By Randy Gaddo
Modern living can be considered a trashy business in Baldwin County, in Alabama, in the U.S., in the whole world; however, some of that trash could be treasure if it was recycled.
Consider this: On average, every American produces about five pounds of trash daily according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other conservation sources. That’s all the cans, bottles, glass, plastic, paper, household garbage and organic matter people discard in the course of daily life, as well as the cardboard, plastic, Styrofoam and other materials used to ship goods via the ever-expanding online shopping market.
Offering an even broader perspective, if multiplied by the current 330 million Americans, that comes to nearly 1.7 billion pounds of trash produced per day nationally, give or take. Check for a pulse if that number doesn’t give cause for a shock.
More than 25 percent of that trash could be recycled and reused to manufacture plastic, aluminum, paper or other goods and materials, which could conceivably be recycled again and again; if, that is, people actually recycle in the first place. At least another 25 percent or more of the organic materials in that trash (egg shells, coffee grounds, vegetables, fruits, etc.) could be composted to fortify gardens and lawns; that is, if people actually composted.
John Lake lives in Daphne where he and his wife are avid recyclers and composters. He said after removing what they recycle and compost every day, they can fit the amount of trash they produce into a small, bathroom-size trash can.
Unfortunately for our planet, most of that 1.7 billion pounds daily ends up in landfills, where it will slowly and uselessly deteriorate, at best, or contaminate the groundwater at worst; or, perhaps, the gases that are produced by the buried materials will be captured and burned in waste-to-energy operations.
“My wife was showing me an article about a city in Japan that is at 80 percent recycling,” noted Lake, a former Daphne city councilman and mayoral candidate. “They recycle 80 percent of their garbage; in Alabama we recycle about 10 percent.”
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) announced in June that in 2018 the state achieved a 25 percent waste reduction rate, also called diversion rate, a goal set in the early 1990s. The national average of diversion is about 34 percent. However, diversion is not recycling.
Landfill diversion is the collective effort to keep trash from getting into landfills. This combines several methods, including recycling, which takes used materials such as plastic or aluminum and creates new products from them. However, diversion also includes methods such as waste-to-energy where primary waste is converted to heat or electricity, or waste reduction, which is keeping things out of the waste stream to begin with.
Overall, Alabama has a 16 to 18 percent direct recycle rate, according to Gavin Adams, chief of the ADEM Materials Management Section.
“In 2008 it was at about 8 percent so we’ve improved greatly,” he said. However, that rate is still behind the U.S. national average of 25.8 percent. “Thankfully we are a little insulated here because we have enough southeastern industry using recycled materials that we aren’t quite as affected by market forces.”
Examining why recycling isn’t more pervasive in American society is like peeling back an onion — layer upon layer of complications. On the surface it is a no-brainer. Recycling is good for the environment, preserves natural resources and keeps the planet cleaner. But, like the modern life it reflects, it’s more complicated than that. It involves time, money, convenience, education, global economics, politics and perceptions all contributing to the confusing state of recycling affairs.
Baldwin County’s recycling program, existing in one form or another since 1996, does not currently offer curbside pickup of recyclable materials. The county’s director of solid waste, Terri Graham, said a survey was conducted a couple years ago asking county citizens if they wanted curbside pickup.
Out of 40,000 customers, they only got about 2,000 responses or about 5 percent, according to the county website. Sixty-five percent of those responding, or 1,300 people, said they already recycled; the county staff estimates it would take at least 2,400 customers to make curbside service minimally feasible. Forty-two percent of those responding didn’t support funding curbside service.
“We didn’t get a good enough response to even consider funding a pickup route,” Graham said. “We have the largest county in the state, so doing a curbside service is a very daunting task, especially if people are reluctant to pay for it. It is a difficult service to make it uniform and available to everyone and conduct the customer education that would be necessary.”
Estimated funding of countywide curbside service totaled about $340,000 for startup and additional collection assets plus about $200,000 to expand the existing recycling area to accommodate an estimated 50 percent more than the current amount of material processed.
Curbside pickup normally offers citizens dedicated trash receptacles for recyclables, separate from the regular household trash can; it may cost citizens extra to do it. Much of the time the curbside service is “single source,” meaning all recyclable materials are placed in one container and separated out at the receiving end. Sometimes local governments do this using their own vehicles, staffs and facilities; however, much of the time it is outsourced.
Either way, it can be quite costly to governments and, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t generate much if any revenue; in fact, at best it is a break-even service and much of the time it actually operates at a loss.
Some cities such as Fairhope and Daphne do offer their citizens curbside service within city limits. There was a workshop three months ago in Daphne where the public works staff presented several options relative to solid waste in general for the City Council to consider. One of the possibilities was discontinuing the curbside service.
“The council made it abundantly clear to me that discontinuing curbside service in Daphne was not an option,” Public Works Director Jeremy Sasser said. “Daphne has been a leader in recycling since its inception and we just don’t want to take a step back on it.”
