The nitty gritty on Trussville’s trash

Editor’s Note: This is a guest editorial/commentary column.

By Jean Cox, Friends of Pinchgut Creek

Landfills, trash pickup, and local recycling options have recently been hot topics in the Friends of Pinchgut Creek inbox. Our group works to protect and clean our local waterways, so we clean up plenty of trash. However, litter is not the only garbage that is concerning to us. Water that flows through the Jefferson County landfill drains downhill into our namesake tributary, and the nearby Annie Lee Road landfill that is currently on fire is uphill from part of the Cahaba Headwaters. The waste we create and the way we dispose of our waste has the potential to significantly impact our environment in many ways. After last month’s announcement that our recycling and garbage no longer needed to be separated, many people starting questioning the process and the destination of our garbage and recyclables.

Eddy Current Separators toss aluminum cans at incredible speeds into their proper places, precisely designed machines sort plastics by weight, and trash zooms down what seems like endless miles of conveyor belts. (Photo courtesy of Jean Cox)

I contacted Repower South, the facility that is now sorting our trash to learn more and find answers to the questions we were receiving. Bill Easterling, the site manager, graciously welcomed us for a fascinating and informative tour. He explained that they do not typically offer tours, but he had received several calls from citizens in our area questioning the new system. So, he was happy to know I was working to answer questions because it might reduce the number of calls coming in. In addition, I was happy to hear we had citizens so fired up about recycling!

All our trash, including mixed-in recycling, now leaves Trussville and makes its’ way through a transfer station in Clanton before ending up down at the Montgomery Repower South sorting facility. Large rolling-floor tractor-trailers are heading south on I-65 every week, loaded down with our garbage. It seems bizarre that a bottle sitting in my trash can will go on a 100-mile trip just to get to a garbage sorting facility, but this is what our municipality and many other municipalities in our area have determined to be the best option. In the past, there have been problems with recycling getting rejected because so many people have just thrown general trash in their recycling bins, and much of the recycling that had been carefully placed in the proper blue bins ended up in landfills anyway. A recycling sorting facility is a great solution; it’s just unfortunate that the nearest one is so far away. In a perfect world, we would have recycling sorters everywhere. But a large operation to handle massive amounts of trash, like what Repower South operates, comes with a $46 million price tag.

Related Story: Trussville begins new garbage, debris pick-up company this Thursday

Our trash is sorted by a complex system of massive machines. One hundred thirty-four different pieces of equipment and 20 employees at a time are needed to get the job done. There are machines that shake and bounce heaping piles of refuse to separate organic and heavy materials. Eddy Current Separators toss aluminum cans at incredible speeds into their proper places, precisely designed machines sort plastics by weight, and trash zooms down what seems like endless miles of conveyor belts. I thoroughly enjoyed witnessing the process, but Easterling assured me it was far less enjoyable in warmer months when the smell and temperatures get intense.

An area full of large cubes of recyclables perfectly sorted and bound together, ready to be moved out. (Photo courtesy of Jean Cox)

After making our way past all the sorters, we could see an area full of large cubes of recyclables perfectly sorted and bound together, ready to be moved out. In addition to simply sorting trash, the facility also produces a fuel called “Fluff,” made from part of the non-recyclable papers and plastics to be burned with coal. The volume of materials rolling in and the assortment of materials rolling out of the sorters was impressive. However, most of our garbage does still end up in a landfill.

We can help keep those trash sorters working effectively by never throwing batteries, old cellphones, half-empty water bottles, or textiles in the trash. Batteries are a serious fire hazard in the Repower South Facility. My trip down to visit them initially had to be rescheduled due to a fire, more than likely caused by a cell phone battery. Batteries and electronics can be dropped off in designated receptacles at home improvement or electronic stores to be properly disposed of. Old clothes and blankets, which can wreak havoc with the sorting machines, can be donated or repurposed. Plastic drink bottles can only make it through the sorting process if they are empty. Containers filled with liquids fall out of the sorters with the heavy non-recyclable materials.

While it’s up to our municipal leaders to find the best ways for us to recycle, it is up to us to find ways to reduce and reuse. Much of our trash is created because of our lifestyle choices. Our desire for what is convenient is why single-use water bottles, disposable plates, and fast-food containers are a big part of what fills those garbage trucks. We can all do better. We can all figure out ways to produce less waste. Hauling trash across five county lines is far from ideal, but it may truly be the best option for now. So, let’s all do our part to reduce the amount of trash we are sending on that journey.

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