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Hall recycling: A lot goes in, but it could be more
County residents recycle 15 percent of their waste, but too much still goes to landfill
A dump truck lifts trash into the Candler Road landfill in Gainesville. City residents threw away 5,320 tons of trash between July 2007 and June 2008. - photo by TOM REED/file photo

Items recycled in Hall County in 2009

(listed in total tons, January through April; *includes May totals)

Newspaper, magazines: 332
Cardboard: 348
Electronics: 22*
Phone books, office supplies: 48
Glass: 158
Plastic: 67
Aluminum: 14
Used oil: 9,340 gallons
Total tons: 988.35

Source: Hall County Resource Recovery

The Hall County landfill is one of many graveyards of American consumerism.

Last year, nearly 52,000 tons of garbage were laid to rest in a plastic-lined tomb on Candler Road. County taxpayers spent almost $2.1 million on the funeral, burying their waste at a rate of $40 per ton to keep it out of sight and out of mind.

Much of that cost could have been avoided.

A state-funded study of Georgians' recycling habits predicted that 40 percent of the garbage that ends up in landfills across the state could have been recycled, according to Joe Dunlop, the program coordinator in the office of environmental management at the state Department of Community Affairs.

"That study has really proven to be a driver for a lot of programs that we have," Dunlop said.

The department of community affairs has a number of programs aimed at a specific goal of reducing the amount of waste that makes it to the state's landfills by 23 percent in 2017. The goal is based on Georgia's recorded disposal levels in 2004.

The DCA's current goal is similar to one set by state legislators in 1990's Solid Waste Management Act. The goal then was to reduce waste by 25 percent statewide by 1996. It never happened.

In 2005, legislators removed that goal from the bill, Dunlop said.

"But it (the act) still said local governments should make every effort to reduce waste sent to landfills," he said.

Locally, the responsibility of these efforts falls largely on the shoulders of Gainesville's Solid Waste Superintendant Danny Owen and Hall County's Natural Resource Coordinator Rick Foote.

Owen said he is always looking at new ways to energize people about recycling. Most of his efforts are geared toward educating children, so much so that Owen, a grandfather, can rattle off a mean rap about losers who litter.

Under Owens' watch, Gainesville residents' recycling efforts have grown. The amount of waste city residents recycled grew from 11 to 15 percent from 2002 to recent months, Owen said.

Foote is also enthusiastic about recycling in his own right. The head of Hall County's recycling program adds optimistic statistics to the bottom of his annual reports that detail how many trees, barrels of oil and hours of electricity Hall County's recycling program saved that year.

According to his calculations, Hall County recyclers saved 13.46 million kilowatt hours of energy and 6,563 cubic yards of space — the size of about as many washing machines — in the 94-acre county landfill in 2008.

Both Foote and Owens acknowledge that there is more to be done.

The main incentive for Gainesville customers to recycle, Owen said, is that they are already paying for the service. But "a lot don't use it," he said.

Since landfills are usually hidden away behind industrial areas, Owen said very few people see the effect of waste until one fills up and local officials need to look for more space. "Then, it becomes everybody's concern," he said.

As local officials across the state look for more ways to reduce waste in the landfills, some are turning to pay-as-you-throw programs that bill customers based on how much they throw away. The cities of Decatur and Duluth both have pay-as-you-throw programs and Athens-Clarke County has a similar program targeted toward downtown businesses, Dunlop said.

Griffin city officials recently received an award from Keep Georgia Beautiful for the city's program, which makes recycling mandatory for city residents who receive city trash service. So far, Griffin's program is unique to Georgia, Dunlop said.

Similar efforts have not made much headway in Hall County.

Owen said though he believes Griffin has a good recycling program, he does not know how it would work in Gainesville. When Owen mentioned the idea to council members weeks ago, it didn't float, with some council members calling the measure extreme. But the council still expressed an intention to find ways to make it more convenient to recycle than not.

Years ago, Foote proposed a pay-as-you-throw program at the county's compactor sites, but he said the idea did not fare well in the local media. While the idea did not go over well the first time, Foote said it is not a dead idea, and he is still looking for ways to increase recycling efforts in the county.

The main problem with changing recycling programs, Foote said, is people's resistance to change of any kind.

"People are very weird when it comes to waste issues," Foote said. "... It's very volatile. It's very volatile. It's weird."

Since most change in waste policy is up to politicians, Dunlop, Foote and Owen all say they focus on recycling education.

Owen said his main focus of recycling education is geared toward kids. He has coordinated programs with schools across Gainesville, most notably at Fair Street Elementary, and says he is always looking to coordinate with others across the city.

"You've got to find these little spark plugs that are interested in helping you with this," Owen said. "It's hard to find them, because they don't know who to contact."

Foote also is working with schools. However, he said that there has yet to be a centralized approach to school recycling programs in the Hall County school district.

"Hopefully, if you get the kids on board, they'll get the parents on board," he said.

Gearing recycling education toward children may be working; nearly all the sixth-graders who participated in this year's "If I Were Mayor, I Would" essay contest sponsored by the Georgia Municipal Association mentioned created viable recycling programs in their communities, association spokeswoman Amy Henderson said.

Foote also is looking for ways to improve the county's recycling program. He has coordinated studies with Gainesville State College that, when completed, will shed light on county residents' recycling behaviors and how convenient the county's current drop-off recycling program is to residents across the county. Foote said he hopes to use the results of the study to determine how to increase participation in the county's recycling program.

State officials hope the focus on recycling will heat up as the DCA launches a new marketing campaign geared toward recycling on June 1. While Dunlop said he had to keep the details of that campaign mum until then, it is likely it will appeal to state residents' concern for current economic conditions and focus on how recycling could stimulate the local economy.

He said Georgians' jobs are dependent on the state's $2.4 billion recycling industry, which also fuels the statewide paper and carpet industries.

"Georgia really does have a remarkably strong recycling market," Dunlop said. "There are 22 paper mills in the state. Fifteen use at least some recycled content ... it's cheaper for them to buy it locally."

Dunlop said the goal is to appeal to people's idea of the bottom line.

"You've got to pay to put it (garbage) in the hole," Dunlop said. "Recycling either lowers the cost to get rid of waste or it generates revenue."

But Dunlop said the biggest savings recycling provides is environmental.

"When you look at the changes in carbon emissions, air quality, water conservation, energy conservation - that's when you start to see the massive savings in recycling," he said.

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