Glyn John doesn't sit at his window waiting for the garbage truck to pull up to his driveway, but that didn’t prevent him from noticing a trend.
Despite painstakingly separating his plastic bottles and glass containers, John said he witnessed his Hilton Head Island garbage hauler toss his recyclables in with the trash on at least three occasions last year.
"I know it’s not just happening to us or when I’m watching," John told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette several months ago. "That would be too much of a coincidence."
What John and other Beaufort County residents have reported seeing is only part of the recycling woes affecting Beaufort County, which has one of the lowest recycling rates in South Carolina.
In 2017, Beaufort County residents recycled 18 percent of their waste — about a third less than the statewide average and far short of South Carolina's recycling goal for 2020, according to data from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Aside from residents' concerns that their recycling may be getting mixed in with their trash, Beaufort County's low recycling rate has a wide range of contributing factors, including a lack of state regulations, confusion over which items can be recycled, declining international prices for recycled materials and a county policy that some say discourages haulers from recycling.
'I get that people have doubts'
John, a Sea Pines resident, has used the same hauler, American Pride Waste Solutions, for four years.
American Pride uses trucks that contain a separator in the middle to divide trash from recycling. Owner Art Smith said he uses this type of truck to increase efficiency and give customers an easy way to tell that the company is recycling.
After John said he witnessed haulers dump his trash bags and recyclables into the same side of the truck and complained to the company multiple times, Smith brought him recycling stickers to properly label his bin and ensure that there could be no confusion.
Since then, John said, he has not observed any mishaps with his recycling.
Smith, who has been in the waste and recycling business for 30 years, said he tries to clear up any issues or misinformation by working directly with residents who raise concerns.
"I get people have doubts about things. That's why I want to personally address it when someone calls," Smith said.
John is not the only resident who has raised concerns about local haulers' recycling practices.
In dozens of Facebook comments and a handful of letters to the editor over the past year, Bluffton and Hilton Head residents have shared similar experiences of watching local haulers mix recyclables with trash.
Jane Phillips, another Sea Pines resident, said she noticed her recyclables getting tossed in with her trash soon after she moved to the area about three years ago.
Phillips complained for months, emailed back and forth, but saw no improvements, she said.
Finally, she resorted to bringing her recyclables to the convenience center on Hilton Head instead of using the curbside pickup service her villa complex pays for.
Mike Bennett, owner of i2Recycle and a member of the county’s solid waste and recycling board, admitted that sometimes recyclables end up in landfills. But, he said, the problem is more complicated than simply accusing a hauler of intentional wrongdoing.
"Most people think it should be a straightforward answer — the company isn’t doing the right thing. But it’s a lot more complicated than that," Bennett said.
Contamination reduces recyclables' worth
The recycling industry as a whole is struggling with declining market values and a decreasing demand for recycled goods overseas.
"China used to buy all of our recyclables 10 years ago," Bennett said. "You could put anything in there, ship it off to China and they were buying it."
But last year, Chinese officials announced that the country would no longer accept a wide range of materials, including mixed paper and a variety of plastics. China also placed a cap on the amount of cardboard and scrap metal it would accept.
Over time, Chinese officials got fed up with the number of bundles the U.S. was sending over with contaminated materials, according to various media reports.
Bennett said that's why many companies no longer accept glass or plastic bags — items that can gum up machinery and taint other products sold as commodities.
Recycling contamination not only consists of peanut butter jars that aren't fully cleaned out. It also refers to items placed in a recycling bin that cannot be recycled, said Bennett, who has found old gym shoes and plastic toys discarded as recyclables.
While curbside pickup programs are efficient and easy for consumers, many residents are not always clear on what can be recycled, according to Bennett.
Throughout the county, there are about half a dozen hauling companies that pick up residential trash and recycling and 11 convenience centers where individuals can drop off and sort their waste and recycling.
Each entity has its own list of items it will accept for recycling. For instance, at the county's convenience centers, residents can recycle only plastic items with a No. 1 or 2 on it, not the full range of plastics with Nos. 1 through 7.
"The issue is there's no industry standard. One hauler to the next, many use different labels, different marketing materials, accept different materials," Bennett said. "It tends to lead to confusion and contamination. And contamination means your recycling could end up in the trash."
Cindy Carter, Beaufort County's solid waste coordinator, said the biggest issue the county faces when it comes to contamination happens when individuals place their plastic bottles in a plastic bag and throw the entire bag in the bin.
"People think 'I’m doing the right thing; I’m recycling,'" Carter said. "But if they’re doing it wrong, they're contaminating the recycling."
Since it is becoming more difficult to sell tainted materials, haulers and the county are also struggling to make a profit from recycling.
For instance, the county pays Waste Management a processing fee each month to haul, bale and market the recyclables collected at its convenience centers.
After the materials are sold, the county keeps 70 percent of the revenue and gives Waste Management the remaining 30 percent, according to the contract.
But because revenue earned from the recyclables has not matched Waste Management's cost of hauling, sorting and shipping the materials, the process is costing the county — and therefore taxpayers.
From July 1, 2017 to April 31, 2018, the county has not earned any money from recycling.
Instead, the county has been forced to pay Waste Management an additional $93,000 for processing costs. Carter said the additional costs have come out of the county’s general fund.
By comparison, the county earned a profit of about $13,000 for its recyclables during the 2017 fiscal year.
