WINCHESTER — Michael Neese has become a superhero to environmentally conscious city residents who admire his stalwart defense of recycling.
Neese, who serves as Winchester’s refuse and recycling coordinator, has an alter ego, “Michael Recycle,” who wears a cape and protects the city from being overtaken by mountains of trash.
“It’s slightly embarrassing, but it’s really, really fun to go in and talk to children [about recycling],” Neese said Tuesday morning during a town hall on Winchester’s curbside recycling program.
“Michael Recycle” is the first of four superheroes from what Winchester officials have dubbed The Service League. The identities of the other three are closely guarded secrets but will be revealed in the coming weeks.
“They’re public service employees and they will all come together to protect the community,” Winchester Communications Director Amy Simmons said.
Tuesday’s town hall attendees may have been slightly disappointed to see Neese in street clothes — his costume exists in imagination only — but they praised his heroic efforts to keep the city’s recycling program alive as a dwindling national marketplace for materials has made it increasingly difficult to find processors willing to accept discarded plastics, paper and metals.
On July 15, Southern Scrap Inc. of Frederick County stopped accepting aluminum and plastic recyclables from Winchester. Six months earlier, it also stopped processing the city’s glass and the majority of its plastic products.
For now, Winchester’s plastics and aluminum are being hauled to a processing facility in Manassas, and paper and cardboard are being taken to a separate recycling plant in Williamsport, Md. The facility in Manassas charges a tipping fee of $105 a ton, but the Maryland facility accepts recyclables at no expense to the city.
Southern Scrap’s decision forced Winchester to spend $175,000 to continue its curbside recycling program for one year. Since the city’s total recycling budget for fiscal year 2020 is $50,000, City Council covered the $125,000 difference with money from its general fund.
Beyond cash, keeping the recycling program alive also depends on the commitment of Winchester’s residents. If plastic and aluminum products aren’t properly prepped and sorted before being placed in recycle bins, Neese said, the plant in Manassas will divert those items to Prince William County’s landfill and charge the city a $500 tipping fee per truck. If there are repeated violations, the facility may stop accepting Winchester’s recyclables entirely.
City resident Gary DuBrueler, who attended Tuesday’s town hall, said it is imperative that Neese makes sure everyone in Winchester understands what they have to do to ensure the continuation of curbside recycling.
“Communication is the key for everything to be done right,” DuBrueler said.
Paul Kostepski of Winchester, a former resident of New York City and Montreal, suggested the city limit the amount of waste being generated by ordering stores to stop using disposable plastic shopping bags.
“Eventually, it resets in your mind that you have to have your own bag to go shopping,” Kostepski said.
Town hall attendee Bonnie Jones said it was discouraging that only 13 people showed up for Neese’s presentation on a situation that effects everyone who lives or works in Winchester.
“This is ridiculous,” Jones said. “Half the town should be here.”
Neese encouraged anyone with questions about Winchester’s current recycling program to contact his office at City Yards at 540-667-1815, ext. 1452, or email@example.com.
He also extended invitations to attend one of his upcoming town halls on recycling. The first two were held Tuesday — one at Rouss City Hall, the other at Jim Barnett Park — but four more are scheduled:
10 a.m. Aug. 28, Lord Fairfax Room in Jim Barnett Park
6 p.m. Aug. 28, third floor of the Timbrook Public Safety Center
10 a.m. Aug. 31, Arts and Crafts Room in Jim Barnett Park
4 p.m. Aug. 31, Lord Fairfax Room in Jim Barnett Park
Despite the current recycling difficulties being experienced by Winchester and other localities across the country, Neese is confident the problems will get sorted out.
“I’m not an optimist, but I’m optimistic about this,” he said.
He’s also hopeful that he’ll eventually get a costume for “Michael Recycle.”
“I’m working with my mother-in-law,” he said with a laugh.