How textbooks become toilet paper: A Birmingham recycling center moves beyond newsprint and cans
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — In a big, open industrial building off Highway 79 north of Tarrant, there’s a pile of about 100 tons of books. They’re waiting to be tossed into a grinder and chewed to a pulp.
It sounds like something out of a Ray Bradbury novel, but the man in charge isn’t trying to keep people from reading. He still prefers his reading material in printed form, but he knows that isn’t the way of the future. The books are old textbooks and library books that have been thrown away by organizations in search of space. When this recycling facility is done with them, they’ll be toilet paper and paper towels, and they just might save a tree.
“It’s just an unusual form of growth that I never thought I would have seen in my lifetime,” said George Nicholson, the division manager of Waste Pro USA, which owns American Recycling of Alabama.
Nicholson, who’s been at the facility since 1991, said he doesn’t necessarily like the idea of turning books into bales of compressed, shredded paper, but he’s doing it out of necessity. He’s worked with libraries, law firms, research firms and universities to take volumes that are at the end of their literary lifespans and is helping them find new, if less dignified, uses. Sometimes, it’s a little heartbreaking.
“We have received antique collections and that’s kind of surprised me,” he said. “It’s got to be worth some money. If you’re a collector collecting books, then it would be a good idea to hold on to them, because we’re destroying them as quick as we can.”
The way they do that is through a process called hogging. The machine, the hogger, is essentially a big grinder, where books and similar grade paper go up a conveyor belt and into a chute, then come out finely ground. That’s baled and sold to paper mills, mostly in Alabama, where they’re turned into paper towels and low grade toilet paper — think the kind with the specks in it, like you’d find in a gas station.
Paper isn’t what it used to be. In 2012, paper and paperboard accounted for 68 million tons of municipal solid waste generated in the U.S., down from more than 87 million tons in 2000, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While paper is the easiest thing to recycle — 64.6 percent of it was recovered in 2012 — there isn’t as much of it being hauled off as there was at the turn of the century.
Nicholson has seen the decline of paper, and sees a few reasons why. The Internet means people don’t write letters or read newspapers as much as they used to. Hospitals and other organizations that deal with sensitive information don’t send their documents to the recycler anymore; they send them to the shredder.
The big suppliers of paper at American Recycling of Alabama these days aren’t newspapers or letter writers — they’re the companies that inundate everyone with credit card offers.
“When your mailbox fills up with junk mail, it ends up here,” Nicholson said. “That’s exactly what we’re looking for.”
Junk mail isn’t producing as much paper as is being lost to bytes and bits, though, and Nicholson is looking for other ways to keep recycling. One addition is the books, which form a pile he calls “Mount Books” at one end of the facility. Another is through partnerships with organizations like the Alabama Environmental Council, which runs a recycling center in downtown Birmingham and has placed recycling trailers in communities around the area.
One noticeable addition is only about a month old, and it required the addition of a few new faces.
From the curb
Waste Pro USA doesn’t just pick up trash. In some places — in Shelby County, Talladega and other Central Alabama communities — they manage curbside pickup. Nicholson has been at American Recycling of Alabama since 1991, long before Waste Pro bought it in 2008, and he hasn’t always been a fan of the kind of recycling most people think of when they hear the word.
“[I] have pretty much tried to stay away from it because I didn’t see the profit margin there that we needed to make,” he said. “It’s labor-heavy and garbage-heavy and there are a lot of things that would keep you away from it.”
But in the month since they’ve been doing curbside pickup, there hasn’t been a lot of garbage. The contents of those curbside boxes are sorted by a half dozen or so mostly temporary workers, and they’ve sorted it to the point where about 98 percent of what comes in is recycled. In some facilities, that number is closer to 50 percent, Nicholson said.
American Recycling of Alabama expects to go through about 200 to 250 tons a month from curbside pickup, but there’s one thing they don’t have to sort out of it, because they shouldn’t expect to find it in the bins: glass.
Pain in the glass
In central Alabama, glass recycling is pretty hard to find. In Tuscaloosa, city residents will be able to recycle glass next year, and the bottles will be crushed and used for a variety of things. Huntsville residents’ glass recently started getting recycled again, and this time it’s not going to the landfill anyway.
But in Birmingham, glass has been a pain for recyclers lately. The Alabama Environmental Council used to take glass and give it to a company that made concrete and road pavement, but that company stopped taking it, so the AEC stopped taking glass. Waste Pro then found a way to help, but then they ran out of ways to recycle it, so AEC stopped taking it again in November.
The reason comes down to economics, Nicholson says. Landfill fees in Alabama are low, he said, and when the choice comes down to $20 a ton to put it in a landfill or the cost of hauling it to Atlanta, the decision is easy.
Nicholson said they’re working on a way to let Birmingham-area residents recycle glass, but until then the bins with glass bottles in them won’t get picked up. He runs a business, he said, and though he tries to keep as much stuff out of landfills as possible, it has to make financial sense.
“What we try to do is do the best we can and make some money at the same time,” he said. “I don’t want that to sound any worse than it means, but if I can’t make money off it, then it can’t be done and, things will get thrown into the landfill that shouldn’t be.”