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DeKalb glass recycling may expand with private company amid drop-off site cutbacks

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DeKalb glass recycling may expand with private company amid drop-off site cutbacks

"Non-compliant dumping" is the reason given on a sign at Fire Station No. 22 on Montreal Road in Tucker for the end of glass recycling drop-off. Photo by John Ruch.

By John Ruch, contributor 

DeKalb County, GA — DeKalb County’s glass recycling program may be teaming with a private service for expansion amid concerns about recent unpublicized closures of drop-off sites and improper disposal.

Facing pressure last week – including a Board of Commissioners (BOC) committee meeting and circulation of a video allegedly showing workers dumping glass in a landfill – county officials say they plan to expand the drop-off program’s collection sites, but are offering few details. They blame illegal dumping and noise for the recent, abrupt shuttering of other locations, including two at fire stations.

Strategic Materials, Inc. (SMI), the private recycling company that receives and pays for the glass at a College Park facility, says it is working with the county on some kind of expansion. 

“We are working to improve and expand the [DeKalb County] program with their partnership, and we are optimistic this will take place before the end of the year,” said Laura Hennemann, SMI’s senior vice president of sustainability and corporate affairs, in an email. “They have been great partners. … I’m not able to share specifics, but we are working to improve and expand the collection of glass for recycling.”

SMI last fall bought a drop-off recycling company called Ripple Glass, which began operating elsewhere in metro Atlanta earlier this year.

Meanwhile, confusion and concern about the County’s glass recycling – including longstanding resident reports of sanitation crews throwing recyclables into the regular landfill trash – have sparked a new commercial competitor. 

Peace of Mind Glass Recycling, a residential pickup service in parts of Atlanta and southwestern DeKalb, launched in May out of owner Grant Wallace’s concerns that the County’s glass was going into the trash instead. He’s the one who circulated the video – shot by a friend who wants to remain anonymous – that allegedly shows County workers emptying a glass recycling bin into the Seminole Road Landfill instead of SMI’s facility. Decaturish could not immediately confirm the veracity of the video, which was shot in June, according to information in a copy provided by Wallace. However, the county told Atlanta News First it reviewed the video and “reminded” sanitation crews of the “protocol” of taking glass to the recycling facility.

Wallace, a resident of unincorporated DeKalb, says he used to take his own glass to a County drop-off location in Exchange Park, but grew dubious that it truly ended up at SMI rather than the landfill. His door-to-door business is intended to be not only more convenient for residents, but also to confirm that the glass goes directly to SMI’s recycling facility. “I’m only going one place, and one place only,” he says. “That’s why it’s called Peace of Mind.”

Wallace says he recently saw numerous Ripple Glass bins at SMI’s College Park facility, clearly for deployment soon somewhere in the metro area. He’s rooting for that service as well as his own business.

“That part is all good news, so I’m stoked on that,” he says. “But I think there’s big problems right now with recycling in general and especially with glass because it’s clearly [sometimes] going to the landfill.”

County Sanitation Division Director Tracy Hutchinson said at a July 10 meeting of the BOC’s Public Works and Infrastructure (PWI ) Committee that resident participation in glass drop-off remains strong to the tune of hundreds of tons a year. 

However, the number of drop-off sites has decreased by more than half since the program’s launch in 2017. And statistics Hutchinson presented show the amount collected trending down each year since a 2020 high of 1,196 tons. The 2023 collection was at 429 tons and on pace for about 796 tons – the lowest since the program’s first full year in 2018 when 825 tons were collected.

Hutchinson praised residents’ participation in the program and said she was contacting various cities –including Decatur and Tucker – and the DeKalb County Public Library to discuss possible new drop-off sites. She did not mention the SMI expansion idea, and the Sanitation Division did not respond to later questions about it. The library system and spokespeople for Decatur and Tucker did not respond to questions or did not provide information about those discussions.

“It’s a great program, and we’ll definitely continue to look for more locations around the county and the cities,” said Hutchinson to the PWI Committee.

Recycling challenges

Glass recycling has long been a challenge for many governments. One issue is that broken glass can contaminate other recyclable materials. That’s why the County in 2017 stopped accepting glass in its curbside residential recycling service, which continues to take some forms of paper, plastic and aluminum cans.

On July 17, 2017, the County launched the current glass drop-off service. It involves large metal containers that are picked up by County sanitation drivers at least once a week and emptied at SMI, which pays $30 per ton for the glass. The service launched at 16 sites, which have changed and cut back over the years. The current list of seven sites includes some parks, recreation centers, a library, and the landfill.

SMI has no role in picking up the glass, only in receiving it, and says its relationship with the County has not changed.

Communication about the drop-off locations and changes to it have been limited to the posting of flyers in PDF format on the county website – even though the Sanitation Division has a public relations manager who issues press releases on other topics. PDFs may be difficult to view and use on such devices as phones and may not be accessible via reading devices for people who are visually impaired, among other issues.

The limited communication includes the recent closure of two popular sites at Fire Station No. 9 on North Druid Hills Road and Fire Station No. 22 on Montreal Road in Tucker. In both cases, the notice for residents was arriving with a load of glass only to find a sign reading, “Due to non-compliant dumping, the recycling containers for this location have been permanently removed.” The signs contained no other information, such as the locations of other drop-off spots or even the county website address. 

