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Raleigh recycling center turns around 200 tons per month, changes the way kids think about trash

By SARAH PLUMMER

The Register-Herald

BECKLEY, W.Va. — We bag it up, drop it off and forget about it.

But recycling gathered across Raleigh County and parts of Fayette, Kanawha, Monroe and Wyoming counties begins a new journey.

One or two employees work on the ground level of the Raleigh County Recycling Center to unload recycling bins and trucks from Charleston or many other surrounding municipalities. They rip open the bagged recycling and dump the contents into a shaft.

Bobby Sanders separates recyclable items on a conveyor belt at the Raleigh County Solid Waste Authority Recycling Center.
(Photo by Rick Barbero)

Soda cans, milk jugs, newspapers and water bottles are lifted high into the air before being dropped onto a conveyor where six or seven employees sort each item by hand.

Sherrie Hunter, director of education and marketing, explained that each employee is responsible for one type of recyclable. Sorter Walter Welch, for instance, is the soda can man. As drink cans pass by, he grabs them and tosses them below into large mechanized bays where they are crushed into bales.

An aluminum can could be recycled more than 1 million times into new cans and never loses its value, said Hunter.

As head of the center’s thriving education program (the most comprehensive school program in the state), it’s Hunter’s job to think about refuse in a new way — to teach Raleigh County’s school kids how to reuse as well as reduce and recycle.

Up to 150 students tour the center at a time and can see the sorting process from a classroom with observation windows. There Hunter helps them think about reusing common items in new ways, like melting Starlight Mints inside a cookie cutter to make a candy Christmas ornament.

“We let them understand that they may be common candies, but even something like old candy can be used to create something new,” she said. “Everyone makes about 4.5 to 5 pounds of trash a day, but if we can just worry about our own stuff, reducing what we use and reusing, it can make a big difference and keep it out of the landfill. We have to let them know, ‘It is OK. We all make garbage, but we have to learn to take care of it correctly.'”

From the candy ornament project, it isn’t such a far cry to have kids think up some uses or craft ideas for items that can’t be recycled — prescription medicine bottles, plastic soda caps, plastic cat litter containers and Styrofoam egg cartons.

Now in its 16th year, Hunter said the educational program is starting to make a real difference. Students are educating their parents and are having children of their own who will be brought up to consider recycling an essential part of their life.

In 2001, 11 schools had recycling bins stationed on their campuses and collected 47 tons.

Now 36 schools in the county participate and last year collected 5,000 tons.

“Not only are students collecting recycling and coming here to the center to see how it is processed, schools earn money from their recycling to provide field trips or incentives to students.

Since its inception, the recycling program has given schools a $202,000 return in discretionary funds.

“Education of the public is our main concern,” said Recycling Broker Lisa Suggs, who is responsible for selling recycling to mills to make new products. “We want people to know what can be recycled and what can’t. We are still getting some trash in with recycling. I don’t think people do it on purpose, but if they know plastic is recyclable, they might believe all plastic is accepted. We only take plastics No. 1 and 2 — pop bottles, bleach bottles, milk bottles, water bottles.”

That means many fast food cups and single serving yogurt cups, which are often plastic no. 5, can’t be recycled in Raleigh County.

Suggs asks for the public to remain aware of what number plastics they put into their recycling. When in doubt, look for the recycling symbol and make sure either a number “1” or “2” is inside.

The educational program accounts for 36 recycling bins in Raleigh County, and there are an additional 40 in Raleigh and surrounding counties. Although the educational program continues to soar, the overall recycling tonnage has gone down in recent years as the economy has declined.

People are simply buying less things and that cuts into the center’s largest product, which is cardboard.

The Raleigh County Recycling Center is located at 200 Fernandez Drive.

For more information, visit http://raleigh-swa.org/Recycle.aspx or call 304-255-9196.

Can I recycle it in Raleigh County?

Yes: Pie pans, shredded paper (must be bagged separately), soup cans, magazines, aluminum, office paper, newspaper, plastics no. 1 and 2

No: Plastics no. 3 through 8, medicine bottles, soda lids, olive or vegetable oil bottles, chip bags, plastic from TV dinners, CDs.

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