Getting Up Close


Before I left, I grabbed a little notebook and pen to tuck in my bag. I’m a notetaker, and wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. When I opened it, the first page had a single quote written a few years back:

“To really understand something, you have to get close.”

I remember reading that in Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, and how it stood out to me as truth. I got a few chills as the significance of that quote set in…sometimes it helps to have reminders that you are on the right track.

I was ready for a field trip to Birmingham Recycling & Recovery, getting up close to recycling and waste in an effort to better understand and to better act. My friends and I drove through downtown Birmingham and arrived a little flustered from the trains, wrong turns, honking trucks and blazing sun. We crossed over a weighing dock and into the BR&R office where we met Leigh, the lady with the knowledge and the kindness to host us.


Suited up in our safety gear, we toured the facility, passing mountains of recycling from all over the Birmingham area - tidy bales of aluminum, paper, cardboard, and steel cans. The sorting conveyor was “gummed up” and not running, which happens often due to mistakes in recycling habits; plastic bags, wires, cords, and large metal chunks will stop work, stop conveyors and require maintenance.

Leigh showed us how the trash makes its way up the conveyor where the mixed waste is sorted into multiple waste streams. First, employees remove many items that cannot be recycled. Then the cardboard heads off one end, a scanner and air blast identifies and shoots PET (#1) plastic into a collection area, the HDPE (#2) plastic is handpicked by employees and collected, magnets grab the steel cans, aluminum is sorted, and paper is grouped. The rest which we “wish-cycle” or mistakenly toss in our curbside bins goes to the landfill (and costs time and money, and sometimes broken equipment). It was fascinating to watch.

Puppies and puppets:

Recycling seems straightforward enough. Look at the item, see the recycling arrows, toss in the bin. But that isn’t all the info we need. Recycling well and correctly takes some education. It doesn’t have to be as intensive as what I’ve embarked on - researching, field tripping and interviewing. Simple, widely distributed information will do a lot towards boosting proper recycling. Inquiring minds asked “What are the strangest things you’ve seen come in to BR&R?” The first two answers: “Puppies - you don’t forget that one,” and then the ladies pulled out a new hand puppet a la Sesame Street…clean, squeaky, tags on.


While you may not have THAT much trouble recycling properly, here are some things I’ve wondered, and the answers I now have:

  • Where does our recycling go?

    • The haulers, the companies that collect the recycling (Republic Services, Waste Management, etc.), take all the material to BR&R. The area for collections here in Birmingham is pretty large.

  • What is Birmingham Recycling & Recovery?

    • BR&R is a “materials recovery facility (MRF), a specialized plant that receives, separates and prepares recyclable materials for sale to end-user manufacturers.”

  • Who actually recycles the material?

    • Once the material has been sorted into waste streams, it is baled or compressed into giant cubes, ready for transport. The material is sold to manufacturers who make it into new materials such as tissue, new aluminum cans, clothing etc.

    • We were very happy to find out that, here in Birmingham, our recycling is actually recycled into new material in our region. This is big news! No shipping to foreign countries, no burning or dumping of recyclables. There are companies in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina who purchase and process our recyclables. Way to go B’ham!

    • A handout at BR&R says: “Alabama's recycling manufacturing industry consists of: 42 manufacturers employing 17,350 people with $7.8 billion in annual sales.”

      (Source: 2016 Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC) update)

  • How has the Chinese ban on our waste exports affected BR&R?

    • Because recyclable waste is piling up, the surplus drives down prices. Some bales of mixed paper are nearly worthless. Recycling is sadly still an expensive business, all the more reason to support your recyclers and to recycle properly and often.

  • What is “wishcycling”?

    • Anytime you’re unsure of an item’s recyclability and you toss it in the bin, you may be wishcycling - wishing for it to be able to be recycled. Lesson for today? If in doubt, you probably shouldn’t put it in. You can find out other recycling options by searching online, asking a recycling group or forum, or you can always ask me and I will try to find out for you!

  • What’s up with recycling cartons?

    • In trying to live single use plastic free, I’ve leaned towards buying cartons instead. Milk, juice, detergents and more come in cartons, but because of their wax or thin plastic coating, our local recycler BR&R does not accept them. They can be recycled, so check in your area before deciding where to toss them.

    • Use the “Rip Test” to see if your cartons are plastic free - if you can tear it easily and you don’t see a thin lining of plastic hanging on, you are good to go just like paper and cardboard. The waxed cartons have a recycling label that says “coated paper,” so it’s easy to figure that one out.

    • Currently, BR&R is working hard to bring excellent recycling to our area, and since our plastic milk jugs are definitely being made into new products, it’s not a bad option to accept that single-use plastic into our life while there are no other available options for our milk.

    • I also use the milk to make yogurt & cheese, eliminating hard to recycle #5 plastic yogurt containers. I made my own powdered detergent to eliminate both the plastic container and multi-layer box.

  • How can we recycle better?

    • 3 important rules: EMPTY, CLEAN, & DRY

      • Things will be made from your recyclables. To help the facility, reduce impurities in the material, and to be kind to the people picking through your trash, rinse bottles & cans, flatten cardboard. It only takes a second!

      • This also applies to recycling your plastic bags and foam trays at local stores (like Publix, Target, Lowe’s, etc.)

    • Stick to accepted materials for your curbside bin - the best place to find out is through your city, not necessarily your collectors. For example, Republic Services collects in my neighborhood, and their website includes items not accepted by BR&R, who actually processes the material. Our Homewood City website lists correct accepted materials. Here are some fliers for our collection area, which reaches pretty for outside of the Birmingham-metro area:


Did you know?

While we stood overlooking the recycling facility in action, Leigh made the amazing statement, “If we increase recycling by only 10%, we will create an astronomical economic benefit.” A flier she handed us outlined this further:

A 10% increase in Alabama’s recycling rate could provide an additional: $3,000,000 in state tax revenue and $66,000,000 in personal income and 1,400 new jobs.


We are in an environmental crisis, here and all over the world. Our waste and wasteful habits need to be lessened with haste, and we can do that step by step. Taking the time to recycle well doesn’t have to be difficult. Follow the guidelines in your area, make sure your recyclables are empty, clean & dry, and don’t feel like a weirdo when you bring your trash home from restaurants, events or other activities to recycle them at home when recycling bins are not available. These extra steps count!

For more info and a good listen, check out WBHM’s Trash Talk series.

For Birmingham-area friends: