VALDOSTA — Recycling is akin to breathing for Michael Noll.
Raised in Germany, residents put their slippers on to fetch the paper in the morning and brought their recyclables out to the curb as well, he said.
Noll said recycling is just second nature to people from his native land. German children learn from an early age about the importance of recycling and to not be wasteful.
“It’s part of the culture. You don’t even think about it. You do it automatically,” he said.
For more than a decade now, he has lived in Valdosta. Noll, professor of geography at Valdosta State University, has observed a difference between a German mentality of reuse and what he sees as an American mentality of waste.
That observation caused Noll to advise Students Against Violating the Environment, a VSU student group that encourages environmentally friendly practices such as recycling and acts as a forum for environmental education.
Living in Valdosta, Noll said the city’s commitment to environmentally conscious practices such as solar-powered plants and curbside recycling programs instills faith in the community that the environment matters.
There is concern, however, that curbside recycling could come to an end.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Walking behind the Valdosta Public Works building, the mountain of recyclables sits prominently.
Tucked behind a Mount Kilimanjaro of bottles and boxes, a bevy of cardboard resides, folded and tidy, Anthony Musgrove, public works superintendent, continues to add more cardboard to his extensive collection for a specific reason: market fluidity.
“Recycling fluctuates. Last year, we were getting between $125-150 a ton for cardboard,” Musgrove said. “Right now, it’s about $24, so that’s why I’m hanging onto it.”
Usually selling to Miller’s Recycling in Pennsylvania, he kept his cardboard stocks up high, waiting for demand to increase and drive prices up. Noting the bear market, Musgrove mentioned that his broker in Pennsylvania told him the domestic cardboard market is on the rebound. A rebound would mean a better return for his assortment of thick, brown pliable boards and he is prepared.
“We’re going to start shipping a lot of it out,” he said. “There are places in the United States that take this product but with that ban, everything flooded their properties and so that’s why it looks like this.”
The global recycling market flipped on its head in early 2018.
China, the leading importer of recyclable material, declared it would ban importing recyclables. Until then, China handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable materials. Named the “National Sword” policy, the January 2018 ban caused a 99% reduction in plastics imports and a 33% decrease in paper imports from China’s 2017 totals, according to Resource Recycling.
In the United States, the resulting fallout altered the American recycling market where companies here began to capitalize on half the market newly up for grabs. Still, exporters, such as the City of Valdosta, have experienced inflated costs since the Chinese market dried up.
With the changed industry, Valdosta pays Synergy Solutions, located in Cordele, $40 per ton of commingled recycling (a mix of plastic, glass and paper) which separates, processes and ultimately sells the materials for profit, Musgrove said.
The Cordele-based outfit turned out to be a major cost saver when Musgrove compared its $40 per ton rate to $100 per ton by a Jacksonville, Fla., company and $150 per ton by a Tallahassee, Fla., company. None of the three businesses included shipping costs, so he said the city outsourced semi trucks to haul the commingled recycling up to Cordele.
Regardless of cost, Valdosta is unique, according to Noll.
Citing curbside takeaway of recyclables Monday through Friday, he praised the city as progressive compared to the rest of South Georgia. He explained the benefits of the city’s curbside yard waste pickup and Christmas tree pickup and recycling where trees become reused into mulch, a free offering for city residents rather than buying mulch at a home improvement store.
City residents enjoy curbside pick up Monday through Friday. Just place recyclables into the blue bin, carry to the curb and city employees do the rest. Valdosta offers blue rolling containers, a twin to the green trash bin, upon request as well.
For people performing community service, mandated by the city municipal court, Valdosta even offers double community service hours to residents who come to sort recyclables at the public works facility.
Despite its uniqueness, concerns about the cost of curbside services migrated to the City of Valdosta because of the Chinese ban on recyclable imports.
“We only average 24-25% of our population in the City of Valdosta taking advantage of our recycling services so that can present many problems for you financial-wise,” said Mark Barber, Valdosta city manager. “Like I said, environmental reasons first but we are beginning to run into situations like these other communities are having where there’s not a market for your recyclables.”
