Every summer day, Wrightsville Beach sanitation employees collect between eight and 16 cubic yards of garbage from the blue trash cans on the beach strand. Mixed among the chip bags and Styrofoam coolers are thousands of plastic bottles and aluminum cans.
“I would say a fair amount of it is recyclable,” Wrightsville Beach public works director Mike Vukelich said Aug. 24.
Mounds of recyclables leave Wrightsville Beach in garbage trucks every week, not only from the beach strand receptacles but from the recycling containers on strategic street ends and from commercial, rental and residential properties whose occupants toss their recyclables out with the trash rather than taking them to the recycling bins on the town’s municipal complex.
Wrightsville sanitation employees empty the beach strand garbage cans every other day during the summer and about once a week during the winter. Vukelich said the trash cans typically contain a large number of aluminum cans — more specifically “lots of beer cans, even though there’s no drinking on the beach.”
The town has six recycling centers for the beach strand visitors, which town manager Tim Owens said were set up as test locations, placed at high-use areas like the “L-shaped” and Crystal Pier parking lots. The mini-centers are positioned at the street ends rather than next to the blue trashcans on the sand because of their size, Vukelich said. The bins are divided by material type — similar to New Hanover County’s seven drop-off locations intended for those who don’t have curbside recycling — so they would be cumbersome to relocate in threatening weather.
“When you get really high tides and high winds we have to take the barrels off the beach,” Vukelich explained.
The beach strand recycling centers were set up by the Surfrider Foundation but are maintained by the town. Vukelich said his employees empty the containers into the recycling drop-off bins near town hall, which are collected by New Hanover County. Occasionally, he said, they have to dump the entire contents of a recycling container due to contamination. It then goes into the county landfill.
One of the main sources of contamination is trash. Vukelich listed dirty diapers and food scraps as common items his employees find in the beach strand recycling bins.
“Visitors don’t really pay a lot of attention to what they throw where, they think they’re doing a good deed just by tossing it away in a receptacle,” he said.
Contaminated recycling has to be discarded because the town’s public works department doesn’t have the manpower to sort out the trash by hand.
Incorrectly sorted recyclables also contaminate the bins.
“If there are aluminum cans and glass all in the same container that would be a contaminated stream, because the county hauls separated materials,” Vukelich said.
That won’t always be the case, however.
The city and county have partnered to build a facility in Wilmington that will accept and sort commingled recyclables. Currently, the county’s drop-off sites have separate bins for six types of recyclable material and county employees remove incorrectly sorted items by hand.
The bins typically contain as much as 10 percent contaminated material, county environmental management director Joe Suleyman said, although the Wrightsville Beach site is one of the cleaner ones.
“We’re looking at less than 2 percent contamination,” he said. “The material can almost be processed as is.”
The new recycling facility, called a Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF, will sort recyclables mechanically. Vukelich said the facility will “absolutely eliminate” contamination due to incorrect sorting. However, he pointed out recyclables can still end up in a landfill if they can’t be sold for repurposing.
Suleyman said that doesn’t happen in New Hanover County. He admitted plastic, a byproduct of oil, is hard to sell right now because when oil prices are down it is cheaper for manufacturers to buy virgin plastic than recycled plastic.
“But typically when the market is really low, we’ll just stockpile the material because we know at some point the market is going to rebound,” he said.
The new MRF should be functioning by November, he said. As early as September 1, bins at the drop-off sites will be relabeled to indicate separate receptacles for glass and cardboard. Everything else can be mixed together.
Vukelich said the county’s new ability to accept commingled recyclables will definitely cut down on contamination in the beach strand recycling centers. As to the possibility of introducing recycling cans alongside the blue trash cans to deter beachgoers from throwing away recyclables, he did not want to speculate until he received more details from the county on the new recycling system.
“We’ll have to get their guidelines prior to making plans,” he said.