A love letter to CHaRM

Dropping off items at the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials just makes you feel good

A love letter to CHaRM
The “a” allows the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials to be called, simply, “CHaRM.”

Photograph courtesy of CHaRM

Here’s what I packed in my car on a recent Saturday morning: 17 cans of paint, 8 propane canisters, 2 old iPads, a Medusa tangle of electrical cords, and a bag stuffed so full with bags it had to sit buckled into the passenger’s seat. “Can you take this too?” my wife asked, thrusting some kind of enormous Geiger counter into my arms, another technological casualty of her rainy field season in Costa Rica. I took it, and so did CHaRM: When I left the facility, my car was empty, and I was filled with the kind of blissful, civic-minded satisfaction found only at the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials.

CHaRM, located near Grant Park, is run by the nonprofit Live Thrive. Founder and executive director Peggy Ratcliffe got the idea after her parents passed away, when cleaning out their house produced a mountain of stuff, not all of which could be thrown away or recycled through city collection. Her organization opened a permanent facility in 2015, affectionately referred to as “CHaRM.” It operates by appointment three days a week and takes almost anything you want to get rid of but don’t know how. Drop-off is free, though there’s a fee for disposing of certain items; on my last trip, I paid about $50 for recycling the paint and propane canisters.

Inside the facility, cheerful staff and volunteers direct you to various waste stations. In electronics, large tubs welcome every kind of gadget you’ve ever dreamed of chucking, like a reverse candy store for stuff-laden adults. I felt exceedingly virtuous as I dropped the iPads into the correct bin; they’d sat around our house for years, too old to be useful, too useful to be tossed in the trash. What were we supposed to do with them? We were supposed to take them to the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, of course.

Ninety-six percent of items brought to CHaRM are recycled into new uses. Tires become pothole filler; cooking oil becomes biofuel. Mattresses are donated to local nonprofits, and whatever can’t be recycled, like pesticides, is safely incinerated. Most of what we consider trash, in fact, is simply recycling in need of a place like CHaRM.

Americans are embarrassingly wasteful, comprising 4 percent of the world’s population but producing 12 percent of its garbage. We recycle a trifling amount of the trash we make. It’s not for lack of interest—survey data suggests at least 8 out of 10 Americans believe recycling is a good thing—but more a question of information and access. Municipal collection varies depending on where you live, and it can be hard to know what belongs in the blue bin. This can lead to what’s known as “wish-cycling”: tossing the wrong items in the recycling and mucking up the process. More often, it just means the trash can appeals as the path of least resistance.

In Atlanta, CHaRM makes a modest dent in the giant garbage problem: The facility rescued 5.6 million pounds of materials from landfills in 2022. (A Decatur location will open later this year.) It’s a special place, where Marie Kondo meets sustainability. Everyone is happy at CHaRM, buoyed by civic do-gooding and shedding accumulated crap.

“Doesn’t that feel so good?” exclaimed another Atlantan as we squished our bags of bags into the same plastics bin. We smiled as we walked back to our empty cars. It felt so good.

This article appears in our April 2024 issue.