Sasser said their curbside service is single stream, meaning all recyclables are put into one receptacle. They take the recyclables to Emerald Coast Utilities Authority in Pensacola and pay a fee for them to accept and process it there.
While Baldwin County officials can’t justify the expense of a curbside pickup program, they do offer recycle bins for aluminum, cardboard, newspapers, magazines and plastic. It doesn’t cost county citizens anything to use these bins, other than taxes they already pay, but they do have to bring items to the bins.
There are about 30 of these metal containers scattered throughout the county. For a listing of where bins are located, go to the Baldwin County Solid Waste website.
“We operate the bins in-house,” said Graham, meaning operating costs come through the solid waste budget. “Once a week we pick them up and bring them to the Magnolia Landfill site, where we have an area set aside for processing the material.”
The long metal bins are compartmentalized with a gate between each to separate the different commodities. When they arrive at the small area within the larger, 900-acre Magnolia Landfill in Summerdale, recyclables are deposited in separate piles.
“We have a rudimentary operation there, to sort and bale the different materials,” Graham said.
At the recycle site there is a Marathon-brand baler that was purchased in 2015 for $62,000 using $30,000 from an ADEM grant and a county match of $40,000; the extra funding was for a concrete pad and roof covering. Nine of the bins were purchased in 2012 for $63,000 and additional bins were added using grants.
The program is evaluated annually during the budget process. For example, in the 2020 budget a new $50,000 skid steer was requested to replace the 15-year-old machine now in use. Two years ago a $35,000 building was purchased to store material awaiting transport to an end user.
When recyclables are deposited into piles from the bins, before they are put into the baler, a handful of county waste management employees hand-pick through each pile to pull out inappropriate items that invariably get mixed in with recyclables. This is done because companies that accept recyclable material want to ensure they get only that material and not someone else’s trash.
“Having a clean stream of recyclable material going to recyclers is really important and I’m not sure that people really generally understand what that means,” Graham pointed out. “So that’s why we have to hand-sort through the piles to ensure we provide clean materials to recycling sources.”
In fact, a clean stream is critical in order for recyclers to make recycling cost-effective. In a June 2019 article by Edward Humes in Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, it was noted: “Paradoxically, part of America’s trash problem arose from people trying to recycle too much. Well-meaning ‘aspirational’ recyclers routinely confuse theoretical recyclability with actual recycling.”
As examples, Hume cited plastic straws, plastic grocery bags, eating utensils, yogurt containers and takeout food “clamshells” as all theoretically recyclable, but, in fact, they are rarely able to be recycled. “Instead, they jam machinery and lower the value of the profitably recyclable material they are mixed in with like aluminum cans and clean paper.”
He also pointed out Americans are notorious for putting anything from dirty diapers to lawn furniture and all manner of inappropriate items into recycle bins.
ADEM’s Adams called this wish-cycling.
“For example, someone may look at a garden hose and say, well, it’s plastic so it’s recyclable, and throws it in the bin,” he said. “But then it gets to the recovery facility and the hose, which is not recyclable, tangles up in the equipment. Even the best of intentions can cause problems, so educating people and making sure they know what is accepted and how to recycle is very important.”
However, it is often difficult for concerned, conscientious citizen-recyclers to know for sure what is right and what is wrong. For example, the federal government has established classes 1 to 7 in plastics. The numbers are called Resin Identification Codes and refer to the types of resin used to make different kinds of plastic.
Some examples of items in these categories are shown below. Acronyms stand for highly-technical, scientific names for plastics that won’t mean much to the average user and so will not be included here.
- No. 1 or PET or PETE: Examples are soft drink, juice, peanut butter, salad dressing, ketchup and water bottles.
- No. 2 or HDPE: Examples are milk, juice, detergent, shampoo, yogurt and margarine tubs.
- No. 3 or PVC: These are used in bags for bedding, shrink wrap, deli and mean wrap, plastic toys, table cloths and blister packs used to store medications.
- No. 4 or LDPE: These are used in packaging for bread wrappers, newspapers, fresh produce, frozen food, plastic wraps for food storage, grocery and trash bags.
- No. 5 or PP: These are used for some toys, baby bottles, drinking straws, syrup and yogurt containers.
- No. 6 or PS: Also known as Styrofoam, this is used for cups, plates, take-out containers and meat trays.
- No. 7 or Other: This category is a catch-all designation used to describe products made from other plastic resins or those made from a combination of plastics.
Not all of these plastics are sought after by recyclers. However, to most citizens, plastic is plastic, whether it’s a coat hanger, a water bottle, a grocery bag or a red Solo cup.
As Graham noted, customer education is a component of governmental recycling efforts that can often get sidetracked as time and money to operate the program are stretched and exhausted. The goal is to get people to recycle. But to do it the right way that means they need to be educated on the subject.
Questions abound: What can be recycled? Can all plastics be recycled or just certain kinds? Why do cardboard boxes have to be broken down before recycling them? Can only aluminum cans be recycled or are other kinds of cans such as soup or metal coffee cans also acceptable? Why isn’t glass accepted here?
