During his more than 30 years working with Orange County’s solid waste department, Blair Pollock was instrumental in expanding recycling programs and access across the county. Now, he’s not thrilled that one of Chapel Hill’s longest-standing recycling sites is set to close this spring.

Pollock, who retired last year, was a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student when the Town of Chapel Hill hired him in 1987 to initiate public recycling programs across the town and, eventually, the county. In the 1990s, Pollock helped establish an unstaffed drop-off recycling center at University Place, the 1970s-era shopping center located just off of Franklin Street, which in the following years would become a major part of Orange County’s recycling system. With a central location by the mall and Harris Teeter, the site not only became a popular drop-off location but was critical to local recycling and disposal efforts. Pollock recalls hosting regular motor oil and mixed paper drives at the University Place site in the 1990s.

“We would have these quarterly drives and hundreds of people would show up,” Pollock says. “Suffice it to say, there’s a long-standing relationship between the community and the mall.”

Much has changed about Chapel Hill and Orange County’s recycling program in the past three decades—with Pollock’s help, publicly funded curbside recycling was established throughout most of the county—but Pollock says the University Place site is still vital, providing a convenient space for residents to drop off large recyclables alongside easy access to the mall’s various businesses.

Now, less than a year after his retirement, it’s set to be removed.

The Florida-based development group Ram Realty Advisors says it provided notice of termination to Orange County in August 2021, according to Ashley Saulpaugh, Ram Realty’s vice president of investments who is based in Charlotte.

“When we provided notice to them, we also provided notice to the town manager, Maurice Jones so that town staff was aware,” Saulpaugh wrote in an email to the INDY this week. “No one from either the town or the recycling center reached out to us following that notice until 1/27/22.”

By January 31, the notice said, all recycling containers at University Place would need to be removed. Based on approved redevelopment plans, the move was likely to make room for more parking spaces to accommodate new storefronts.

On January 27, just days before the scheduled removal, Orange County announced that it had made an agreement with Ram Realty Advisors to extend the planned removal of the University Place drop-off recycling center until May 31, a four-month extension.

“The property management group has agreed to extend the availability of the site so as to allow the Solid Waste Department extra time to attempt to find another location for a replacement recycling drop-off site,” a county statement read.

But Pollock hopes there’s still time to save the University Place location.

“It’s in the interest of all members of the community to keep the site open, so why is the current owner so hot to get rid of it?,” Pollock asks.

Other community members share Pollock’s concern. Carrboro Town Council member Randee Haven-O’Donnell says that for many years, the University Place site has been a critical part of Orange County’s recycling ecosystem. Haven-O’Donnell says she worries that if the University Place site is removed, even four months from now, it could disrupt people’s recycling habits.

“Recycling depends on two things: it depends on convenience and creating habits. And if you don’t make it convenient, you won’t create a habit,” Haven-O’Donnell says. “So when you pull out a convenient site that people have gotten accustomed to, what happens?”

Samantha Corte, a Carrboro resident, says she often uses the drop-off center for larger materials like boxes that she doesn’t want to pile up until the next collection date. Corte says she appreciates the convenience of the University Place site, especially for its proximity to Harris Teeter.

“I use it when I have cardboard boxes piling up, which is somewhat frequently, and I want to combine it with a trip to the grocery store,” Corte says. “If I don’t have other recyclables, I don’t need to go to Eubanks.”

Aside from the University Place location, Orange County maintains two other full-service waste and recycling centers, including a location on Eubanks Road in Chapel Hill and Walnut Grove Church Road in Hillsborough. The government has three additional unstaffed satellite sites for nearby neighborhoods in rural Chapel Hill, Mebane, and Efland. But with its central, urban location, the University Place location is especially convenient for Chapel Hill and Carrboro residents.

Haven-O’Donnell says that beyond risking breaking recycling habits by requiring people to drive farther distances, the change could also increase gas emissions, essentially nullifying the environmental impacts of recycling.

“It’s zero sum, almost, in addition to the perception of whether or not it’s convenient,” Haven-O’Donnell says.

So far, no formal plans have been announced for a replacement site. Robert Williams, director of the Orange County solid waste department, said in an email that the county is continuing to search for locations for a new site. Williams didn’t say whether any specific location, such as central Chapel Hill, would be a prime consideration for the site.

“I think the location will be at a site that is open and has room for the public and Orange County crews to safely access,” Williams wrote in the email.

Haven-O’Donnell stresses that decisions like this have serious implications for the ability of residents to practice good recycling habits and can have negative impacts for the environment. She points to the closure of the Carrboro Plaza recycling site in 2017 to demonstrate the adverse impacts a closure or relocation can have. According to Chapelboro, nearly 500 tons of recyclable materials were collected from the Carrboro site over the course of a year. Since its closure, no new location has been established.

“Convenience and habit is what makes the difference in community climate action and inaction,” Haven-O’Donnell says. “We can’t talk about climate action without realizing that these are the underpinnings that make the change.”

Pollock says he feels that even if a replacement site is built, it’s still harmful to the community to remove a well-established local resource like the University Place site.

“From my perspective, it’s a valuable community asset,” Pollock says. “Can’t something be done to hold on to it?” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Ram Realty first provided notice of its intention to close the University Place recycling site to Orange County and Town of Chapel Hill staff in August 2021, not January of this year. 

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