By Emma Coleman
Fewer people are recycling in Lexington this year, and it has City Council and city residents questioning recycling methods in city limits.
In Virginia, the recycling rate in 2017 was 42.8%, according to Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. Nationally, the target recycling participation rate is 35%, as issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010.
Lexington’s government website reports about 35% of residential households participated in the recycling program in July 2018. The city hoped to increase the participation rate to 40% by 2020.
But Jeff Martone, Lexington’s Director of Public Works, said the city is not close to reaching that goal. “The actual participation estimate for August 2019 was 29%,” he said in an email to Mayor Frank Friedman and council members in September.
Council member Leslie Straughan said Recycling & Disposal Solutions (RDS), a Roanoke-based recycling company that processes Lexington’s recycling, recently made changes to their collection methods, which changed how the city recycled.
“In the spring RDS required that we separate paper from No. 1 and 2 plastics and metal, so we dropped paper,” Straughan said in an email.
Barbara Walsh, Rockbridge Area Conservation Council’s executive director and a Lexington resident, said all the changes may be hurting recycling participation rates.
“I do think that frequent changes in what is accepted by the program is discouraging to residents,” she said. “Sometimes it gets a little confusing about, ‘Oh, what are they taking now.’
Lexington City Council is hoping to improve its recycling collection and processing systems.
“I think our goal is to recycle everything we can, but haven’t been able to single-stream paper,” Council member Charles “Chuck” Smith said in an email.
Smith sits on the Blue Ridge Resource Authority Board. BRRA owns and manages the Rockbridge Regional Landfill, located in Buena Vista.
“Glass is a challenge because we can’t send it off for recycling but we can use it as cover material,” Smith said, “so it’s still going in the landfill, but in a useful way.
Lexington collects glass, which is ground and reused at a rate of $25/ton as cover material in landfills, according to council meeting minutes from Sept. 19.
Smith had suggested removing glass from the recycling stream and putting paper back in. He thinks “there is much more paper going into the landfill than there would be glass.”
Council is planning to hold a work session to discuss recycling options for the city.
Straughan said, “I would like to have the work session to ensure that our plastic is actually being recycled by RDS, to understand the near range outlook on plastic recycling, to determine if ground glass is really a re-use, and to understand what our largest waste streams are by ton. I suspect that paper is one of the largest.”
But the work session isn’t on council’s agenda yet, “largely because there were already topics programmed for work sessions which were more time sensitive,” Interim City Manager Brenda Garton said in an email.
Martone said Lexington’s recycling program costs about $125,500 per year to operate. That cost includes labor, transportation and disposal.
The city does not collect plastic bags, paper, shredded paper, magazines, books, No. 3 through No. 7 plastics, soiled pizza boxes, aluminum foil, Styrofoam materials or unmarked hard plastics.
Walsh said collaborative efforts between Lexington and nearby municipalities may improve recycling and waste disposal solutions for everyone.
“It would seem to me that some of these challenges are probably universal, and might be more efficiently dealt with jointly, in terms of creating solutions to these things,” she said.
In Rockbridge County, paper, glass and No. 1 and No. 2 plastics can all be recycled, according to its website. Residents can deposit recyclable materials at Rockbridge County Collection Centers, scattered throughout the area.
It’s the same way in Buena Vista, but like the county, recycling is not collected curbside. Beginning in May 2019, Buena Vista residents were required to take recyclable items to accepting locations, like Auto Recyclers.
“At times, one jurisdiction will be collecting a certain suite of recyclables and another jurisdiction isn’t,” Walsh said. “It seems like one jurisdiction might have an answer that the second one was unable to find.”
The RACC director said recycling “just seems like the right thing to do.”
“We don’t have an infinite Earth or infinite resources, or infinite money for that matter,” she said. “These things are costly.”