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The cycle in recycling: Low-tech operation relies on inmate labor to separate materials

By Jackie Broach
Coastal Observer

When recyclables are sorted into the big, metal bins at one of Georgetown County’s 14 collection centers, it’s almost a guarantee that’s the last their former owners will see or think of them.

For most people, recycling begins and ends with the separating of paper and plastic, but those metal bins are just the first stop on a long trail that takes materials from trash to usefulness in a new form.

A warehouse on the 600-acre tract on Highway 51 that houses the county landfill is where much of that transition takes place. Known as a material recovery facility, items from all of the county’s recycling centers are collected there for processing, along with paper and cardboard the county collects weekly from local businesses as a free service.

The facility has only one full-time employee, Ricky Washington, who has worked there for a decade, but there are anywhere from five to 10 inmates on hand to provide labor five days a week.

They handle about 20 tons of recyclable material that goes through the facility every year, and that amount is on the rise, slowly but surely. The amount of waste in the county that gets recycled increased from 20.1 percent to 21.3 percent in the last year.

“That’s a lot in the recycling business,” said Ray Funnye, the county’s director of public services. “It’s a slow process, but we’re moving up toward our goal of 35 percent.”

Funnye estimates it will take at least 10 years for that goal to be achieved, but new recycling laws could speed things up a little.

Processing of recyclables begins with another, more refined round of sorting.

Upon the delivery at the facility, materials are loaded onto a conveyor that carries them up about 10 feet, to where inmates wait, lined up on either side of the belt. The items are scrutinized as they come through, and items that don’t belong (plastic shopping bags being the most common) are removed.

The rest get pulled off the conveyor and dropped down chutes to more bins where materials are collected by type.

The inmates work from early morning until about 3 p.m. at this task.

“It’s a full-time job,” Funnye said.

Once the bins are full, Washington, an equipment operator, is responsible for using a skid steer loader to transfer them to another conveyor system on the other side of the warehouse, where the materials are crushed and bailed into neat rectangles.

After that, they’re moved back outside, where they’re loaded onto trucks and transported to Sonoco Recycling in Charleston, the company the county contracts with to buy its recyclables. Sales to Sonoco generate more than $100,000 in annual revenue for the county.

Once the materials arrive at Sonoco’s facilities, plastics are sorted again before processing. It’s at that point the process gets complicated, said Kevin Haney, a regional manager for Sonoco.

The material might be chipped up and formed into another product or mixed with another material first.

“It depends on what you’re making,” Haney said.

With paper and cardboard, the material is shredded and heated to break it down into fibers before it is shipped to a paper mill for conversion into new product.

Cans are sold to other companies to be converted into new product there.

The county’s role in the recycling process ends with the hand-off to Sonoco, but for those interested in the process up to that point, Funnye’s department is more than happy to oblige.

Attendants are at all the county’s recycling centers to answer questions and offer guidance, though what they have to say isn’t always what people want to hear. The biggest complaint at the Waccamaw Neck centers is from businesses and contractors that want to drop off materials there. Attendants have to send them away, because the centers can’t handle deposits of that volume.

“They’re designed for residential use,” Funnye said. “If we opened to commercial establishments, we couldn’t function.”

For those who want to see the county’s recycling operations, groups can tour the material recovering facility to learn about recycling and see other operations on the grounds, including the landfill.

A closed portion of the landfill, capped in 1998, sits to one side of the facility while a stand of trees separates it from the part of the landfill currently in use. An expansion of that area is ongoing and should be complete by the end of May.

“We’re 85 percent finished with the landfill expansion,” Funnye said. “Our last experience with this was the job from Hell, but this one is very well orchestrated. The contractor knows what he’s doing and it’s going along really well.”

The property also houses a station where methane gas produced by the landfill is collected by Santee Cooper and used to generate energy.

An environmental education center at the landfill is where the county environmentalist, Christa Harder, gives lessons on recycling, water quality, litter control and forestry.

About 1,000 children passed through the center last year, said Holley Causey, superintendent of the county’s environmental services division.

“They have lots of interesting questions for us, like ‘do you live here?’ ‘Do you eat lunch here in the trash?’ But they’re like little sponges,” Causey said. “That’s why its so important we teach them about recycling when they’re young.”

Harder also goes into schools to give presentations, as budget cuts have lately stopped many schools from going on field trips.

The center, with a 30-foot teaching mural depicting different water habitats found in the county, is itself an example of recycling. The building once housed an insurance company on Church Street in Georgetown and was moved to its present location when the building was closed.

The center also has an outdoor classroom and a dock overlooking a 5-acre pond where children can learn about local wildlife.

All programs at the center are free.

To learn more about recycling in Georgetown County, call 545-3443 or visit georgetowncountysc.org/recycling.

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