The city of North Augusta hasn't been immune to the recycling problems facing cities around the country following restrictions on how recyclables are sold.

The 26-year-old blue bag recycling program is ending after this year to cut costs; however, the city is still planning to pull recyclables from all of the garbage that comes through its facility.

Along with funding, the city's recycling program has faced other issues including participation, inmate labor and restrictions on the types of recyclables that can be exported. 

Bye-bye blue bags

The blue bag program began in 1993, the same year the city's Materials Recovery Facility opened on Claypit Road.

The Materials Recovery Facility does just what its name suggests. The machinery there uses shaking, conveyors and other mechanisms – including manual sorting by staff – to sort, or mine, recyclables (glass, metal, paper and plastic) from each other and from garbage headed for the landfill.

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Workers at the MRF manually sort recyclables out of the waste stream. 

The concept of blue bags is simple: Residents place their recyclables in the blue bag, tie it up and dump it in their garbage bin with the rest of the trash. Once they're picked up, blue bags would go into a different stream and be processed with other recyclables.

Even while using the blue bags, the city was sending all garbage through the sorting process. So even if garbage wasn't in a blue bag, it was still being separated and recyclables were being sorted out. 

Beginning in 2020, the city will no longer distribute blue bags, eliminating a program that cost more than it brought in. Even though there will be no blue bags distributed, all garbage will still be sorted through the Materials Recovery Facility.

The recycling bags were initially given to all residents using the city's sanitation service, but in 2016 the city switched recycling to a subscription-based model. The reasons for that switch included that blue bags were being thrown in the garbage without being used as well as the cost of using blue bags, according to a 2016 story in the North Augusta Star.

James Sutton, director of the city's Public Works department, said the city has over 3,400 customers signed up to recycle.

"So we have a lot of customers who are dedicated to recycling in North Augusta, and the only reason why we're having to eliminate the blue bag program is because of our funding," Sutton said, adding that eliminating the program was an "extremely difficult decision to make."

City Administrator Todd Glover said the city has been spending around $100,000 on blue bags per year, and eliminating it is one way they can cut costs.

"When you look at the numbers, we were removing more recyclables from our waste stream by mining it than we were getting in the blue bags," Glover said. Recycling from blue bags was under 30% of the city's overall recycling, he said.

During an August presentation by Sutton and finance director Cammie Hayes, Hayes said the cost of the blue bag program comes out to around $77,000, and the revenue from blue bag recycling totals $22,000, leaving a deficit of $55,000.

An international issue

According to the city's departmental reports online, 2017 was the best of the last five years for selling recyclables. Total material sales and processing revenue for that year was $1,252,813. The total for 2018 was almost $200,000 less than that number. Total sales for January through August of this year is $30,000 less than the total for the same period in 2018.

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The Materials Recovery Facility separates aluminum cans, pictured, paper, glass, plastics and other metals for recycling. 

The financial impact facing entities internationally is due to the fact that the commodity price has gone down.

Glover said, in the past, the city would make $500,000 to $600,000 net revenue selling commodities.

"China stopped accepting paper and so it's worthless now," Glover said. "Plastic jugs and metal and aluminum still get something but not nearly what they used to."

Sutton said China stopped accepting recyclables because they were contaminated with other trash.

"Probably 90% of your paper products are contaminated with liquid and other waste that’s blended in with the garbage," he said. "That’s been the big advantage to the blue bags, it helps protect liquids and solid waste – residual food – from coming in contact with the paper. It’s unfortunate that we’re still pulling as much paper as we can out of the system. It’s unfortunate we don’t get anything for paper."

Sutton said now that less recycling is being accepted, there's more supply than there is demand.

"One thing that I can see is we've got so much stuff that's building up right now, there's an abundance of paper and plastic starting to build up because it has no other place to go other than home – right here in the United States – and that's also going to lead to a drop in the commodity values…" Sutton said.

Even though paper doesn't sell right now, the city still separates and recycles it.

Inmate labor

Another issue that has hit the recycling process in North Augusta revolves around staffing and prison labor.

The city initially used inmate labor from Lower Savannah Pre-Release Center, which closed in 2016. They then used inmate labor from the Federal Correction Institution in Edgefield.

"We went to the federal prison out here in Edgefield and we were able to, after a long process, work with them and pick up some inmates," Glover said. "But you can't watch them every second and then they bring contraband that they find on the line, whether it's a cellphone or a pill or anything that you can think of, they take that back in and for safety reasons the prison just can't do that."

The city does not currently utilize inmate labor to separate recyclables.

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Along with paper, metal and glass, the city also recycles electronics. 

Funding the recycling program

Sutton said user fees and the sale of materials is what funds the Materials Recovery Facility and the recycling program.

"There's no tax funding or anything that supports this operation. It comes strictly from user fees and sale of products."

Monthly recycling fees are $3.60 paid by city sanitation customers.

"A couple of years ago the sanitation fee and recycling fee were combined into one sanitation fee of $19.50 per month," Glover said.

The city also makes money from commercial customers who pay the city to have their product processed by the city's recycling facility. Glover said customers over the years have included the Savannah River Site and Aiken County.

"We've had a number of different customers over the years, but certainly that helps us pay the bills," he said.

Going forward

The city is mandated to have some form of a recycling program by state law, and the city is going to continue mining all the trash that comes from their customers for recyclables.

"We're going to recycle for (city residents)," Sutton said.

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A drop-off center is located on Claypit Road near the MRF so that customers can drop off recycling if they wish. 

North Augusta was already sorting all trash, even the trash that wasn't in blue bags, and pulling recyclables out of it.

For those who want to sort and bring their own recyclables to the facility, that is available too. Customers can bring their own recyclables to a drop-off location on Claypit Road. The city also will continue to pick up roadside recycling: large cardboard, metal and electronics.

An educational campaign to tell people more about the recycling program and the Materials Recovery Facility will be held in the coming months. Sutton said city residents will also be invited to tour the Materials Recovery Facility on certain days at certain times.

"We're here to serve the citizens of North Augusta, all our residents, and that's our job; and we want people to be satisfied. We want to serve them with the highest level of service we possibly can," Sutton said.

Lindsey Hodges is a general assignment reporter at the Aiken Standard and North Augusta Star. Follow her on Twitter at @LindseyNHodges.