How Recycling is Done Right: Lessons Learned at the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials

By: John A. Lanier

CHaRM is a remarkable materials collection facility in Atlanta. On a recent visit, I came away not only impressed by how many different types of products they recycle, but by the good work they do in educating people about how to properly keep stuff out of the landfill.

Think back to elementary school with me. You walk into class each morning, dreading the monotony of the day. Math…reading…writing. Hey, at least there’s lunch and recess to look forward to. Let’s go play four-square for the 100th time this year! But then, one magical morning, your teacher utters two words that shatter the repetitious haze permeating your classroom. You hear them, you smile, and the classroom erupts with joy. Those two words?

Field trip!

Atlanta’s Alternative to Curbside Recycling

I don’t know why we stop taking field trips after our schooling days are done. They’re fun, educational, and still a welcome departure from whatever we would call a typical day. And so, I found myself quite happy to be on one a couple of weeks ago. A colleague of mine and I took a trip to the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, located just southwest of Zoo Atlanta. It sits on a nondescript piece of property, dotted with an odd assortment of tents, trailers, and variously sized bins. While it may not look like much, this diamond-in-the-rough nonprofit organization offers tremendous value to the City of Atlanta.

Affectionately called by its acronym CHaRM, this center operates under the auspices of a nonprofit called Live Thrive. It began as a sustainability blog in 2010, and that was also the year when it organized its first household hazardous waste collection. They diverted more than 75,000 pounds of waste in that one event. Nine more waste collection events would follow in the next four years, proving the need for a permanent waste collection center. CHaRM opened in 2015, and it’s been growing ever since.

Our host for the field trip was the founder and executive director of Live Thrive, Peggy Whitlow Ratcliffe. I’ve known for years that the heartbeat of Atlanta’s environmental community comes from amazing women leaders, and Peggy is one of them. She lives the work of waste diversion, and like any successful entrepreneur, she has had to scratch and claw to earn the success of her organization. Sitting down together before touring the site, her enthusiasm and warmth shone through. I consider myself well versed in environmental issues, and she still filled in multiple gaps in my knowledge.

A Trip Around CHaRM

I’ll get to what I learned, and what I want you to learn as well, but first let me bring you virtually along on that field trip. It began with styrofoam, and lots of it. CHaRM accepts both styrofoam for packaging and food grade styrofoam (so long as it’s been cleaned of food residue and any grease). In a shed nearby, an employee feeds styrofoam into a machine that first chips it into small pieces and then compresses the styrofoam down into incredibly dense blocks. These can then be used for insulation in building materials.

Our next stop is electronics recycling. One cardboard box is stuffed with televisions, and a large drum holds who-knows-how-many-linear-feet of old cables and wires. These and other electronics will be sent off to a recycling partner who will either refurbish them or break them down to access the valuable materials inside.

Chemicals and paints are next. With pride, Peggy shows off the remarkably simple machine that safely disposes of fluorescent rods and lightbulbs. These products have mercury in them, which is toxic to human health, so they are loaded in a sealed drum that has heavy chains inside. These spin around and shatter the lightbulbs, freeing the mercury which then settles into a separate container.

Organics are next. CHaRM partners with Compost NOW to allow local residents without their own composting membership to drop off any and all compostable material. Cooking oil is collected separately, and it will go to a partner who will synthesize biofuels out of it. Next is a truck filled with old mattresses. Just think about how many beds are in our city, much less the entire world. Most are going to landfills when they begin to wear down, but so long as they are spring-based, CHaRM can recycle them. Unfortunately, all of those foam mattresses out there don’t seem to have a path to recycling, at least not that CHaRM can identify.

Glass is next. Food grade glass is separated by color - clear, green/blue, and brown/amber. They also collect flat glass, like that used in shower doors or some coffee tables. One exception is mirrors - most mirrors aren’t recyclable because of the reflective coating and the type of glass used. For any wine lovers out there, you can also recycle corks in the glass area, so long as they are made of real cork and not a synthetic material.

We pass by a truck that collects old clothing, dumpsters containing different metal types, a bin for old books, and even one for cigarette butts. We then arrive at the busiest side of CHaRM’s operations - Plasticville. Each and every different type of plastic is collected. There are bins for different numbered plastics, specifically numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6. Those are the ones that have viable recycling streams, with number 3 (PVC) and number 7 (an “other” category for plastic) not being easily recyclable. There are also bins for films, bags, and straws. You can even recycle corrugated yard signs like those used in political campaigns (yes, those are made of plastic too). I felt two things walking through Plasticville: disgust at just how much plastic is used in our society, and gratitude to CHaRM for helping to do something with it.

How to Use Your Blue Bin Best

There’s even more to the CHaRM operations that I didn’t cover, and good news that they’ll be opening a second location later this year (at 1225 Columbia Drive in Decatur for any locals who might be interested). For now though, I want to get to the main takeaway from my visit with Peggy at CHaRM. This is something I learned, and if it was news to me, I bet it is to you too.

There are only five materials that you should be putting in your curbside blue bin. Note the word “should” there, and that I didn’t say “can.” The City of Atlanta and many other municipalities will accept a wide range of material types in those bins. Heck, even if you put straight garbage in those bins, it’s not like there’s an enforcement mechanism to hold you accountable. So remember, just because you put something in a blue bin, that doesn’t mean it will end up being recycled. In our region, and across the country generally, it’s only the “big five” materials that you can be confident will be recycled if you put them in your curbside blue bin. Here they are:

  • Aluminum, like soft drink and tuna fish cans;
  • Other metals, like tin soup cans;
  • Paper, like newspapers, cereal boxes, and paper towel rolls;
  • Cardboard, like shipping and moving boxes, and;
  • Plastics that are number 1 (PET) and 2 (HDPE) only, like plastic bottles, milk jugs, and detergent bottles.

Other things like higher plastic numbers and glass bottles are technically recyclable, but the practical realities of single stream recycling mean they won’t be. Glass, for instance, tends to shatter into unrecoverable pieces and even contaminate other materials with their shards when dropped in a blue bin. And separating out cheap plastic types that don’t have a marketable use when recycled is simply not worth it. These items need to be self-sorted, the way they are at CHaRM, to have any chance of actually staying out of landfills and the environment.

One last public service announcement. Even if you abide by the big five above, there’s one more thing you have to do. These materials must be (a) clean, (b) dry, and (c) not in a plastic bag. If you use a garbage bag to line your recycling bin at home, please please please please please do not tie that bag off and drop it in your curbside blue bin. It’s liable to be thrown away, because those plastic bags gum up some of the sorting machinery that recycling companies use.

Please recycle. It’s important. But just as important as doing it is doing it right. The most important job that Peggy and the amazing people at CHaRM have isn’t taking people’s stuff - it's educating people about how best to properly dispose of that stuff. So make sure you’re recycling correctly, and consider sharing this post with your friends and family. And if you live in Atlanta, consider taking a field trip to CHaRM one of these days! And maybe bring all the junk that’s sitting in your garage with you.