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CoastLine: Recycling Market Struggles With Contamination, Aspirational Recyclers

More than half of all waste that heads to the landfill in New Hanover County is food waste or some other compostable material.  Local environmental management officials estimate the real number is between 65 and 70%.  For that reason, New Hanover County launches its new food waste collection program July 1st – with no tipping fee for county residents.  That food waste will feed New Hanover County’s relatively new composting program. 

While this is a step in the right direction for conservation, recycling has been hit hard by China’s recent decision to stop accepting some materials entirely – such as post-consumer plastic and mixed paper, and the country’s new standard of 0.5% maximum impurity for cardboard and scrap metal.  Some local officials have called the new standard “unattainable”.  State and local waste and recycling managers are now scrambling to find other places – and ways – to process these recyclables.

But the problem of figuring out what to do with all this recycled material – particularly because of contamination -- is a national one.  Recent headlines from news organizations across the county read, You’re Doing It Wrong – Willamette Week, What You Can and Can’t Recycle – Cincinnati.com, Plastic Bags, Garbage, Plague Brevard’s Recycling Plant – Florida Today, and finally -- A Lot Of Our Recycling Is Going To Landfills – Here’s Why – that’s Oregon Public Broadcasting. 

According to the StarNews, New Hanover County is 9th in recycling per capita and Brunswick County is 6th.  

On this edition of CoastLine, we talk about the reasons behind the Cape Fear region’s success, common mistakes that contaminate otherwise recyclable material, and how the China problem could the shift the direction of the market for recyclables. 


Sam Hawes, Landfill Manager for New Hanover County's Department of Environmental Management

Andy Mulvey, Environmental Specialist, New Hanover County’s Department of Environmental Management

Editor's Note:  Following are some corrections to recycling details that were misstated in the on-air discussion: 

From Sam Hawes, Landfill Manager:

"We communicated solo cups are recyclable.  While they are a number 6 plastic and are a recyclable product, SONOCO locally is not recycling them because of market conditions.

"We communicated plastics numbered 1 – 7 were being recycled locally.  That also is not correct.  Currently SONOCO is only recycling number 1 and 2 plastics due to market constraints."

Acceptable materials for recycling in New Hanover County:

  • Aluminum Cans and Steel Food Cans – Any metal container used for soup, pet food, vegetables, condensed milk, etc.
  • Batteries – Alkaline and lithium batteries, rechargeable Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH), Lithium Ion (Li-Ion), and Nickel Cadmium (NiCad) batteries can be recycled – just look for the light blue “igloo”. Learn more about how to recycle batteries here.
  • Cardboard – Flatten cardboard boxes and do not place Styrofoam in the cardboard containers.
  • Cartons – Milk, juice, soup, broth, wine, cream, egg substitute cartons, etc.
  • Glass Bottles and Jars Glass bottles & jars do not need to be separated or rinsed.
  • Electronics – If it runs off of a battery or has a plug, it can be recycled! Learn more about recycling electronics here.
  • Mixed Paper – Office paper, magazines, paper bags, cereal and food boxes, craft paper, wrapping paper, junk mail, brochures, catalogues, and phone books are accepted. Staples and paper clips do not have to be removed.
  • Newspaper – Newspaper inserts can be recycled as well.
  • Plastic Containers  Please no plastic bags, films, or styrofoam. Milk jugs, soda and water bottles, detergent bottles, yogurt containers, microwaveable food trays, etc. are accepted. Lids/caps should be left on and containers do not have to be rinsed.

*All materials except for cardboard and glass can go into the “MIXED RECYCLING” containers.  There are separate marked containers for cardboard and glass.

*No plastic bags please!  Return them to a grocery store that offers plastic bag recycling.

Please empty out all food and liquids! Please remove tape from cardboard boxes! Please do not bag your recyclables! Return bags to grocery stores and participating retail stores for proper recycling.

Brunswick County reminds residents to please keep the following out to avoid contamination:

  • Plastic Bags
  • Styrofoam
  • Household trash
  • Disposable food trays, cups or cutlery
  • Receipts
  • Hardcover books
  • Clothing or fabric
  • Dishes or cookware (plates, cups, ceramics)
  • Electronics
  • Light bulbs
  • Hazardous waste
  • Liquid waste (paint, cleaners, etc.)
  • Garden hoses
  • Window or mirror glass
  • Tires
  • Construction debris or yard waste
Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 4 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.
Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR