A vacationer in Kitty Hawk finishes a beer and drops the bottle in the recycling bin. A collector picks up the bin and dumps it in a truck. The bottle rides with other bottles back to the Dare County Recycling Center. There, an inmate cleans the bottle and puts it in a bin with more bottles. Together, they weigh nearly a ton. It takes a Bobcat to move them. The bottle then lands on a conveyer belt and rises 20 feet in the air, moving toward something called the Andela Pulverizer — a glass crusher. Two hammers inside the machine pound the bottle, making it not a bottle anymore, but, simply, pieces of glass. Those pieces then are sifted through screens and fall into a concrete bunker, where Carl Walker picks up a small pile and rubs it between his hands, then turns out his palms and says, “See, no cuts.”

The next day, someone will pick up a truckload of the shiny, smooth broken glass and spread it around his home for landscaping. One man’s beer bottle will become another man’s flower bed.

Things like that happen around here. Things like that happen around Walker.

In the five years he’s been the coordinator for Dare County Recycling, he’s helped transform this coastal community’s thinking on trash. Last year, the county recycled 556 tons — or 1.2 million pounds — of glass bottles alone. That doesn’t include the cardboard, or the aluminum, or the oyster shells, or the plastic, or any of the other pieces of trash Walker sorts at his center in Manteo.

A burly man of 58 who wears Carhartt coats, chews tobacco, and has an eight-point buck’s head mounted on his office wall, Walker is a new face of environmentalism. People around here call him the King of Trash. “I’m not much of a hippie,” he says. “But we’re using up the elements. We’ve got to give it back.” Walker believes that what was once one thing can be turned into something else, if you just give it a chance. He believes in reinvention.

He employs inmates from a local prison to help him at the center. They wear green work suits and move freely within their stations, and Walker rarely has an issue with any of them. He pays them $1 a day, and for their work their sentences can be reduced, so they can be a few days closer to turning from inmates into active citizens again.

Together, Walker and his workers keep the recycling center tidy, which is saying something for a place that houses trash. On a recent workday, a wrapper blows underneath Walker’s feet, and he chases it down, steps on it, and tells a worker to put it with the other paper. The center is a place for trash, but trash has a place.

•••

Before he was the King of Trash, Walker worked in the tree-cutting business. In that line of work, there’s one basic rule: “Anytime someone’s in a tree with a chainsaw, you look up.”

One day, Walker didn’t look up. A branch, weighing about 30 pounds, fell 30 feet and onto him, cracking his skull and shattering his neck. A helicopter flew him to the hospital. With blood dripping from his head, Walker thought, “What kind of job am I going to get? What am I going to do?”

Doctors took bone out of his hip and placed it in his neck, then inserted a metal plate to bolt his vertebrae together. He was back at work in a month.

That was the fifth time he almost died, by his count.

Before he was a tree-cutter, before he was the King of Trash, he was working underneath his Ford F-150 pickup truck in a garage when somehow he hit the transmission and the truck started rolling backward, in reverse, the left front tire headed toward his torso. He started to shimmy out, to try to beat it, “but I weren’t going to make it,” he says in a heavy eastern North Carolina accent. “It was going to roll over my head if I tried to get out.” So he pushed himself back underneath and let the tire roll on his chest. Then, he grabbed the tire and held the 5,000-pound truck on top of his chest until someone came to help. He didn’t want it to roll into the road.

That was the fourth time he almost died, by his count.

The third time and the second time, he’d rather not talk about them. He was a young man once, and boys do make mistakes.

But before he was a young man, before he held a truck on his chest, before he was a tree-cutter, and before he was the King of Trash, he was a boy, lying facedown in the water at the end of a pier near Manteo. He couldn’t swim and was drowning. The person who spotted him and saved him was the father of recently retired State Senator Marc Basnight. Not long after he saved Walker, Basnight’s dad gave the boy a nickname: Tom Thumb. “You’re no bigger than my thumb,” he told the boy. “So I’ll call you Tom Thumb.” No matter how much Walker’s grown, or how many jobs he’s had, or how many people call him the King of Trash, or how many people call him Carl, everyone who really knows him calls him Tom Thumb.

That’s the beauty of reinvention. We can change, but we never lose what we’re made of.

•••

Dare County taxpayers pay about $1.5 million every time the county needs to create a new cell, a hole with liners and layers that usually is bigger than a football field, to hold trash in the landfill.

“The biggest thing about recycling is that people don’t understand,” Walker says.

Most of what goes into a landfill can be recycled. Walker takes everything. He prefers that people separate it, but if they don’t, he’ll have it done for them.

Inside a long, metal garage, inmates stuff plastics together and wrap them in bales that weigh about 300 pounds.

Walker keeps an eye on the market before selling the cubes to businesses that turn the recyclables into something else. There was a time when cardboard commanded $25 a ton. Walker held his cubes of cardboard, waited for the price to rise, and sold them a year later for $175 a ton.

Last year, he made $217,000 in sales of recyclable materials. All of it went back to the county.

“I’m like a stockbroker,” Walker says. “But my number one deal is to keep it out of the landfill. If I make money on it, good. If I don’t, fine.”

Walker spends much of his time trying to teach people about recycling. He placed drop-off locations in nearly every municipality in Dare County, down the Outer Banks from Kitty Hawk to Hatteras Village. He goes into schools and offers a casual threat: “Tell your mom that Mr. Tom’s going to give them a ticket if they don’t start recycling.” Parents do call him, just to be sure he doesn’t have the authority to issue a citation. While he has them on the phone, Walker tells them about the benefits of recycling.

•••

When Walker graduated from high school, he made a deal with a friend, Edward Lee Mann, to join the United States Coast Guard together.