County officials did not respond to questions about when those locations closed. Word of the Fire Station 22 site’s closure circulated on Nextdoor in April, which is also when an updated flyer missing that site – but with no other explanation or information – appears to have been posted to the county website. But that flyer continued to list Fire Station 9 as a drop-off site for at least a week after it no longer was, into early July. Residents scrambled to alternative sites, including the Your DeKalb Farmers Market grocery store, whose glass also goes to SMI, according to that company.

The lack of notice and information remains unexplained by county administration officials. District 6 County Commissioner Ted Terry, a member of the PWI Committee, says communication “is just a problem that DeKalb continues to struggle with,” and that glass drop-off locations in particular are something his office is asked about regularly because people cannot easily find it – or it’s wrong when they do. 

“The reason why people have frustrations with DeKalb is … you have to navigate this byzantine labyrinth to get to the answer you want,” Terry said. 

That lack of information about the recent site closures is why the PWI Committee brought Hutchinson to the recent meeting. She described illegal dumping of other kinds of trash as the main problem causing those and other closures, though other factors of traffic and noise were cited as well. The closures all came from complaints from residents or operators of the sites, including the DeKalb Fire Rescue Department, which did not respond to Decaturish questions.

“The challenges we have had is just the illegal dumping,” said Hutchinson, describing conditions at another former site in Toco Hills: “We couldn’t even get to the can, it was so much trash and stuff in front of it – furniture and mattresses and all types of stuff in front of it.”

However, Hutchinson also cited traffic as a concern for one of the fire stations. And another unannounced recent site closure, the Tucker Recreation Center on Lavista Road, was due to complaints from a resident about the noise of dropped glass, she said. “I can’t sleep. I’m gonna make sure ya’ll don’t sleep, either,” she quoted the resident as saying.

Terry said he had visited Fire Station 22 and also noted a significant amount of broken glass in the lot around the drop-off site, which he believed was a “hazard.”

Some of those answers opened up more questions. Why can’t a sanitation department simply clean up its own sites, which apparently instead were left to their owners to manage? Why shut down the sites before trying such other solutions as surveillance cameras to deter illegal dumpers, as Terry suggested – and which Hutchinson called an “awesome idea”? 

Staffing concerns

An underlying theme was concern about the staffing levels of sanitation crews. The Sanitation Division’s residential collection team is known for being understaffed, including having to work through the Memorial Day holiday last year to catch up. Understaffing could make it harder for the County to keep its glass drop-off sites clean or serve them often enough. 

“We need more CDL [commercial drivers license] drivers” for the division, Terry told Dectaurish. The Sanitation Division did not respond to a question about staffing levels and any role they have in the glass drop-off cutbacks.

The PWI Committee did not question Hutchinson about the landfill-dumping video, which hit the news the day of the meeting. But Terry did raise similar concerns about residential curbside recycling. 

“We continue to hear from residents that they are seeing the sanitation crews put the recycling and yard waste … in the landfill truck in the same load,” he said. “And the question is from the constituents, are y’all throwing away our recycling?”

Terry said those concerns are backed by reports from Pratt, the curbside recycling recipient, that the tonnage of material received in DeKalb has plunged by more than half since 2021. Terry noted that glass recycling has not plunged like that, despite requiring the inconvenience of driving it to a drop-off site, suggesting that implies something is wrong with the numbers for the convenient curbside service.

Hutchinson denied that crews are putting curbside recycling into the landfill trash, but could not explain the decline Terry reported. She noted that overall trash collection soared during the 2020 pandemic due to people staying home more, and suggested that some residents put recyclables in the trash rather than pay for an additional bin. However, she said she will look “deeper” into the question and suggested it could be a “field” issue.

As for the future of glass drop-off, the Sanitation Division did not respond to questions about the SMI concept. Andrew L. Cauthen III, the County’s communications manager, in an email spoke broadly about expansion.

“DeKalb County Sanitation Department’s comprehensive recycling program is periodically reviewed and the department is exploring implementing additional glass recycling locations,” he said. “DeKalb County Sanitation is working to improve the program through public education.”

From what Hutchinson told the PWI Committee, that education element consists of posting no-dumping signs at drop-off sites and updating an “FAQ” page on the website.

DeKalb County glass recycling drop-off sites

Briarwood Park, 2235 Briarwood Way NE, Brookhaven

Brook Run Park, 4698 Barclay Drive, Dunwoody

Exchange Park Recreation Center, 2771 Columbia Drive

Medlock Park, 874 Gaylemont Circle

Redan Recreation Center, 1839 Phillips Road, Lithonia

Seminole Road Landfill, 4203 Clevemont Road, Ellenwood

Stonecrest Library, 3123 Klondike Road, Stonecrest

Alternative glass recycling drop-off and pickup

Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM), 1110 Hill St SE, Atlanta

Peace of Mind Glass Recycling

Your DeKalb Farmers Market parking lot, 3000 E. Ponce de Leon Ave.

DeKalb County annual glass recycling drop-off by tonnage

— 2023 (as of July 10): 429 tons

— 2022: 912 tons

— 2021: 1,096 tons

— 2020: 1,196 tons

— 2019: 1,044 tons

— 2018: 825 tons

— 2017 (July 17 through December): 203 tons

(Source: Sanitation Division Director Tracy Hutchinson)

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