Recycling challenges: human error, demand create issues in Chatham County

Updated: Jun. 11, 2021 at 5:21 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Recycling. It’s something thousands of Chatham County residents do every day.

But a WTOC Investigation found that between COVID’s impact on the markets for recycled goods, and people recycling the wrong things, it’s become a more costly venture. 25% of what people in the city of Savannah recycle ends up in a landfill.

We have a look at where your recycling goes, how much it costs taxpayers, and what you might be doing wrong. Chatham County and the city of Savannah have separate recycling operations. The county’s recycling headquarters is located off Eisenhower Drive on the city’s south side. It’s one of four sites where people can drop-off their pre-sorted recyclables. The county then sells the materials to help cover operational costs.

Facility Manager David Nash says, recycling has recently boomed here in Chatham County.

“The increase started before the pandemic, and it has significantly increased since then,” said Nash. The bad news? “The markets are so low, we’re probably making one-tenth of what we used to make.”

Nash said the market for various recyclables took a major hit during the pandemic when demand for them was down. That, coupled with China no longer taking any of America’s recycled goods, has had a major impact on the market for recycled goods.

It’s also impacted Chatham Recycles’ bottom line, leaving county taxpayers to make up the difference. “If we were completely profit-driven, we wouldn’t be here.”

The same can be said for the city of Savannah’s recycling program. Unlike the county, the city operates a single-stream recycling system, which allows residents to put all of their recycled goods into one bin.

The city paid Georgia-based recycling company PRATT Industries more than $725,000 to take and sort its recycling in 2020 alone. That doesn’t include the cost for city resources and staff to collect the items.

“We’re not making money off of recycling,” Savannah Sanitation Director Gene Prevatt said. “Recycling is a cost to the city.”

Both the city and the county partner with PRATT. Their drop-off site is located off highway 17 in Savannah, near Chatham Parkway. From there, the recyclables are shipped to a plant near Atlanta for processing. But Prevatt says, the thing that the city is really losing money on - is contamination. Of the more than 122,000 tons of solid waste the city collected in 2020 just 8,000 were recycled. And Prevatt says, 25% of it was contaminated.

That means the city paid for it to be hauled-off only for it to end-up in a landfill. Meanwhile, Chatham County officials tell WTOC it recycled more than 1,400 tons in 2020. WTOC requested a budget. Chatham Recycles told us it only pays one vendor to take recyclable materials, which totaled $10,433 in 2020. Nash said when you factor in operational costs, the county also operates with a deficit.

And, Nash says the county also relies on people to recycle the right things so they can save money.

“We truly don’t have the time to sort everybody’s material. I mean, we would need a team of people and another facility for that,” said Nash. Both the county and the city encourage people to recycle and many people are. In fact, nearly 25,000 Savannah residences recycled in 2020, a 48% participation rate.

Prevatt says the city just asks people do it correctly.

“Your recycling container is not a garbage can!” said Prevatt. “So, if you’re going to recycle, we need clean materials.” The city collects recycling twice a month, while the county accepts pre-sorted materials at four different drop-off sites.

Savannah accepts:

  1. Paper
  2. Cardboard
  3. Metal containers
  4. Plastics #1-7
  5. Glass containers

Chatham County accepts:

  1. Cardboards
  2. Plastics
  3. Aluminum cans
  4. Tin cans
  5. Scrap metals
  6. Newspapers

The county does not accept glass. Both Prevatt and Nash confirmed both the county and city are looking-into recycling glass materials locally and have been in contact with a potential suitor.

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