The Next Steps for North Carolina’s Plastic Bottle Recycling Plan

Recycling has always been an important part of my life. Growing up in North Carolina, I remember trips to the local recycling station and the bag of plastic bags in my kitchen that were destined for the Food Lion collection bin. For me, recycling just seemed like the right thing to do. As I got older, though, I realized the importance of recycling for people and the environment.

Recycling lowers the number of items in landfills, decreasing the landfills’ greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling a single run of the Sunday New York Times would save 75,000 trees from deforestation by using recyclables in future production rather than raw materials. This also saves energy and money. People benefit directly from recycling through the creation of jobs and the conservation of natural resources for future generations.

In 2009, North Carolina officials stated the above reasons and more when they recognized the importance of recycling by passing a law prohibiting the disposal of recyclable plastic bottles in landfills. The plastic bottle ban was a step in the right direction for environmental legislation in N.C. and the rate of plastic bottle recycling increased when the law was first passed.

Unfortunately, without strict enforcement of the ban, the plastic bottle recycling rate has since leveled off at a rate of about one third of the plastic bottles in the state being recycled. That means that more than a billion recyclable plastic bottles end up in N.C. landfills each year despite there being a law that prohibits their disposal in landfills.

So, what steps can be taken to increase the rate of plastic bottle recycling in North Carolina?

North Carolina state officials are currently using the plastic bottle ban as encouragement for individuals and businesses to recycle, but the ban has not been as successful as intended because consumers still see recycling as inconvenient. Another approach to increase plastic bottle recycling that has been tried elsewhere is mandatory recycling.

Seattle, Washington has had great success with its mandatory recycling program which had more than 90% compliance by apartments and businesses in its first two months in effect. For businesses, if 10% of their garbage container is filled with recyclable materials, the garbage hauler or inspector places a tag on the container as a warning. After three tags, the business receives a $50 fine. The same system applies for residential homes except there are no fines. If the individual exceeds the 10% rule, the garbage hauler leaves a warning tag, asks the person to sort it out, and comes to pick up the trash the next week instead.

Because mandatory recycling is expensive and a tough sell to citizens when landfilling is less expensive and efficient, I do not think mandatory recycling is the ideal approach in this situation. However, Seattle’s warning tag and monetary fine system could be modified and used to enforce N.C.’s existing plastic bottle landfill ban.

North Carolina garbage haulers and inspectors could start to implement the 10% rule when collecting garbage. Back when the North Carolina bottle ban went into effect, recycling and disposal facility directors emphasized that their workers would not take on the tedious and monumental task of policing everyone’s trash. Fortunately, I do not think that garbage haulers would have to work harder and strictly enforce the 10% rule for very long, given how quickly people got on board with the system in Seattle. This method of stricter enforcement could be successful in North Carolina to increase plastic bottle recycling.

Another way to increase plastic bottle recycling is a market-based approach called a deposit-refund system. Deposit-refund systems apply an upfront surcharge to certain recyclable goods during purchase and a rebate when the goods are returned. This system economically incentivizes people to return their recyclables which will hopefully decrease improper disposal. Ten states, including California, Iowa, and Hawaii, already have state beverage container deposit laws or bottle bills. I propose that North Carolina adopt a bottle bill as well.

Landfill bans, mandatory recycling, and deposit-refund systems are just a few options to increase plastic bottle recycling in North Carolina. However, the issue of plastic bottle recycling is not limited to one state and the impacts of recycling are felt nationally and internationally. I urge you to consider how these potential recycling options could be expanded to larger scales, and I urge you to think about how your recycling habits impact other people and the environment.

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