Once a week, workers at the popular Chapel Hill seafood restaurant Squid's load 25 to 45 bushels of used oyster shells into a pickup truck. From there, they drive the crustaceans roughly six miles, depositing them in a growing, shock-white pile near the entrance of the Orange County landfill off Eubanks Road.
Every few months, environmentalists with the N.C. Coastal Federation, a Newport-based nonprofit of coastal advocates, transport the shells to North Carolina's Outer Banks, where they are spread on the shoreline to restore the state's overtaxed oyster beds.
It's a worthy cause, says Squid's owner Greg Overbeck. At Overbeck's restaurants—which include Chapel Hill eateries Spanky's Restaurant and 411 West—it's also mandatory for employees to recycle.
"If you can put something back into the environment, you must do that," says Overbeck. "You don't want to put it into a landfill where it can cause all sorts of problems."
As local environmental advocates point out, this is what makes recycling work in Orange County: the buy-in from residents and business owners like Overbeck.
Since 1991, the county has reduced its waste by a staggering 59 percent, meaning waste per person plunged from 1.36 tons to 0.56 tons by 2012, according to the N.C. Division of Waste Management.
But according to recycling advocates, that progress may be derailed. On Tuesday, Orange County leaders were scheduled to hear proposals for refinancing the program, and some options—including a proposal to privatize the system through a franchise agreement—are sparking anger from county leaders and residents.
"It's a system that's working really well, so when a system works really well, why do you want to break it?" says Tom Linden, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor and resident of unincorporated Orange County.
The program's success is unprecedented. No other county in North Carolina rivals the waste reduction rate in Orange. In Durham, the rate is 21 percent. In Wake, it's 25 percent.
"It's a model that we hold up at the state level," says Rob Taylor, former Orange recycling program director and current outreach specialist for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Both Linden and Taylor criticized the franchising proposal at a county commission meeting in March. When he spoke to INDY Week Monday, Linden still hadn't cooled down.
"It will break it," he says. "That's essentially what going to a franchise system will do in Orange County."
Residents are getting the message, according to Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens, and they're making sure their leaders hear it too.
"Everywhere I go, people on the street are saying to me, 'Are you paying attention to this? Are you paying attention?'" Stevens says. "Yes, we're paying attention."
Orange County Manager Frank Clifton says he doesn't want to upend the county's sterling recycling program. But an unrelated August 2012 N.C. Supreme Court decision in rural Cabarrus County, where judges struck down school facility fees, may force his hand. Clifton says the court's decision sets a precedent that invalidates some county government fees not authorized by the N.C. General Assembly.
Orange County uses a system of fees—dubbed "3R fees"—to pay for the program. This includes annual charges for rural, apartment and urban curbside recycling in addition to a basic $37 fee for all built-on properties countywide.
According to Clifton, the basic fee may be the lone survivor of the Cabarrus decision. All others risk a legal challenge, he says.
"We have to find a different way to pay for those somehow in what's covered in the statutes," Clifton says.
The options before commissioners are knotty. Clifton's favored proposal is the establishment of a solid waste authority, similar to Orange Water and Sewer Authority, that would lead the system countywide.
For that to happen, local government leaders would have to agree on a structure. And, according to Clifton, that's no easy task, pointing to recent bickering over the location of a solid waste transfer station.
"It takes at least one other government to be part of that process," Clifton says. "I'm not sure that collaboration exists today."
Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton says it's too early to say whether such an authority would succeed, but he believes town leaders in Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough would be amenable.
"We've been cooperating closely with Orange County government on solid waste for 20 years before Frank Clifton got here," Chilton says. "That's how we came to have such a great system. Chapel Hill and Carrboro have been begging for the county to work with us on solid waste disposal."
Meanwhile, Stevens says it's uncertain whether Hillsborough leaders would approve the authority or any other county proposals. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt could not be reached for comment this week.