Cost presents enough of a problem that curbside services could come to an end in the near future. Musgrove said while his department possesses the funding to continue, if significant budget cuts happen, collection methods would change since the majority of his cost is derived from house to house collecting.
“We’ve been working with several companies outside of Valdosta that may come in here and pick it up for us and take it to their location and sort it and bundle it and all that kind of deal,” Barber said. “Perhaps putting out some drop-off sites. You’re going to have to do business a little bit different in the recycling arena than we have in the past.”
In 2019, Valdosta collected 1,370.77 tons of recycling and shipped all but 110 tons to three different processing companies: Attaway Recycling, Synergy Recycling and Miller Recycling, according to financial documents obtained from the City of Valdosta.
Part of the $22.50 monthly charge for city utility services includes recycling, although the charge does not explicitly list services provided. Residents who sign up for city utilities received recycling brochures about the importance of recycling and why the city maintains its current recycling program, Barber said.
“We’re hoping that they understand it’s part of what they’re paying and they’ll utilize it and take advantage of it,” he said.
Coinciding with the Chinese exit from the market, costs to maintain curbside cycling today soared to nearly triple the amount from January 2018, Barber said.
Fiscal Year 2019 saw the city spend $44,025 on processing recyclable materials, a dramatic jump from the $18,836 and $14,836 spent in FY 2017 and FY 2018, respectively, according to city financial documents.
As costs continue to rise, the Valdosta City Council will discuss curbside service and its potential elimination, Barber explained, at its retreat on March 13, 14. Any changes would be implemented July 1 at the beginning of Fiscal Year 2021. He added that this will not be first year curbside will be discussed at the council retreat as the program was also discussed at the 2019 one.
“We did last year as well,” Barber said. “So, we’ve been trying to prepare for it and offer different options to the council.”
Noll, a city resident, said removing curbside service would result in a huge decline in recycling and suggests wiser spending by the city and the county.
“We apparently have money to spend more than $800,000 to fight each other over service agreement (Service Delivery Strategy). We have that money to waste on such nonsense,” Noll said. “It’s all about priorities in the end. We have the money to also make sure that our recycling efforts still work.”
In an alternative perspective, Noll viewed China’s decision to exit the global recyclable market as a positive. He said he believes it could benefit the U.S. by forcing the American people and recycling industry to find creative solutions.
“We have to be thankful to China because China has been receiving our garbage because we are too lazy to do anything with it, and the half that we were sending to China is piling up now. We have to rethink what we’re doing which I think is an opportunity,” he said. “So, we have an opportunity to create a recycling industry that works locally, provides jobs and uses recyclable materials to turn it into items we can use again.”
The city will weigh how to proceed in the recycling arena, but Barber said residents who fear the end of recycling can be assured that will not occur.
“Whatever option that will be offered, recycling will not go away in the City of Valdosta. We’ll just discuss different options of collection and disposal but recycling will remain here,” Barber said.
“There’s no option where there’s no recycling whatsoever.”
Dalton on a Roll
Up in north Georgia, curbside recycling still exists, and the City of Dalton has offered curbside residential recycling pickup for almost 30 years.
"The city’s curbside recycling program began in October of 1991 when the city council approved a bid from BFI (out of Chattanooga, Tenn.) to perform curbside collection," said Andrew Parker, public works director.
"Approximately 10 years later (around 2002), the city council brought the curbside recycling service in-house managed out of the public works department and it has been that way ever since,” he said.
More than 4,100 households take part in the program, and recyclables are picked up once each week.
"On average, each household places two bins curbside for pickup, and we allow each household up to three bins for curbside recycling," Parker said.
Last year, the city collected 1,201.26 tons recyclables.
"This total includes all recyclable materials as each material is not weighed independently since all materials are transported on the same truck," Parker said. "One important thing to keep in mind is that our monthly average has started to decrease by an average of 25 tons per month since glass is no longer accepted in the curbside program effective October 2019.”
City officials cited safety reasons for eliminating glass from the curbside recycling program, saying employees cut their hands on broken glass. They also cited economic reasons for the move, saying glass recycling is just "break even" financially and the alcohol, soda and other contents of glass containers tend to erode the compartment on recycling trucks the glass is placed in.
