Ray Clark, vice chair of the Solid Waste Authority for the City of Birmingham is not a daydreamer about recycling.
As a former Associate Director of the White House Office of Environmental Quality under President Clinton and former Assistant Secretary of the Army responsible for military installations, he is a realist about recycling in the Magic City and Alabama.
“The latest numbers I have seen is that Birmingham recycles about 1%. Cities like Philadelphia recycle about 15%. A really robust program in a city should recycle about 30-35%. Then you get to a city like San Francisco where you have recycling at the 70% range. With that you pull out every tool in the toolbox including ordinances and regulations. We (Birmingham) are nowhere near that point,” Clark stated.
In 2008, then Governor Bob Riley signed into law the Solid Wastes and Recyclable Materials Management Act. For the first time in the state of Alabama’s history, we got serious about cleaning up illegal dumps and helping local communities recycle and reduce the amount of garbage they throwaway into landfills.
The power of one dollar
The new law enabled the state to levy a $1 a ton fee on every ton of garbage disposed into the state’s landfills. Alabamians bury annually nearly 5 million tons of garbage. The fee has raised millions of dollars for the cash strapped Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM).
One of the first actions taken once the solid waste and recycling law passed was the creation of the Alabama Recycling Fund. Since establishing the Fund in 2009, ADEM has distributed $13.75 million in the first nine years of the program. The fund has played a key role in the creation and expansion of nearly 20 local recycling programs throughout the state.
According to the state’s 2016 Solid Waste Biennial Report, Alabama has reduced its solid waste by 16%, approximately double the rate calculated in 2008. The state is still lagging well behind its 1991 legislative and regulatory goal of reducing our garbage by 25%.
It is important to recognize that this is not the state recycling rate, which has yet to be nailed down by any recent study.
In our interview with Ray Clark, he confirmed the lack of real tangible available data about recycling in Alabama.
“We’ve got to get some actual facts about solid waste and recycling. We need an assessment about our solid waste because the numbers are all over the place,” added Clark.
Other results from the successful 2008 law include:
- ADEM cleaning up more than 1100 illegal garbage dumps.
- The overall landfill compliance rate at permitted landfills has improving drastically from 57% to 98%.
- Moreover, because ADEM’s Solid Waste Branch has stable funding, it has the ability to actually take on new initiatives such as recycling.
Statewide Recycling Plans
In 2015, the state asked the Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC) to evaluate the adequacy of Alabama’s material recovery and recycling systems, and develop recommendations to improve it.
Called by some, the unofficial statewide recycling plan, the study confirmed the economic importance of recycling when it identified 32,400 jobs directly related to the recycling industry. It also concluded that more than 1200 direct recycling jobs could be added if Alabama recycled just 25% of its garbage.
The study also compared how inadequate our access to recycling is compared to other Southeastern states.
For example, only 25% of Alabama’s population has curbside recycling. The state of South Carolina has curbside recycling for 45.9% of its citizens, while North Carolina provides it to 72.8%.
Alabama’s second and third largest cities, Montgomery and Mobile do not even offer curbside recycling.
Hub and spoke
The SERDC report recommended eight best practices for the State of Alabama to maximize recovery of residential materials for recycling.
Sort of like the nation’s airport system, the report calls for the establishment of a regional recovery system based on a few large material recovery facilities (hubs) that aggregate materials from multiple community recycling programs via a connected network of spokes along transportation corridors.
With recycling infrastructure in place, the report further recommends long overdue standardized recycling education and outreach “branding’ for recycling in Alabama.
In other words, we will all sing from the same song sheet.
“State government needs to brand recycling so it is easier to promote it. A lot of communities, they don’t have staff in their solid waste recycling offices to do graphics. The state needs to build for everyone a platform so they can send an electronic file, attach the city’s logo and you are ready to go to print. We can take the confusion out of recycling,” said Will Sagar, director of the Southeast Recycling Development Council.
Along with a clear statewide message, additional recommendations call on encouraging and incentivizing local communities of over 5,000 population to upgrade their curbside recycling programs . For rural communities, accessible drop-off sites need to be the priority.
Bottomline, the state of Alabama, through the SERDC study and its list of recommendations has a plan. The state has a roadmap when it comes to recycling.
The good news?
Because of the 2008 Recycling law, there are now resources to implement such a plan.
What’s next for recycling in Birmingham?
Birmingham will be one of the major recycling hubs developed by the state. Ray Clark recognizes recycling’s potential in Birmingham, but it needs more than just infrastructure.
“One of the first things we need to do is build trust. Many people in Birmingham believe when their recyclables are picked up they go to the landfill. Therefore, you have different kind of systems for people to recycle. For example, I know people who separate their recyclables at home, and take it to the Alabama Environmental Council. When they get there on Saturday morning the place is packed because they don’t believe their stuff is getting recycled when it is picked up at the curbside on Wednesdays.”
Drawing upon his vast experience working with the Army, Clark provided the following prescription for recycling in Birmingham.
“We need to get an accurate assessment on how much waste we generate in the city. Sort that out. How much of that is recyclable? How much is preventable by minimizing waste? Then we can figure out the different vectors of the solutions – whether it is technology or behavioral which requires an educational component.This is an economic issue as much as it is an environmental issue. It obviously is a paramount environmental issue. To open up new landfill cell, the city of Birmingham had to budget $28 million. That’s just not sustainable. You can’t keep doing that.”
One last word of advice from Clark, if Birmingham and Alabama are going to make recycling work, we have to be all in.
“If your heart is not in the job you are not going to do it very well.”
How YOU can make recycling happen in Alabama
Birmingham’s leading recycling advocacy organization is the Alabama Environmental Council. Founders of the Magic City’s first recycling center in the early 1970s, the Council runs the largest non-profit recycling center in Alabama. They are always seeking volunteers and supporters. Visit their website dedicated solely to recycling in Birmingham – HERE