Other county proposals include solid waste tax districts similar to the districts created across the state to finance local fire departments. Another solution may be to eliminate rural curbside recycling services, Clifton said, or to shift the program into the county's general fund, a proposal that leaders say would spur property tax increases of up to 3 cents per $100,000 valuation in order to extend services to all parts of the county. Currently, curbside services are not available to roughly 6,000 homes in the rural outreaches of the county.
Orange Board of Commissioners Chairman Barry Jacobs says the latter may be the simplest option for the county.
"We probably could have avoided the controversy and just had a controversy about taxes going up, which is more familiar," Jacobs says. "But I think it's important to not only have this discussion, but talk about the potential unraveling of the partnerships that we have with municipalities in Orange County."
Leaders could also opt for the franchising agreement that would allow a private company to provide curbside services in unincorporated Orange County. It would be left up to the towns to decide whether they wish to do the same for curbside in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough.
It's this option that has prompted a sharp backlash, spurred by the commissioners' vote last month to schedule an April 23 public hearing on a franchising agreement. At the time, county officials had not publicly proposed any alternatives.
"I don't see any merit in franchising," says Linden. "I'd like somebody to explain the merit to me. I have not heard a good case for that yet."
Critics have good reason for concern, according to state experts such as Taylor.
Taylor says at least eight counties statewide use such a method. Of those counties, the average program participation rate is a dismal 13 percent. In Orange County, curbside recycling participation is 85 percent inside the towns. In unincorporated Orange, county officials estimate 65 percent of homes participate where the service is available.
Taylor says the county should expect to see a significant drop-off in participation if the county implements franchising.
"I see that Orange County has consistently one of the most effective public recycling programs in the state," he says. "I hate to see them considering changes that may make their program less effective."
Agreed, says Overbeck: "Some people are going to look at that fee and a lot are going to say, 'I'm not going to spend that to have people picking up my recycling.'"
Stevens says Hillsborough leaders and residents believe privatization would reduce services and hike recycling fees charged by for-profit private companies.
"We're very anxious to hear what the Board of County Commissioners decides," he says.
For his part, Clifton says the effect of privatization is not as clear as opponents contend.
"I don't think anybody can say that participation will or will not fall off," he says. "If it is purely a voluntary program, you would expect that it would fall off, but you would hope in Orange County that our citizens would not let it fall off and that they are committed to making environmentally sound decisions."
Local officials say the unified recycling regulations across municipal lines are key to the program's success. "In Chapel Hill and Carrboro, people float back and forth across town lines," Chilton says. "For it to work one way in one town and another way in another town, it's just going to be a huge headache."
Jacobs says maintaining public support should be a chief concern for county commissioners. "The commissioners with whom I've spoken are cognizant of that danger," he says. "And have perhaps a higher level of understanding of that than some members of our staff may."
There is another choice. State lawmakers could pass legislation granting specific authority for the fees in Orange County. Officials point out legislators once used a similar tactic to approve school impact fees in Orange and Chatham.
State Rep. Verla Insko, a nine-term Democrat from Orange County, said she and fellow state House Rep. Valerie Foushee, D-Orange/Durham, have drafted a bill to do just that, although Insko acknowledged Republican leadership in Raleigh may ignore the measure.
Clifton says he isn't counting on help from Raleigh. "We'd be glad to see that," he says. "Then we wouldn't be going through all this trauma. But right now, that legislation does not exist."
In all likelihood, Orange County leaders will not pick a solution soon. Clifton says the county has cash reserves to float the recycling program into June 2014.
He adds that, optimistically, he hopes commissioners make a decision in the next three months. Leaders say the county could begin phased implementation of the franchise model next July.
In the meantime, critics like Linden and Overbeck have a simple message for county leaders: "Slow down, look at all available alternatives," Linden says. "And do everything you can to keep the program going."
There is no choice, Overbeck says.
"We live in a world of limited resources," he says. "We're all going to have to make a little effort to keep enjoying the things we enjoy."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Recycle, reduce, renege."