The annual budget for the curbside recycling program is $295,000. After receiving a share of revenue generated by the local landfill from the sale of those recyclables and after accounting for the savings from tipping fees saved because recyclables that were diverted from the waste stream, the program has a net cost of about $226,500 per year.
While Dalton is the only city in Whitfield County to offer curbside recycling pickup, the Dalton-Whitfield Solid Waste Authority collects recyclables at its landfill as well as three convenience centers around the county.
Last year, residents dropped off 1.396 million pounds of recyclables, including 459,420 pounds of paper, 327,000 pounds of plastic, 320,440 pounds of cardboard, 274,440 pounds of glass and 14,560 pounds of aluminum.
"Landfill disposal (tipping) fees subsidize our recycling efforts," said Amy Hartline, recycling and education program coordinator for the Dalton-Whitfield Regional Solid Waste Authority.
The net cost of the recycling program was $25,000 last year.
"Recycling is typically subsidized," Hartline said. "However, with recyclable commodity market pricing at an all-time low, the subsidized amount is greater than normal. The average commodity pricing decreased by 37% from 2018 pricing."
But she notes by recycling the 698 tons of materials collected last year, Whitfield County residents saved approximately $26,000 in disposal costs and saved approximately 1,074 cubic yards of landfill airspace.
Lowndes County operates a much different recycling practice than the city. Mainly, the county does not perform garbage or recycling services; instead, they contract with two private companies, Advanced Disposal and Deep South Sanitation.
The companies do not offer curbside collection of residential recyclables but provide “drop sites” where their customers can dump their recyclables at no additional charge.
Advanced Disposal operates two drop sites open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Monday and 1-7 p.m. Sunday at 4040 Pine Grove Road and 4758 Loch Laurel Road.
Deep South Sanitation possesses one drop site open 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Monday and 1-6 p.m. Sunday at 345 Gil Harbin Industrial Boulevard.
In the current contractual agreement, neither company is required to release numbers of clients participating in recycling to the county, said Bill Slaughter, chairman of the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners.
Sam Jones, general manager at Advanced Disposal, said he did not have the numbers of clients visiting the two drop sites, but clients are counted when they enter the premises to dump off recycling. Deep South Sanitation did not immediately respond to inquiries. In a 2014 Times article, Slaughter said Advanced Disposal served 14,000 customers with garbage and recycling services and Deep South served about 1,500 customers.
Unincorporated county residents received curbside recycling services in 2014. Advanced Disposal offered curbside pickup to its customers for a year before shuttering the service due to cost concerns.
Advanced Disposal’s removal of curbside services occurred after the county won a Georgia Supreme Court decision against Deep South Sanitation about the county’s exclusive five-year contract for sanitation services with Advanced Disposal. Despite the court decision affirming the legality of the Advanced Disposal contract with Lowndes County, the county chose to allow Deep South to continue its business.
Five years later, Slaughter reiterated the two sanitation companies operate independently and current contracts do not force either entity to provide curbside recycling.
“Currently, it is certainly their decision. We haven’t put anything at this time in our contract that basically stipulates that they do curbside recycling,” Slaughter said. “We feel like as much as anything that would come from a demand from their customer base if their customer base is requesting curbside pickup for recyclables then that market is there. However, they did not want to do it simply because it was just not cost-effective.”
When Advanced Disposal decided to end curbside recycling options for its residents in the unincorporated area of Lowndes County in 2015, the choice disappointed residents such as Travis Morgan.
As an unincorporated county resident and Deep South Sanitation customer, Morgan transports his recyclables to the Gil Harbin drop site but wishes he still had the option for curbside service.
“I like the option to have the drop sites just because they do accept in a lot of cases more things at the drop sites. Metals and larger products,” Morgan said. “I really wouldn’t want the idea of an either/or. I would like to have both options just for bulk items as well.”
With no sign of curbside returning, he said fewer residents recycle because it requires driving.
“Deep down, I just knew that the lack of convenience being offered to everyone basically meant that there would be less people recycling,” Morgan said.
