Leaps and bounds ahead

Features - Municipal Recycling

The new mixed waste processing facility in Montgomery, Alabama, has transformed a once failing recycling program into a waste diversion success story.

November 10, 2014

Perhaps there is no greater sign of a failing recycling program than when that program is eliminated entirely from a city’s budget. In Montgomery, Alabama, in 2009, it was costing $1 million annually to collect source-separated residential recyclables, which may or may not have made it to recycling facilities.

When Todd Strange was elected mayor in 2009, he says he decided to discontinue the curbside recycling program because he didn’t want to continue living a lie, as he put it. At the time, residents were placing recyclables into an orange bag, and one day per week the recyclables were collected on a separate route from the garbage collection.

As Strange was learning the ropes of his new post, he toured different facilities around the city, one of which was the landfill. He couldn’t believe his eyes. “I saw at the landfill orange bags, and I said, ‘What are those orange bags?’”

He was told they were bags from the recycling program.

“Why aren’t they in the recycling facility?” was his next question. The city had contracts with a charitable organization and a prison to handle recycling.

The answer to his question was that they didn’t have the capacity to handle all of the recyclables, so only about 25 percent of the bags were being recycled; the rest were going to the landfill.

“So we discontinued the orange bags, saved $1 million a year and then put scrap containers and bins all over the city,” Strange says. He adds that it made it a little more difficult to recycle, but at least residents were able to drop off their recyclables, and area recyclers were able to recycle them.

The city of Montgomery issued a request for proposals (RFP) to come up with a better solution for recycling. The city first selected a company that had a plasma technology, which Strange says worked in testing, but at 100,000 tons per year, the company wasn’t able to make the economics work. After more than a year, the city had to start over.

Making magic

“We went back to the drawing board and put out another RFP,” Strange says. Infinitus Energy, Plantation, Florida, prepared the winning proposal. “It took us a year and a half to negotiate the contract and get everything right, but once that contract was signed and done, they were able to build a plant and get it online quickly.

“Our goal was for our citizens not to have to do an orange bag but to have a single stream,” he says, with all of the material going to a solid waste disposal facility that was not owned by the city. Strange adds, “and that is what we were able to get.”

Infinitus Renewable Energy Park (IREP) Montgomery is privately financed and owned. The city’s obligation is to deliver 100,000 tons to the facility annually, paying a tipping fee for the material it drops off.

Residents use a single bin to collect waste and recyclables, and the rest, Strange says, is “magic.”

He adds, “You put it in your green can, and magically it all gets bundled and sold into the commodities market.”

Whatever material is not recovered for recycling, composting or energy at IREP is delivered to the city’s landfill, and IREP pays the city a tipping fee.

IREP Montgomery opened in April 2014. Strange reports that the amount of material coming back to the landfill is in the 20 to 25 percent range and it is expected to improve as further components of IREP, such as composting and anaerobic digestion (AD), come online.

“Over time we will save millions of dollars,” Strange says, noting that less material going to the landfill will mean a reduction in equipment and personnel costs as well as extended landfill life.

Chris Conway, public works director for the city of Montgomery, says, according to Infinitus’ proposal, “The MRF (material recovery facility) had conservative rates in the 60 percent range of the recyclables they could recover out of the waste stream. With the waste-to-energy (WTE) component in the organic material, they could get into the 95 percent range.”

He adds, “If we can reduce the landfill by 95 percent, then the life of our landfill would be extended indefinitely.”

Standing out

Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), Eugene, Oregon, designed, manufactured and installed IREP Montgomery’s processing system. Separation equipment includes screens, air and optical sorters to recover several types of plastics, mixed paper, ferrous and nonferrous metals, aseptic containers and organics.

“We call it the most technologically advanced solid waste disposal facility in the United States, and I think what makes it that is all the technology has come together in one enterprise,” Strange remarks.

At IREP Montgomery’s grand opening, Infinitus CEO Kyle Mowitz said, “The delivery of the Montgomery advanced mixed materials recovery facility is an example of how our company is redefining waste through this decade and beyond.”

He also promised further investment in the facility. “Our company is committed to additional investment in technologies to benefit the community both economically and environmentally,” he said. “Future phases of this project will include further maximization of the organic waste stream through anaerobic digestion to create a compressed natural gas (CNG) and compost.”

Mowitz tells Recycling Today what differentiates Montgomery’s approach. “What is unique about it is the one-bin program, so it is not a source-separated program,” he explains. “We are doing everything at the facility separationwise.”

He adds, “Adding on anaerobic digestion also is unique to fuel the trucks for the city out of their own garbage, and on top of that is it privately funded and doesn’t take any capital investment from the municipality.”

Baby steps

Strange emphasizes that while renewable energy is a component of what the city and IREP are trying to accomplish through their 25-year contract, recycling presently is the focus. “IREP made it a two-phase proposal,” Strange says. “What I have insisted upon is, ‘Let’s focus on the recycling piece. Let’s get that up, let’s get that running, then we will focus on the waste to energy.’”

He adds that as a community, “We’re southern and we’re pretty conservative and traditional. We don’t jump out and take big risks; we dip our toe in the water, and then we get our feet in the water.”

Other communities in the United States have taken an interest in the city of Montgomery’s one-bin approach. Strange says he has met representatives from cities in California, the Northeast and from several municipalities in the Southeast who have toured IREP Montgomery.

“We are gratified we had a vision and that vision is coming to fruition,” Strange says. “It has put on the map in an international sense.”


The author is a managing editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at ksmith@gie.net.

Look inside

For a video interview with Infinitus Energy CEO Kyle Mowitz and look inside the Infinitus Renewable Energy Park Montgomery, visit www.RecyclingToday.com/municipal-recycling-irep-video.aspx.