Recently I went on a bus tour with a group of 12 and 13 year old students who are members of 4H. I'm sure the kids were disappointed that we didn't go to Six Flags or the Birmingham Zoo. Instead, we were headed out to learn about recycling and waste management. I didn't see a lot of excited faces at the start of the tour, but things changed as the day went on.
Our group of 30 students and 7 adults made our first stop at Tiffin Motorhomes in Red Bay, Alabama. It was fascinating to watch the process of a motorhome being built from the wheels up. It was also good to see how careful they are not to waste materials, and how materials that can't be used are recycled. Even the polystyrene "snow" and saw dust are vacuumed up and reused.
Our second stop was at the Athens-Limestone Recycling Center, a division of Keep Athens-Limestone Beautiful. The group was divided up and lead on a tour by members of the center staff and board members. My group of students was fascinated with the cardboard baler. They also noticed how much garbage was mixed in with the plastics as they watched an employee remove it by hand. One of my students asked "Why would people put garbage in with their stuff to recycle?" I allowed the students to come up with their own ideas and you can imagine what was suggested!
The recycling center tour also included stops at the motor oil, FOG, newspaper, office paper, glass, metals, and electronics stations with tour guides explaining the processes involved in handling these materials to prepare them for sale.
Next, we had lunch at the McDonald's on Hwy 31 in Athens. I must say, they handled the influx of 37 people during the lunch hour extremely well!
With lunch under our belts, so to speak, the group headed to Custom Polymers PET on Elm Street in Athens. This company purchases all of the plastic that is baled at our recycling center and processes it into flake and pellets that are used by other companies to make new products. The plastic that is purchased from our recycling center each month only keeps Custom Polymers' plant running for about 2 hours! Since they operate 24 hours a day 365 days a year, they have to purchase plastic from across the United States and several other countries! According to the EPA, only about 10% of all plastic bottles used in the United States are recycled making it necessary to ship plastic in from foreign countries. We should do better.
A large amount of the pellets sold by Custom Polymers are used to make new drink bottles; however, recycled plastic is also used to make clothing, carpeting, clam shell containers you find at the grocery store, sleeping bags, and much, much more! KW Plastics in Troy, Alabama uses materials from Custom Polymers to make paint cans, which are then sold locally. What a great way to keep employment, revenue, and recycled products right here in our state!
Our last stop on the tour was Covanta Solid Waste-to-Energy Facility in Huntsville, Alabama. This is the only plant of its kind in our state. Covanta is located on property next to Redstone Arsenal and began operations in 1990. This facility processes 690 tons per day of solid waste and sewage sludge. Solid waste brought in by trash trucks is mixed to dry and add air to the compressed waste by a large claw operated by a Covanta employee. One of the boys commented, "It's just like playing a video game!"
This facility does not generate electricity, but the fire that burns continuously at 2,000 degrees boils water to create 180,000 pounds of steam per hour that travels along a 6-mile pipeline to the Arsenal for their heating and air conditioning needs.
It was a long day and we had travelled many miles, but by the end of the trip it was obvious that the kids were much more aware of what happens to their trash when they throw it "away." They now know how their decisions affect what happens to that trash and most will be more mindful in the future.
If you are interested in a tour of these facilities, contact the KALB office. We'll be glad to help!
By: Lynne Hart