Recently, Gwinnett County Government approved changes requested by waste haulers to the trash and recycling program in unincorporated Gwinnett. The biggest changes include updating the list of plastic materials accepted in curbside recycling and adding a recycling processing fee amounting to $9.84 per household in 2020 (and subject to change in future years). Nearly 200,000 solid waste customers in the unincorporated parts of the county are affected by these changes, and some of the haulers have made (and received approval for) similar requests in Gwinnett’s cities as well.
The changes came in the form of amendments to the solid waste hauler contracts and were approved at the Board of Commissioners work session on June 16, going into effect immediately. The haulers presented to county leaders about their need for the changes at an informal briefing on February 4 — see the presentation deck and minutes here.
Why Were the Changes Needed?
A recycling fee is a common phenomenon in communities across the U.S. in response to industry-rocking recycling market changes in the last several years, which have also significantly reduced the demand for miscellaneous plastics #3-7 that used to be accepted in curbside recycling in our community. Due to this, the Board of Commissioners didn’t have much choice but to comply with the haulers’ requests. The need for the contract changes, including adding the recycling processing charge, was designated by the haulers as undue hardship or uncontrollable circumstances beyond their control, similar to the legal concept of force majeure. According to the AJC, if the county had been unwilling to negotiate, the haulers might have used a clause in their contract allowing outside forces (read: litigation) to compel the commission to help.
Based on our industry research, we believe there was a legitimate need to both bring Gwinnett’s recycling list in line with reality and establish a new source of funding to keep curbside recycling viable in Gwinnett. The hauler agreements note (see Appendix IIA, p. 370) that 19% of the curbside recycling material collected from Gwinnett County households is “residual” trash, or non-recyclable contamination that results from wishful recycling and must be shipped to the landfill at cost to the haulers and recycling processors. Since Gwinnett’s recycling is mixed with other communities’ recycling at the recycling processing facilities, making contamination hard to measure accurately, 19% may even be an underestimate. There’s a lot of wishful recycling out there!
Meanwhile, overseas recycling end markets have dried up, and domestic recycling markets (though strong in the southeast relative to other regions of the country) are struggling to fill the gap. This means that recycled materials can sell at much lower prices than they used to or can even, in the case of materials such as plastics #3-7 and glass, cost money to get to a buyer. As much as it’s the right thing to do and worthwhile for a hundred reasons, recycling is a business, not a charity, and it usually only works long-term if it is profitable or at least cost-neutral.
What the County Must Do
As an independent citizen group, Gwinnett Recycles understands the need for these program changes, but our desire and demand is always for more residential recycling engagement and education from the county government. Why couldn’t the county have taken its responsibility to educate residents to recycle right seriously and started years ago, so that today recycling quality would be high and a fee wouldn’t be needed? Their negligence on an issue like this one that can help our community, Georgia’s economy, AND the environment is unacceptable. We shared this frustration with county leaders and haulers in comments at the June 16 meeting:
Robust recycling education in Gwinnett would be better late than never, and we hope that both the commission and the haulers will finally act on this to prevent the fee from rising each year and more material being contaminated and sent to local landfills. Gwinnett residents WANT to recycle right — they just need to know how!
Take action — tell your commissioner that you expect action on recycling education in Gwinnett, especially now that the list of accepted recyclables has changed. Click here for a template email!
Gwinnett’s New Curbside Recycling List
Recyclable materials now accepted curbside throughout Gwinnett are #1 and #2 plastic bottles, metal cans, and paper and cardboard. Stick to that list! These are the materials that still have value and are easily to collect in single-stream recycling and make into new products. Items should never be bagged or contained, but instead placed loose in your cart or bin. Be sure that containers are empty and clean, with caps and lids screwed back on. Finally, don’t forget that there are ways to recycle lots more items from your home through free drop-off and mail-in recycling — our comprehensive recycling directory has all the details!
Download our flyer with the latest Gwinnett recycling list. Recycling right is important, so print out the flyer, put it on the refrigerator for your family to see, and share it on NextDoor and other social media to help get the word out. Any questions about the recycling rules? Let us know in the comments below.
About Gwinnett Recycles: Gwinnett Recycles is focused on helping Gwinnett County, the second-largest county in the state of Georgia, reduce, reuse, compost, and recycle more material and keep waste out of landfills and the environment. Gwinnett Recycles is run 100% independently by citizen volunteers. To connect with us and support our efforts, follow us on Facebook and Instagram, subscribe to our newsletter, and consider volunteering with us!
It is very limited if the only plastic permitted is #1 and #2 bottles. I buy tomatoes in a #1 plastic container that apparently is no longer acceptable. With the large rolling recycling bins, I could probably go with once a month and still not fill it up (either the rare exception of shipping boxes). If most followed the guidelines and had the large recycling bins, I wonder if they could go to pick up every other week?
You have told us that we need to bag our recycled things. THIS list says do not bag them. Which is it? Make up your mind and be accurate, please.
Hi Roberta! Earlier this year, the county government suggested bagging recycling temporarily during COVID-19 if your bin or cart would otherwise overflow and require workers to touch recyclables. We’re not affiliated with the county government, and we recommend skipping the bag always, since plastic bags and other stretchy film tangles recycling sorting machinery. We can still protect workers by not overfilling the container. Let us know if you have any other questions!
It would be very helpful if there was a clarification on the types of paper products. Many many people don’t know if this means you can recycle certain types of paper such as milk cartons, ice cream cartons or any other ‘waxed’ type paper products.
Good point, Juli. Unfortunately, “waxed” is usually just code for “lined with plastic.” To our knowledge, none of Gwinnett’s recycling processors recover waxed paper such as fast food/Starbucks drink cups, milk cartons, ice cream cartons, broth cartons, Tetrapak, etc., since it is too difficult to separate the paper from the plastic lining. We will let you know if we ever hear otherwise!
If the county is no longer collecting other items because noi amrket exists for them than what is currently on the list then what are the entities collecting the other recyclable items doing with them? I’m the local group of the SIerra Club Conservation Chairman.
Hi Art! It depends on the item. Recycling markets for miscellaneous plastics #3-7 are particularly tough, which means that the few sites that accept some of those plastics, like the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) in Atlanta, are turning to alternative disposal options like sending them to companies that convert them into fuels via pyrolysis. With glass, the trouble isn’t markets, but transportation and handling. In single-stream curbside recycling, glass breaks and contaminates other recyclables. When collected with other glass and accumulated to large loads, it can be feasible to recycle. Same with plastic bags and Styrofoam. The material properties of these items (lightweight, flimsy) make them unsuccessful in curbside programs but worthwhile for retailers like Publix to combine with their back-of-house supply of film and Styrofoam to send to recyclers. Hope this helps! I believe I’ll be speaking at this month’s Sierra Club meeting, so we can talk more then.
Hi Laura, Great job on the grassroots effort you started. I recently read about a Gwinnett Recycles effort in Suwanee. Keep up the good work. Hope to see you at a future event, Best Wishes, Probal
Thank you Probal! Nice to hear from you. See you soon!
Lawrenceville may no longer pick up recycling starting in 2022. Will Gwinnett County stop?
Hi Francis! There is no immediate risk of that, but it’s always a possibility as long as trash contamination (non-recyclables) in the recycling stream remains high, which can make programs expensive to maintain. I have been appointed to serve on the Gwinnett Sustainability Commission and will try to ensure that our county never has to resort to removing curbside recycling.