He said he still recycles the same amount now as when Advanced Disposal offered curbside services. Aaron Strickland, another unincorporated county resident who is also executive director of Keep Lowndes/Valdosta Beautiful – an anti-litter agency, said he continued to recycle and echoed Morgan’s concern about residents prioritizing convenience over responsible disposal.
“I think not having curbside kind of hurts it because the harder you make it on people to do things such as recycling, the less apt they are to do it,” Strickland said. “I think not having that service any longer in the county does not help the cause at all.”
He said some county residents continue to recycle at the drop sites, but the missing convenience of walking to the curb remained an impediment.
If cries existed for curbside recycling in the unincorporated areas of the county, Slaughter is unaware of them.
Slaughter said no residents have ever inquired or talked to him about curbside recycling after Advanced Disposal stopped offering the service. Residents did come to him with recycling concerns before the three drop sites opened, but those problems were seemingly satisfied after opening, he said.
Valdosta’s neighbor to the west utilizes a drop site.
The City of Thomasville offers an opportunity to drop off recyclable materials at the recycling center in the 1200 block of Remington Avenue behind Fire/Rescue Station 3. The location accepts plastic recyclables marked as 1s or 2s, cardboard, newspapers, magazines, shredded paper, white paper, metal cans and aluminum cans.
"All recycling must be inspected for contamination that would impact the material’s ability to be accepted by our recycling brokers,” said Jimmy Smith Jr., solid waste and landfill superintendent. “The first inspection occurs on site by the driver. Unfortunately, if there is visible contamination, the load must be disposed of at the landfill. If no contamination is present, the bin is taken to the baling center and sorted.”
At the baling center, five employees inspect a second time to remove non-recyclable items. The items are sorted for disbursement to recycling brokers in Tallahassee and Jacksonville. Recycling is sent to recycling brokers one to three times monthly, depending on capacity.
"While many citizens would like to recycle their eligible materials, many may be inadvertently contaminating the materials,” Smith said. “Contamination occurs when items that are not recyclable are mixed in with accepted items. It can also occur when recyclables are not clean or if they are placed in bins inside trash bags.”
The city offers other recycling programs, including white goods and electronic recycling, as well as recycling events, such as Spring Clean and Bring One for the Chipper.
Recycling dropped off by residents is picked up by solid waste crews when the bin is full.
Solid waste collected:
2017: Cardboard, 915 tons or 1,830,000 pounds; plastics, 1.258 tons or 2,516 pounds.
2018: Cardboard, 511 tons or 1,022,000 pounds; plastics, 8.29 tons or 16,580 pounds.
2019: Cardboard, 115 tons or 230,000 pounds; plastics, 10.89 tons or 21,780 pounds.
Thomas County government provides bins for metal recycling at trash collection sites, said Tony Bodiford, county public works director.
"All our recycling efforts could be better,” said Sally Bowman, board chairman of Keep Thomas County Beautiful. “When nearly half of Thomasville and Thomas County recycling loads are contaminated, obviously there is much room for improvement.
“The way we see it, there are two avenues to improve our recycling: education and enforcement,” Bowman added. “Education revolves around ensuring our citizens realize what is and what is not recyclable. We can’t have ‘wishful recyclers’ contaminating loads with things they think should be recyclable but that are not at this time. Another big factor of educating recyclers is making sure they know that plastic bags do not go in the community recycling bins – even if you take your recycling to the drop site in a bag. Those bags must be taken to a retail location, like your local grocery store, to recycle. KTCB is beating the drum on education to reduce contamination.”
Some people use the city recycling drop-off site as a dump site, Bowman said, adding there is no reason anyone should take an old couch or an old artificial Christmas tree to the recycling center.
"That’s where city enforcement is going to have to be a part of the change,” she said. “The city has said that in 2020, it plans to upgrade its location behind the Thomas County EMS station on Remington Avenue. KTCB hopes that includes resurfacing, fencing, gating and manning the site. We understand that will mean it is open a limited number of hours, but we support that move 100%. If the site is manned, it should significantly reduce the amount of contamination in our recycling loads. The county mans its trash and recycling drop sites and I believe contamination in those loads is significantly lower than the city site that is unmanned.”
