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Despite worldwide price slump, supply glut, Charleston County boasts record recycling in 1998

Cover Story with Photo

By Wayne Caparas

According to Richard Chesley of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), Charleston County’s recycling efforts are among the best in the state. For two of the past four years, the county has received this recognition, and is, Chesley says, greatly contributing to the state’s fast track achievements in waste reduction. 

Chesley gives high marks to County Recycling Coordinator Linda Slater, who has led a team of private business people and recycling activists in breaking county records. “I believe that [the S.C. government and DHEC] do a terrific job, but the key is the local governments that have really stepped up to the plate,” he says. 

When the state first began measuring waste recovery efforts in 1993, only 1.4 percent of the total waste generated statewide was recycled. In 1998, 42 percent--some 10 million tons—was recycled, an 8 percent increase over 1997.

Charleston “ecopreneur”

While corporate pillar Fennel Container leads the way with 85 percent of the tri-county region’s waste management business, the eight-year-old Fisher Recycling company has created its own unique niche. Owned and operated by Chris Fisher, the company runs a 6-day-per-week commercial pick-up service and has enjoyed steady growth every year of operation, including an impressive 50 percent increase in revenues for 1998.

Fisher credits his first clients, T-Bonz restaurant owners Jerry Scheer and Mark Cummins, with setting the standard in regional recycling awareness. “It’s their strict philosophy to require everyone they do business with to recycle,” he says.  “People watch what they do, and now [other businesses]are all trying to keep up with them.” 

Fisher charges restaurants a nominal pickup fee and delivers the recyclables to the county free of charge.  He also services Charleston Place Hotel and all business on its city block. Charleston Place recently reported their yearly waste management costs have fallen by $50,000 since retaining Fisher’s services.

Spread the word, save the trees

Even with electronic communications paving the way toward the paperless office, industry experts claim that waste paper production will increase by 30-35 percent over the next two years.  Consider the 600-plus employee Blackbaud Corporation: although it is possibly Charleston’s most progressive “paperless” business, it still produces more than 1,200 pounds of high-grade waste paper every week.

Blackbaud pays Fisher a set fee for weekly waste collection, and Fisher then sells the paper at current market rates, mostly to Paper Stock Products, the region’s largest paper recycler and a wholly owned subsidiary of recycling giant Sonoco Products. Sonoco is one of the world’s largest paper recyclers, and with $2.6 billion per year in revenues, claims to be the largest publicly owned corporation in the state.

With 20 years at Charleston’s Paper Stock Products, Plant Manager Chuck Richburg’s passion for environmental concerns is unmistakable.  “Every ton of paper we recycle saves 17 twenty-year-old trees,” says Richburg, “and each ton of paper lost takes up 9 cubic yards of landfill space.”

Fisher recovers paper from just over 10 percent of Charleston offices, and although there are nine new “haulers” competing for his business, Fisher believes that without increased awareness, the vast majority of this valuable commodity will continue going to landfills.

Supply high, demand low

Currently, the supply of recyclable commodities greatly exceeds demand.  As a result, prices have fallen to their lowest rates this decade.  Bob Schuman, general manager of the historic Charleston Steel and Metal (est. 1890) believes the industry is simply in the down swing of a decade-long cycle.

But he also agrees with experts who site the dumping of cheap raw materials into the world economy by Pacific Rim and Eastern European countries as playing the largest role in the current commodities depression.  According to Schuman, “the prevailing sentiment in the [metals recovery] industry is to turn over your inventory, get your money, and if you take a little hit, you’ll still be fine when the prices rise.”

Schuman and company owners Samuel and Bernard Steinberg believe metal prices will rebound sometime this year.

Falling oil prices, cheap urethane stall market

After John Votaw, a pioneer in the urethane plastics recycling business, opened the first ever urethane reduction plant in Atlanta in 1989, six competitors soon popped up.  So Votaw sold his Atlanta plant and relocated to Charleston in search of a higher quality of life and less competition.

He currently runs the only urethane recovery business in the state, collecting urethane foam, primarily carpet underlayment.  However, his profitability has been dampened by several economic factors.  He reports that European nations, especially Russia, dumped massive stores of cheap urethane into the global economy in 1998.

This huge urethane surplus has affected him, as have tumbling oil prices, which have virtually halted the incentive to recycle.  Votaw believes that recaptured durable plastics, which are petroleum products, are now more valuable as fuel for steam and electricity-producing incinerators than as a recycling commodity.

“It’s all petroleum.  It burns very, very clean,” says Votaw, whose voice joins a growing chorus of recycling professionals asking for government assistance in mandating the use of recaptured plastics as fuel.  Votaw believes that without intervention or a significant rise in oil prices, durable plastics recycling may cease altogether, forcing most waste plastics into landfills.

“We must recycle what we can, make products with what we can, and what’s left over should be burned for energy,” says Votaw.

Greg Varner, director of Charleston County’s Solid Waste Department reports approximately $3 million in yearly revenues from incinerated waste energy.  Though Varner prefers conditions that promote product recycling of recaptured waste, he acknowledges that energy manufacture at the plant is the county’s largest revenue source in offsetting the roughly $26 million the county currently spends on waste management.