Despite the loss, Carter said it shows the county is focused on "doing the right thing."
"I think that a lot of counties, at this point, would say, 'We’re not going to recycle,'" she said.
Carter said the county has no intention of cutting back on its recycling efforts or the types of recyclables accepted at its convenience centers.
Striving to attain a goal
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 75 percent of the country’s waste stream is recyclable, but only 30 percent is being recycled by households.
By 2020, South Carolina’s goal is to recycle at least 40 percent of its municipal solid waste. To meet that goal, Beaufort County needs to more than double its recycling rate — the percentage of the total waste that gets recycled — in a year and a half.
Last year, Beaufort County had the second-lowest recycling rate among South Carolina counties with populations above 100,000. Recycling rates in Charleston and Berkeley counties were nearly double that of Beaufort County.
Carter said the county’s low recycling rate is attributable to a flaw in the state’s data collection system.
While S.C. counties are required to send annual recycling data to DHEC, commercial companies are not compelled to report their numbers.
The county sends letters out to companies each year requesting that they respond with their recycling figures, but it’s up to each company to reply. For that reason, Carter said the county recycling rates cannot be compared accurately from one year to the next.
Experts in the waste and recycling industry in Beaufort County point to other reasons why the county is so far from the statewide goal.
Beaufort County foots the bill for private haulers, such as WastePro or American Pride, to dispose of residential waste at the Hickory Hill landfill in Jasper County.
However, if that hauler wants to drop off recycling at the Hickory Hill recovery facility, it has to pay about $115 per ton.
"We’re disincentivizing haulers or businesses to even try to educate or push a good (recycling) process forward, because it’s easier for them to claim contamination and bring (recycling) to the landfill," Bennett said.
Some states and communities across the U.S. have adopted mandatory recycling laws and ordinances in which recycling, composting and waste bins and services are provided to all customers. In South Carolina, no regulations govern municipality or county recycling practices.
Beaufort County's ordinance requires that hauling companies offer residents an option for recycling in addition to trash collection, but companies don't have to provide both services unless a resident subscribes to the two.
Carter said the county's ordinance does its best to encourage recycling.
"If a hauler collects waste in Beaufort County they have to offer recycling, so I think it shows we do care about (recycling)," she said.
Because of a lack of regulations at the state level, curbside pickup programs vary from county to county and municipality to municipality.
Beaufort, Port Royal and Bluffton provide a curbside service to all residents, but Beaufort County's most populated municipality, Hilton Head Island does not, nor does unincorporated Beaufort County.
As a result, residents in Hilton Head and unincorporated Beaufort County can opt to pay on their own for a company to pick up their trash and recycling or they can opt to take all their waste to a nearby convenience center instead.
The lack of a municipality or county-provided curbside program can greatly affect an area's recycling rate, experts say.
In March and April 2018, for example, residents in Bluffton recycled at a rate more than three times higher than did Hilton Head residents, according to county data.
Hilton Head residents who subscribe on their own to curbside pickup recycled only 3 percent of their waste during that same time period, the data showed.
The county is working on implementing a curbside pickup system for all unincorporated areas of the county, which would leave Hilton Head as the only area of the county without a curbside program.
In 2011, the Town of Hilton Head entered a contract with one hauler to run a curbside pickup program for the entire island, and officials saw the amount of materials recycled increase exponentially, according to news reports at the time.
After about three years, however, the town ended its agreement because owners of short-term rentals and condominiums complained of trash piling up outside their units and poor service.
Under the town's newly adopted vision, Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett said, the town might consider trying a curbside program again.
But as the town learned years ago, a program on the island would face unique challenges because of the high number of gated communities, tourists and part-time residents.
"We ought to be pursuing a standard of excellence with whatever we're doing," Mayor Bennett said in a recent interview. "And certainly, environmental sustainability should be at the top of our priorities for Hilton Head Island."
While the Port Royal and Beaufort programs offer residents large carts for trash and recycling, Bluffton's program — run through a contract with Waste Management — provides residents with a recycling bin that is five times smaller than the cart for trash collection.
If 75 percent of a household's waste can be recycled, then the town's program is not allowing residents to reach their full recycling potential.
Debbie Szpanka, Bluffton's public information officer, said using the smaller recycling bins allows the town to offer weekly instead of biweekly pickup and is more cost effective for the town and taxpayers.
Residents also have the option to put extra recyclables in any additional plastic bin that they find around their house, place it next to the Waste Management bin and have it all collected, Szpanka said.
Smith, the owner of American Pride, said if the county wants to improve its recycling rate, haulers across the county must give residents the sufficient capacity to discard up to 75 percent of their waste into a recycling bin.
"If you’re going to recycle and you’ve got a 96-gallon cart for your trash and a little baby cart for recycling, then that’s completely backwards," he said.
In spite of the challenges, Beaufort County Recycling Coordinator Ashley Jenkins said she still thinks the county has a chance of reaching the state's 40 percent recycling rate goal.
Jenkins is implementing a pilot program to compost food waste at Beaufort County schools, creating more educational tools that explain to residents exactly what is recyclable and where it should go, as well as working on ways to reduce the amount of contamination at the county’s 11 convenience centers.
"When you talk about the 40 percent goal, it’s not just a number on a paper. It's all these things that we're trying to investigate to get to that," Jenkins said.