Like A CHaRM: Intown facility keeps hazardous household waste out of air, water and soil

CHaRM founder Peggy Whitlow Ratcliffe at the facility. (Photos by Isadora Pennington)

If spring cleaning has you wondering where to safely purge old electronics, surplus paint, unused fertilizer or more, make an appointment at the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials  (CHaRM), located two blocks from Zoo Atlanta.  The center is opened Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with a special Earth Day celebration on Saturday, April 24, the 11th eco Depot.

“April 24 is an amnesty day with no feessupported by Atlanta City Councilmember Carla Smith,” said Peggy Whitlow Ratcliffe, CHaRM founder and executive director.  Hours may be extended as well to accommodate more appointments.

CHaRM has already seen an increase in intake during the pandemic, despite being closed for nearly three months. In 2020, the nonprofit center recycled 9.6 tons of Styrofoam, 180 tons of chemicals, 189 tons of glass, 1,215 mattresses and more.

“Everybody has been doing home projects – that’s increased our traffic. Now we average about 400 appointments a day,” Ratcliffe said.

To keep the center safe for attendees and staff, CHaRM devised a one-way drop off loop.

“The idea is to take your car to each stop, unload materials and get back in – so there’s really no contact with anyone” Ratcliffe said. ”People have been very good at following the directions and already having the materials separated so they can drop and go.”

Instructions for how to prepare for your visit are at livethrive.org. For example, Styrofoam must be clean, dry and bagged. CHaRM also accepts electronics, clean glass sorted by color, plastics with a recycling number 1 through 6, mattresses and more. Fees are assessed on some items, like paint in excess of 25lbs, and are payable by mobile pay, chip card or Venmo.

“The silver lining is the education that came with people sorting their own materials, like plastics,” Ratcliffe said. “They have learned what is recyclable and what’s not. Why it needs to be cleaned out.”

Learning by doing is what prompted Ratcliff to action 11 years ago.

“When my parents passed away, they had paint and chemicals from the 60s and 70s that I knew should not be thrown away curbside,” Ratcliffe said. Her research showed that other municipalities, primarily to protect their water treatment systems, collected household hazardous waste; what Ratcliffe says is “under you kitchen sink, in your garage or in your basement.”

That research prompted Ratcliffe to partner with Atlanta City Councilmember Carla Smith to expand the city’s Earth Day electronics recycling event to include household hazardous waste. These annual collections were popular, attracting 500-700 attendees, and showed the need for a permanent drop-off facility.

“The funding to do one four-hour event could closely pay for something that was open a few days a week to allow residents to come in at their convenience,” Ratcliffe said. “If you are moving you are not going to hold on to the paint and pesticides in your house until the next year – you need to dispose of it then.”

In 2015, current CHaRM Board member and former Atlanta City Councilmember Alex Wan, helped Ratcliffe find a permanent location, which it leases from the city.

“First year attendance at CHaRM was about 5,000 people and in 2020, even with COVID-19, we had close to 36,000 people,” Ratcliffe said. “People do want to do the right thing if you tell them how and the importance of it.”

Ninety-six percent what CHaRM receives is recycled, re-purposed or re-engineered – with items like expired medicines incinerated in a controlled environment. Reusable items are distributed to nonprofit partners, like the Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta.

“CHaRM gives the Furniture Bank access to additional mattresses which can either be given to clients or recycled,” said Megan Anderson, Furniture Bank executive director. “In 2020, the Furniture Bank re-used or recycled 21,531 mattresses.”  Those in good condition are given to clients who move out of homelessness or flee domestic violence.

Local artists have first access to paint at the center. CHaRM also works with vetted vendors, like Clean Harbors Environmental Services, to properly dispose or repurpose waste.

“Last year, Clean Harbors shipped nearly 400,000 pounds of waste from CHaRM,” said Mark Morwaski, Clean Harbors Environmental Services Technical Services Account Manager.  That included 310,000 lbs. paint that was converted from waste to energy and 32,000 lbs. of solvents reused as alternative fuels.

“If it were not for CHaRM, most of the millions of pounds of house waste would either still be sitting in someone’s garage or buried in a local landfill,” Morwaski said. “Thanks to CHaRM, the City of Atlanta is a cleaner place to live.”