In the county, four of eight trash drop-off locations have recycling bins.
"Two of the remaining four sites cannot accommodate recycling bins, but we need to get recycling bins at the other two,” Bowman said. “I’d like to see the county have as many recycling bins as possible at its locations and ensure that the folks who man the dump sites are properly educated about what is currently acceptable at each site so they can help educate citizens who are using the sites.”
Bowman said it will take cooperation from the city and county and residents to improve recycling.
Ideally, she said, KTCB would like to see curbside pickup of recyclable materials in the city, "but we just aren’t there yet. We don’t have the volume, the infrastructure or the market for it, so it is up to all of us to do our part in recycling responsibly and building the case for the future of recycling in our community.”
In Colquitt County, local government opened its recycling facility Dec. 5, 2016, and anyone wanting to use it must sign up with the Colquitt County Solid Waste Department to create an account or have a current account.
Residents can buy a $30 account or a $60 account that will yield a six-months use or a 12-months use identification card respectively for the drop-off facility located at 245 23rd St. N.E. in Moultrie. The costs of the identification cards pay for an attendant to service the facility, said Stacy Griffin, solid waste department head for Colquitt County.
Pete Dillard, city manager for Moultrie, said the city doesn’t use bins or provide bins to the entire city because it would cost $50,000 or $60,000 to do so and $250,000 per truck and driver needed.
The facility operates 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and accepts household plastics, paper, cardboard and metal, as well as white goods such as washers, dryers and freezers, Griffin said.
“With cardboard (recycling), we have cardboard bins that we put out at the liquor stores, the hospitals, the schools. If they (a customer) choose that they want a bin, they can put cardboard in that. We have a cardboard route to come around and pick that up however often we need to. With pulling out the cardboard that doesn’t cost them as much with dumping in the dumpster because if you put a bunch of boxes in there, it’s full. If you put your boxes over here (with the recycling), we’re going to come by for free — the bin is free, the pick up is free.”
The recycled cardboard is taken out to the landfill where the county has three commercial balers to compact them, Griffin said.
Colquitt County picks the cardboard up, bales it and sells it, Dillard said.
“But we know anecdotally from looking at the amount of cardboard, particularly at Christmas, that there’s a whole lot of (it) that’s not going to the landfill,” Dillard said.
Moultrie sends metal recyclables to a local vendor called Cox Recycling, while plastic and paper go to a recycling facility in Adel, Griffin said.
After collecting and selling aluminum and steel, the city donates the profits to the Humane Society.
Another revenue-generating recyclable collected by Moultrie is yard waste. The city transports yard waste to Trent Wilson, a contractor, who grinds it and sells it to the biofuel organization. Dillard said it’s a more economical situation than the past process that involved taking all the yard waste out to Spence Field, grinding it and selling it themselves.
The city even recycles asphalt.
“Anytime we repave a street in the city, we grind the top layer of asphalt that’s there, we save all of that and put it in with emulation, give it some tackiness, save it and reuse it to patch potholes and even in paving,” Dillard said.
Moultrie had a contract with a recycling company in the past but after the contract was lost, they stopped collecting it for a time. Moultrie brought back recycling in March 2018.
“We had a lot of calls from people wanting to recycle so we set up the center as a response to that. We did it in a limited way so we’d know it would pay and that’s why we don’t take plastic,” Dillard said. “Whenever your price of gas is this low, that’s an indicator of the price of oil and an indicator of how much you’d get for recycling plastic, so you would actually spend more money shipping plastic somewhere than you’d get for it.”
Dillard said the biggest struggle with recycling, in addition to cost, is getting people to separate their trash before putting in their recyclables
“Everybody wants to recycle, but how much do you want to pay to recycle? It’s the public’s money and we don’t want to waste it,” he said. “That’s why we put the limited program. We knew the cardboard we could get rid of at no cost, and the aluminum and steel we could sell.”
As for getting people in the know for recycling, Griffin said they’re always trying to find a way.
“There’s always things that we put on our website. We have boards out here (advertising it),” Griffin said. “We do send letters out letting people know.”