They were neighbors growing up, and they were inseparable. Mann’s mother ran a drugstore, and Walker’s mom owned a local restaurant. “My mama would whip him; his mama would whip me,” Mann says. “We’d go into each other’s kitchen and make sandwiches.”

But when they went to get their physical evaluations for the Coast Guard, Walker failed his. Mann passed his. Walker went back to work in his mother’s restaurant and spent the next couple of decades working a number of jobs around Manteo. He still has some of them: He drives the truck that sprays for mosquitoes in the summer, and he also has a catering business, cooking barbecue for weddings and other functions. He’s a worker.

Mann, meanwhile, spent 25 years in the Coast Guard. He retired on a Friday and went to work as the director of Dare County Public Works the next Monday. Soon, he promoted his old friend Walker to become the recycling coordinator.

Walker always struggled with authority, even into his 40s. But now that he reports to Mann, Walker says he’s changed.

Last year, Dare County Recycling handled 10 times more recyclables than it did 10 years ago.

“What he’s done with the recycling program here,” Mann says, “he’s the king.”

•••

The king isn’t happy. Two inmates have decided to take a break this morning and build a fire to sit around. Walker’s cell phone rings, and he walks out to the shed and finds them huddled around the flames.

They jump to their feet and start to work when they see him. Too late. They won’t be coming back tomorrow, and they may have their sentences lengthened rather than shortened.

Walker believes in second chances; he doesn’t believe in squandering them.

Outside, two more inmates cut tires, like they’ve been doing for months. They have a system. One cuts, and the other tosses the next tire on the cutter. They’ll cut 150, and then switch jobs. Walker watches them proudly. “They do that every day like that.” With each tire they cut, with each day that passes, they’re closer to getting out.

The tires, meanwhile, will go to a facility where they might be turned into industrial fuel or, more interestingly, ground pieces of rubber for a running track at a school.

All of the inmates are from the Tyrrell Prison Work Farm in nearby Columbia. Each morning, one of Walker’s full-time staff members drives a bus to pick them up. Most of them are low-level offenders, or on their way to getting out. They arrive at the jobsite by 7:45 a.m., and they work all day. Walker doesn’t carry a gun or a stick. Still, he rarely has a problem.

“I don’t babysit adults,” Walker says. “They know we don’t play with them.”

•••

Back in his office with the deer head, the phone rings, and Walker answers.

“Yes, ma’am, we give away glass,” he says, scratching his beard. “We’re cutting it right now, as we speak.”

The Andela Pulverizer is a $175,000 machine with a conveyer belt and motor that turns bottles into fine pieces of glass slightly larger than grains of sand. The glass is smooth, colorful, and it serves a purpose.

The pulverizer is the only machine of its kind used in the state, as far as Walker knows. And he didn’t even want it. When Basnight, then a state senator, approached him about using money from tourism funds to buy the glass crusher, Walker said he wasn’t sure about it. He didn’t want something to babysit.

But it quickly became Walker’s favorite piece of equipment. It can crush five tons of glass in an hour. In Dare County, where vacationers and restaurants toss bottles away by the truckload in the summer, the machine has become invaluable.

After about a year, Basnight called Walker. “Tom Thumb, what do you think about this thing?”

Walker replied, “I have two daughters already. But if this thing was a young’n, I’d adopt it today.”

The glass is all over the ground in Dare County. Green, brown, and white pebble-size pieces of it fill walkways and gardens around homes and restaurants on the coast. And there’s more coming every year, particularly when summer comes and Dare County’s beaches fill with people who come here for a break to refresh themselves.

Once, each bottle they dropped would have gone straight to the landfill. Now, under the reign of a recycling king who has a neck made of metal, the glass has a new life with a new purpose.

•••

Tom Thumb is about ready for beach season.

He’s been waiting to unleash a new toy all winter. It’s a 1951 Chevrolet Sedan, with glistening black paint, aluminum headers that look like mirrors, and burgundy bench seats that invite a man to put one hand on the wheel and stretch the other arm across the backrest. One of Walker’s longtime friends, Carl Beachem, does the restoration at his home garage. It’s a time-consuming job, about eight months, and Walker has spent most of his catering money on it.

Beachem rebuilt everything, finding all the right pieces for the broken parts Walker brought in. At one point during the job, a small blade flew off a grinder and gashed Beachem’s face. He went to the hospital and had stitches put in from his eye to his mouth. He was back working on the car within a week.

“I have to heal quick,” Beachem says. “Have work to do.”

One of the most interesting parts of the car is the paint. In the sun, the car will appear to have metal flakes sparkling off of its black base color. Also, it will have a ghost flame on the side. It’s a flame that only appears in the sun. It’s invisible in the garage.

“But it’s there,” Walker says.

Beachem created the effect — the flame you can’t see without shining some light on it — with a painstaking painting process. He put on the base coat, pure black, then began adding clear coats. Each time he added a clear, he added to the hidden effect. It took seven layers of clear before Beachem had the flame right.

In its heyday, the 1951 Chevy was a car for businessmen. It was billed as the finest low-priced car of its day. Now that it’s in Walker’s possession, it’s something else. He’ll take it to car shows and for joy rides along the beach. He jokes that he’ll use it to pick up younger women.

“I just can’t imagine how good I’m going to look in this thing,” Walker says.

“You look about as good as you’re going to look,” Beachem says.

Walker laughs. But somehow, he just knows that when he finally gets in that car, the King of Trash will look a whole lot prettier.

Michael Graff is the associate editor of Our State magazine.

This story was published on

Since 1933, Our State has shared stories about North Carolina with readers both in state and around the world. We celebrate the people and places that make this state great. From the mountains to the coast, we feature North Carolina travel, history, food, and beautiful scenic photography.

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