These are just a few of the myriad questions people have. If citizens are interested in recycling they can dig around, call people, do internet searches and perhaps find the answers. However, in the busy, daily grind with jobs, family obligations and other distractions, the questions often go unanswered, or unasked, and the items are inaccurately recycled or go into the trash headed for the landfill.
The Baldwin County Solid Waste department website does have a basic listing of what to recycle and what not to recycle; however, there are questions left unanswered. Such as: When the list includes “plastics No. 1 through 7,” what does that mean, exactly? Where should citizens look on potential recyclable plastic to find out? Not all plastic containers contain such information, or if they do, it is well hidden.
Or, when recycling pet food cans, milk jugs, peanut butter jars, liquid detergent bottles or household cleaning product bottles, do they have to be completely cleaned or can they just be empty but still have residue of whatever product was in them?
Bales of plastic recyclables are bundled up at Baldwin County’s Magnolia recycling area, awaiting a place to ship them.
These and other questions are often left unanswered and, for lack of clear guidance, citizens who would recycle if it was easier may just get frustrated with the whole recycling idea and put everything into the trash can.
“Educating people on how the recycling world works and operates is important because once we get the recycled material we have to find sources where we can ship it and the market is always changing,” Graham said. “For example, there used to be a place in Atlanta that took glass but it doesn’t anymore. Glass is a huge issue because of liability for staff and citizens when glass is broken around the pickup or drop-off areas.”
Very few places take glass because the supply far outreaches demand.
The recycling predicament got even more complicated in 2018 when China banned the import of foreign garbage. This reversed a trend that started in the 1990s when U.S. cities and trash companies began filling a need in China for raw materials by shipping bales of mixed recyclable items, at a handsome profit. China had manpower to sort through the mess and remove what they could use; the fate of the voluminous remnants not used is debatable but as Humes stated in his Sierra article, “Much of it was simply dumped, washing down rivers to feed the crisis of ocean plastic pollution.”
By 2016 China had more than they could handle and with a growing middle class producing their own recyclables, they started warning about the implementation of a ban. The 2018 ban backlogged exports by 50 percent from 2016 to 2018, causing local recycling systems lapses in collection, stockpiling of recyclables and ultimately sending them to landfills if sources weren’t forthcoming.
Plastics were one of the larger volume recyclables being impacted by the slowdown. However, that hasn’t impacted the world’s largest plastics recycler and post-consumer resin supplier for No. 2, HDPE (high-density polyethylene), and No. 5, PP (polypropylene), which is just up the road in Troy, Alabama. KW Plastics has more than 100 million pounds of silo capacity and the equipment needed to process over 1 billion pounds of plastics annually.
KW’s Director of Market Development Stephanie Baker said they don’t get a lot of plastic from Alabama.
“If we had to rely on what we get from Alabama, we wouldn’t even be able to run two days a week,” she said. “We would love to get plastic from communities in Alabama. We pay for the material and the price does include us sending a truck to pick it up.”
KW stands for the first letters in the two founders’ first names, Kenny Campbell and Wiley Sanders, pioneers in the recycling business. It started in 1981 when the two decided to turn piles of excess plastics into marketable recycled plastic products such as plastic sheets. Their business expanded as they researched, experimented and perfected their recycling process.
Today, using enormous machines housed in acres and acres of covered facilities, they take in No. 2 and No. 5 plastic and produce high-quality plastic resins in the form of tiny pellets. They then sell the resins to companies who need it to produce new plastic products.
However, they have to receive a clean stream of No. 2 and No. 5 plastics and will only pick up and transport if that is so. This means anyone wanting to sell to them must have a good system to bundle these products without contaminating them with other plastics or trash. In many places, including Baldwin County right now, that isn’t happening. The bundles here include all plastics, Nos. 1 through 7. It would take considerably more manpower and time to separate out No. 2 and No. 5 to bundle separately.
“That’s not something we could accommodate currently but could look to implement it in the future,” Graham said. She noted the county does often ship their bundles of mixed plastics to a materials recovery facility, a specialized plant that receives, separates and prepares recyclable materials for marketing to specific end-user manufacturers.
Currently personnel cost for recycling in Baldwin County is about $160,000 per year, which is absorbed in the county landfill operating budget, according to Graham. The cost to haul the recycle bins weekly is about $54,000 annually, also absorbed in the landfill operating budget along with ancillary costs for items such as building costs and utilities.
Future chapters of Baldwin County’s recycle story are as yet unwritten.
“I think as the recycling industry evolves and changes over the next few years, opportunities will present themselves for expanded and enhanced operations,” Graham said optimistically. “I do not know at this time what those opportunities might be, but the Baldwin County Commission is always looking for ways to offer more services and improve our processes and operations. So I look forward to what the future holds.”
The author retired after 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, followed by 15 years as a municipal director before becoming a freelance writer. He is now a frequent contributor to the Baldwin Edition of Lagniappe.
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