The Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM), run by Atlanta-based nonprofit Live Thrive, not only helps to safely divert a wide array of hazardous household materials from local landfills, it educates residents on the critical role of recycling in creating jobs and stimulating our economy.
Shaw’s second-annual sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program recognizes a diverse slate of organizations working on innovative projects and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet. Live Thrive's Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) is a permanent drop-off facility that reuses and diverts thousands of pounds of household hazardous waste, bulky trash and other hard-to-recycle items from Metro Atlanta landfills and water systems.
Shaw recently caught up with Live Thrive founder and executive director Peggy Whitlow Ratcliffe to learn more about the story behind this small-but-mighty operation, the organization’s growth since its launch in 2010 and how the pandemic affected operations.
Tell us about the history of CHaRM.
PWR: When my parents passed away, I was tasked with cleaning out their house in 2008. They were gardeners, and I knew that the pesticides and herbicides I found shouldn’t be thrown away — so I made it my mission to find out what to do. Through my research, I found that there were several local municipalities holding household hazardous waste collections for residents, but most of them were in rural areas and more focused on agricultural-type fertilizers. A few places gave me a playbook of sorts, and I decided to take this to the City of Atlanta. Of course, it wasn’t that simple; but in 2010, with the help of a city council member, I organized the first household hazardous waste collection for Atlanta.
The trick was that the word ‘hazardous’ is very scary. When you ask major corporations for sponsorship for something called hazardous, they are not very receptive because their first thought is liability. But of course, material that is hazardous to our environment and water system is under our sinks, in our garages and up in the crawl spaces.
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After doing the first collection, we ended up doing nine more and had to raise money for each one. The four-hour events run anywhere from $65,000-85,000 — because you have to hire someone with a chemical background to sort the materials, prepare them for transport and then transport what’s collected for proper disposal. We also had limited reach because the events were short, we only reached about 3,200 people, and the price tag was absurd.
We went around in circles for some time and then decided we could open a permanent facility with these funds. Eventually, the City of Atlanta leased us a Department of Public Works property in Southeast Atlanta for $1 a year; and in April of 2015, we opened ChaRM.
How did you determine your focus on the 'hard stuff' (or can you tell us more about the need)?
PWR: The original CHaRM facility is in Boulder, Colo., and opened in 1971. In the state of Colorado and quite a few Northeastern states, there is legislation in place that you cannot throw these materials in your curbside bin. So, the residents needed a facility, which are funded by municipalities, to be able to properly dispose of hazardous materials. But in Atlanta, that wasn't going to be the case. Live Thrive is a nonprofit, and our premier program is CHaRM. When we opened in 2015, we collected hazardous materials like paint, chemicals, household cleaners and electronics. But as the traffic increased, people started asking if we could take other things that couldn’t be collected curbside, so we added to our list and started collecting more.
How does CHaRM collaborate with the City of Atlanta and surrounding counties’ waste disposal and recycling programs?
PWR: As we've grown, the City of Atlanta makes a donation to us every year, which helps financially; and we charge some fees to subsidize disposal and recycling costs. There are so many multi-family homes in Atlanta and in the major metro area that don't have access to curbside, and those residents need an outlet for these materials. It’s been exciting to know how much waste we've diverted from the water system out of the 159 landfills we have in the state of Georgia. There are also a lot of corporations here that are the recipients of what we divert. The carpet industry is a major part of that — approximately 33 percent of all #1 plastics come to Georgia for use in the carpet industry. And Georgia is also home to the top aluminum can recycler in the world.
With this journey, it is key to educate people about the importance of recycling for the environment; and also, the role recycling plays in creating jobs and stimulating our economy. The big picture is to make a difference in the environment and support manufacturers here in the state.
How did CHaRM adapt operations during the pandemic?
PWR: It’s been amazing. We closed in March of 2020; but everyone was at home cleaning out, because their ‘honey do’ list was right in front of their face. So, when we reopened in May of 2020, we had to add staff. We created appointments and initially were only allowing five people per 15 minutes to ensure everybody could drive around the lot. We set up our lot in a one-way circle and called all the stations ‘drop-points,’ which are very well labeled with a staff member at each one.
People have started to understand better about separating the material and that it needs to be clean. It has also given them confidence that the materials we accept are really being recycled, which is always the question on everyone's mind. So, each staff member at the station they were staffing had the opportunity to talk to the public about why we separate all the materials and why it’s important to put green glass in a green glass bin and not mix it all together — because it brings more revenue to keep our operations running.
We have a whole section now called “Plasticville” — which was kind of a joke at first; but having someone there to help people separate different types of plastics has made a real difference. The experience of separating out the different materials causes them to look at things before they purchase them — to ask, could it even really be recycled?
We are really trying to push people to understand that if it doesn't have a number on it, it really can't be recycled. Please don't buy it. Please do other things with it. And the growth has been tremendous. In 2015, we had 5,000 people visit; in 2020, we had 36,000 visitors.
What is next on the horizon for CHaRM?
PWR: We are looking to expand and open an additional facility. We also want to strengthen the reach with new materials. We get so many things that people bring in that they think they should be able to recycle but can’t — we call that ‘wish-cycling.’ You're not really sure it doesn't have a recycle number on it; it's like a plastic cup or bubble wrap, but it's really wrapped in something else that has plastic on it. We have a visitor who has been coming since we opened and has brought me everything from Q-tips that she's cut the ends off of to the lint out of her husband's pants. People want to recycle.
This is one in a series of articles recognizing the second slate of organizations honored by Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program. The nine organizations selected for this year’s recognition program have displayed tremendous effort and progress to support the wellbeing of people and the planet amid the unprecedented challenges of 2020. To read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw, visit the landing page for this blog series.