Florence shows one way to bring recycling to rural Alabama

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Florence used to use snow shovels to move recyclables around on an old conveyor belt the city got from the post office. Not anymore.

Now it’s probably the best model out there for how to bring recycling to rural areas in Alabama where sending a truck down every dirt road is not a realistic option.

“We’re looking to the future,” Florence Mayor Steve Holt said at a ribbon cutting for the newly expanded recycling center. “We’re looking to be progressive and we’re trying to be sustainable and this is the next step that helps our recycling center be able to process more materials through the years to come.”

Today Florence runs a multi-million dollar operation that allows the city to recycle about 3,300 tons of material a year from Florence, the University of North Alabama, the Lauderdale County School System and a number of smaller speed trap communities in northwest Alabama like Killen, St. Florian and Rogersville.

When it comes to recycling outside city centers, Alabama is spotty, at best. As of 2016, just 3 of the 67 counties didn’t offer any public recycling at all, whether pickup or dropoff. While that doesn’t sound that bad, only county offered curbside recycling to every home. That was Madison County in north Alabama.

To fill that gap in rural areas, a recycling trade group made a series of recommendations to the state on how to expand the reach of recycling in the state.

The first among those was to implement a hub and spoke system, using the cities of Florence, Huntsville, Decatur, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Mobile and Columbus, Ga. to gather recyclables from curbside collections and drop-off centers across the state, sort them and send them on to recyclers.

This framework is already in place in some parts of Alabama, but needs enhancing just about everywhere. Most of the hubs would need to increase their capacity to sort and bale recyclables to make that model work, and additional drop-off centers and curbside collections need to be established.

Still, Alabama at least has a blueprint for how to extend its recycling reach.

“Hub and spoke is where it’s at,” said Gavin Adams, chief of the materials management section of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, and head of ADEM’s recycling efforts. “One of the reasons that’s a smart way to do it, we’re already doing that with waste disposal.

“The waste companies use transfer stations, bring waste from different places together and put it on bigger trucks and take it to a landfill. We’re trying to encourage them as well when they do recycling collection, do that hub and spoke model.”

To encourage this model, ADEM awards recycling grants to communities across the state, funded by the state’s portion of landfill tipping fees. Those grants can go toward sorting equipment at the hubs, or to recycling carts, bins or drop-off trailers for the spokes that can be hauled to the regional hub for processing.

Florence has received $2.1 million in ADEM grants since 2014.

Cooperation is key

A big part of implementing a hub and spoke system is simply getting the associated cities, counties, universities and other entities to work together to make it happen.

At the ribbon-cutting for the latest addition to Florence’s recycling center — a $485,000 sorting system that increases the capacity and efficiency of the overall operation — included representatives from Florence, Lauderdale County, the University of North Alabama, Lauderdale County Schools, and several small towns that are all sending recyclables to the facility.

Volume is key in recycling. The revenue from selling bales of clean material is vital to keeping most sorting facilities open, and in places like Florence, that takes a village.

It makes financial sense for the city, especially with the ADEM grants to offset equipment costs. Holt said Florence has avoided more than $1 million in landfill fees over the past 10 years, in addition to being able to sell materials to manufacturers nearby.

David Koonce, manager of the city’s recycling department, said the city is able to deliver various paper products, Number 1 and Number 2 plastics, aluminum and steel cans to facilities within 50 miles of Florence for recycling.

Constellium USA recycles aluminum cans for Pepsi and Anheuser-Busch/Inbev (Budweiser), and employs 1,200 people in Muscle Shoals. Custom Polymers PET in Athens recycles plastics into a resin that can be used to make any number of plastic products.

While Florence is well on its way to functioning as the hub described in the report, Montgomery is also taking steps in that direction. Now that the city’s recycling facility is open again, Montgomery is processing the recyclables from Dothan, which had previously halted its curbside recycling collections due to cost issues.

The cities of Tuscaloosa and Auburn are also working with their respective universities and outlying areas through the East and West Alabama Recycling Partnerships to expand their hubs and grow their spokes.

Most of those programs have gotten a boost from the state recycling grants.

Have questions about recycling?

Is there something you’re curious about when it comes to recycling in your community or in Alabama?

If so, submit them in the form below, and we may write a story answering your question, or see our first set of answers here.



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