Despite an uncertain recycling industry, Tuscaloosa recycling remains robust

Ben Stansell

On April 27, 2011, an EF4 tornado rampaged through Tuscaloosa, destroying roughly 12.5 percent of the city and claiming the lives of over 50 citizens.

Although the devastating storm earned notoriety for the damage it leveled on businesses and houses on McFarland Boulevard, one of the first buildings it flattened was several miles to the southwest on Kauloosa Avenue; near the start of the tornado’s warpath lay the ruins of Tuscaloosa Environmental Services, the facility tasked with handling most of the city’s municipal recycling.

Like the rest of Tuscaloosa, Environmental Services had been decimated. Like the rest of Tuscaloosa, Environmental Services rebuilt.

Instead of rebuilding things back to the way they were, Environmental Services took advantage of a unique opportunity and constructed a state of the art recycling center that would allow it to expand its services to all members of the Tuscaloosa community, as opposed to only 60 percent before the storm.

“We had to start all over with a brand new fleet, brand new facility; we really had to start over from scratch,” said Ashley Chambers, the head of environmental education for the city of Tuscaloosa. “They restructured the department a bit, created my position and made recycling available to everybody in the city limits.”

Now, over seven years after the tragic tornado, Tuscaloosa Environmental Services is enduring a storm of a different nature. 

Earlier this year, China stopped accepting the rest of the world’s scrap when it banned the importation of 24 different types of waste, including plastics, paper and textiles. With China’s door shut, recycling operations around the world and especially in the United States. have struggled to cope with a mounting supply of recyclable waste.

Even though China asserted the decision was prompted by a desire to boost its economy and deal with its own increasing trash problem, a critical factor in the decision was the poor quality of recyclable waste it was receiving. Much of the waste that U.S. recyclers were shipping to China was highly contaminated, meaning it was mixed in with other undesirable and potentially hazardous material.

“Where this came from, the Chinese Green Fence, really what prompted it was the glass contamination in all of their recyclables,” Chambers said. “It may have come in all mixed, and it may have left all sorted, but they had bits of glass that had broken up and it was mixed in with all the paper and it was just gross. Try as they might, they just weren’t sorting well enough.”

“China was paying top dollar for all of that stuff until they realized they realized they were really just buying crap from the United States,” Chambers said.

The impact that China’s new policy has had on the U.S. has been far reaching. Recycling efforts in communities from California to Massachusetts have been affected. In some cases, cities are even burying all waste, regardless of recyclability, in landfills. 

Recycling in Tuscaloosa, on the other hand, has weathered the storm without disruption.

“As far as recycling around here, it hasn’t affected us a lot, simply because the city of Tuscaloosa does their curbside with a pre-sort,” said Jeff Jones, the division manager at Waste Recycling, Inc.

Jones, whose company works directly with Tuscaloosa Environmental Services to help distribute its collected recycling to buyers, attributes Tuscaloosa’s immunity from the recycling epidemic in part to the fact that Environmental Services operates using a curbside pre-sort, as opposed to the widely popular single-stream method.

Single-stream recycling, or fully comingled recycling, is a system in which all types of products – paper, plastics and metals – are mixed together throughout the recycling process, until it is sorted at a material recovery facility, or MRF. 

Instead of relying on single-stream, Tuscaloosa Environmental Services utilizes curb-side sorting, a process that is more labor intensive since it requires employees sorting the recycling when they collect it. Despite being slightly less efficient, curb-side sorting yields a less contaminated product in the end. 

Tuscaloosa residents can help cut down on contamination as well by only putting clean, recyclable items in the 18-20 gallon bins that the city’s workers have to sort.

Sacrificing labor at the front end has paid off: Tuscaloosa’s recycling market has remained robust.

“It [China’s new policy] probably will be a good thing for a lot of us, especially for them in Tuscaloosa because they have a clean product, and we have a clean product, and that just drives the price of the material up,” Jones said.

With the need for less-contaminated material, Jones would not be surprised to see Tuscaloosa’s method of recycling become more common in other parts of the country.

“There are more facilities having to increase their efforts to actually physically sort instead of going the easy route,” Jones said.

Just like the April 27th tornado presented Tuscaloosa Environmental Services with an unexpected opportunity to improve, Chambers believes that China’s new policy could be a twist of fate that will give recyclers in the U.S. a chance to progress as well.

“It’s keeping people accountable and it’s keeping people in check,” Chambers said.