Not only a county resident, Strickland runs the environmental organization Keep Lowndes/Valdosta Beautiful as its executive director.
“The primary goal of Keep Lowndes/Valdosta Beautiful can be best said through our mission statement which is to promote environmental stewardship and beautification by empowering individuals through public education,” Strickland said. “Environmental stewardship includes picking up litter, recycling and things of that nature.”
KLVB employs only one paid position — Strickland as executive director — and the rest of its efforts are done on a volunteer base. Founded in 1997, the organization was established as part of a joint ordinance between Lowndes County and the City of Valdosta that established the Clean Team Commission. The county funds KLVB. Its office is housed in Valdosta City Hall.
With annual events such as river cleanups, electronics recycling and Christmas tree recycling, nearly 14,000 volunteers helped recycle about 2.7 million pounds of unwanted items from July 2000 to present, according to KLVB documents.
One of those volunteers was Noll.
Noll participated in his first river clean up with KLVB in 2019 and joined late in the year. During the cleanup, he saw firsthand how its volunteer events can help the community.
“I was appalled by how much plastic bottles were in that little river next to VSU ... if people would see this, maybe they would reconsider their actions and behaviors,” he said. “It’s not that complicated to change.”
For the past six months, the organization operated with nearly half its usual budget.
The county commission cut the KLVB budget from $60,000 to $35,000 in July 2019 for Fiscal Year 2020. Members of the commission expressed concern about littering around the county and some commissioners wanted KLVB to do more.
In the FY 2020 budget, commissioners added funds to the public works department to create a more aggressive litter-control program, according to Paige Dukes, county clerk and public information officer.
Steven Miller, then-chairman of the KLVB board, told The Valdosta Daily Times in July that the decision caught him off guard, and he learned of the decision in a Times article. He added the cut surprised him as KLVB was unaware of the resident concerns or a new litter control program.
With the reduced budget, Strickland said he no longer possesses health insurance and cannot afford office supplies such as printer ink.
Morgan, like Strickland, said he remains concerned about further cuts to the KLVB budget. The KLVB chairman said more financial constraints on the organization will only prevent its efficacy to help the community, particularly education and coordinated events.
Comparable to Noll’s experience in Germany, Morgan said educating kids in school, establishing interest in recycling and environmentally conscious behaviors and bringing what they learned home to inform their parents remains the best way to instill environmentally friendly behaviors.
“If we can teach kids at an early age, that kind of trickling into the home from conversations with their parents,” Morgan said. “But ultimately, bringing up the youth into an environment where we make those things important early rather than trying to change bad habits they may have adopted without that information early on.”
Noting that KLVB events not only clean up the environment, he said they give participants a chance to see how much litter and trash are scattered throughout the community. He said he worries additional reductions to the budget could result in the local environment taking steps backward.
“I just remember growing up and going fishing down at the river and seeing large appliances and even furniture dumped out by the river,” Morgan said. “That’s really concerning because are we going to see that kind of thing happen again?”
He repeated the organization wishes to be collaborative with other agencies and groups but feels somewhat neutered.
“It almost feels like there’s a desire for us not to succeed and not to have an impact, so that it can be replaced with another program,” Morgan said. “We’re all for new programs that benefit the look of the community, the safety of the community and the overall cleanliness of the community.”
The KLVB chairman invites elected officials and residents to attend KLVB meetings and volunteer as well.
“That would be really encouraging for us rather than people making decisions that severely impact us to operate,” Morgan said. “We’d like to see some of those folks involved in some of our events.”
As the recycling landscape continues to shift locally and nationally, Valdosta and Lowndes County have big decisions to make that will set the standard for how residents dispose of recycling and waste in the future.
While those decisions remain in flux, Strickland offered some advice to elected officials and residents.
“Sometimes doing the right thing in life takes a little bit of effort,” Strickland said. “Sometimes it may cost a little bit of money, but damn it, if it’s the right thing to do, then it’s the right thing to do.”
In addition to Chris Herbert, Charles Oliver, Patti Dozier and Bryce Ethridge contributed to this report.