Market price per ton for steel cans, summer 2019

$185 — In summer 2018

Source: DEQ annual Consolidated Waste Management Report; numbers have been rounded