Charleston's Material Recovery Facility has taken in more than 33,334 tons of waste since November 2020

Charleston is pretty good at recycling, it turns out. In fact, after opening in November, Charleston County’s new recycling facility is able to reuse more than double the national average for similar facilities.

On average, only between 25-35% of material that gets tossed in recycling bins nationwide actually gets recycled, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the rest ends up in a landfill. But Charleston’s Material Recovery Facility (MRF) has set the bar a bit higher, with monthly reports showing an average of 78.7% of the thousands of tons of material sent its way gets recycled.

According to Oct. 20 reports provided by Charleston County, 33,334.5 tons of material at the MRF have gone through its program since it opened less than a year ago. Of that, 7,092.4 tons were non-recyclable.

Smetana

“We’ve had the support of Charleston County Council, and they put this goal forward to make this a regional facility,” said deputy director of operations Shawn Smetana. “We’re realizing some of that vision today.”

The Material Recovery Facility uses state-of-the-art processing equipment, including robotics and optical sorting, to make the process more efficient and accurate than what could otherwise be accomplished. But what really sets the Lowcountry program apart from others, Smetana said, is the community.

“There’s enthusiasm around recycling in Charleston,” he said. “People want to recycle right, and you can see that with the material that’s brought in today.”

Deputy director of operations Sunshine Trakas agrees.

“You get out as good as what you put in,” she said. “We’ve put out a lot of education and resources for our residents to minimize the amount of things we have to reject. We put a huge emphasis on that.”

Program director Christina Moskos in the MRF’s interactive education center, complete with a wall covered in fast facts and statistics about recycling

“It’s so important that citizens understand how to recycle, how to recycle correctly and how to avoid contamination,” program director Christina Moskos told the City Paper earlier this month. “ ‘Recycling-streaming contamination’ sounds like a big, scary phrase, but really, it just means any item that is not accepted for recycling here in Charleston County.”

Contaminants include plastic bags or film; hoses, cords and belts, which can get tangled in the machinery; scrap metal; construction debris; clothing and textiles; medical waste; and food waste. These items entering the system can damage the machines or pose health risks for workers who hand-sorted through material.

The MRF’s efforts are not going unnoticed by local environmentalists either.

La Force

“The Charleston County recycling program has come a long way since its inception in the ’80s,” said Betsy La Force, Coastal Conservation League’s communities and transportation senior project manager. “Charleston County is keeping pace with recycling demands and challenges, and we need to do our part as citizens to recycle right and avoid contamination in our recycling bins like soft crinkly plastics, food waste and clothing.”

And the facility isn’t done yet. The facility was built to be a regional operation, Trakas said. It can take on more — and started accepting Summerville’s recyclables in July. “We definitely still have room to grow,” she said.

Trakas

Along the way, the program has also pulled in respectable revenues from manufacturers that purchase materials from the facility. After starting in the red for the first three months, the MRF now brings in more than $200,000 per month — $755,301.34 since opening. (That’s total gross income, Smetana said, and does not include overhead costs such as staff, maintenance and collections.)

Those figures also don’t include collections from the county’s solid waste user fee, the principal funding source for the its solid waste management programs. User fees are applied to individual parcels and divided into two main categories: residential and commercial. Residential user fees are included as part of annual real property tax bills. Commercial user fees are billed separately, based on the prior year’s volume as reported by the hauler.