Four years ago, it became clear Montgomery, Ala. was going to be the testing ground for an updated approach to mixed-waste processing.

The city partnered with a relatively unproven startup called Infinitus Energy, put millions into facility construction, touted the cutting-edge sortation technology it had on hand, and told residents that curbside recycling was back in Alabama’s capital – and they wouldn’t even need to keep recyclables divided from the trash.

Dan Leif

Most industry observers know well what happened from there. The $35 million plant opened to much fanfare in April 2014 but was closed by October 2015, leaving Montgomery, which has a population of 200,000, sending everything to landfill. Even for those recycling professionals skeptical of the project, the speed at which the MRF went from showcase to shutdown was stunning.

Since then, the city has spent plenty of time and resources going through a legal rigamarole to regain ownership of the building and craft a plan forward. In 2016, the mayor hinted that single-stream curbside collection could be headed to residents.

But apparently Montgomery still sees potential in a mixed-waste future, announcing last week it’s trying again to pull recyclables from trash (see related story).

Once more, the city is giving its MRF keys to an inexperienced driver. This time it’s RePower South, a South Carolina-based company that has committed $12 million to update technology in the Montgomery facility and create a process for production of fuel pellets from waste. RePower asserts the pellets can replace coal in boilers and other applications.

Flying in face of current trends

As with so many municipal decisions, the deal with RePower came down to costs – or lack thereof. City officials told the Montgomery Advertiser the RePower partnership requires no direct investment from the city. After all the city spending that happened in the runup to the first mixed-waste debacle, it’s understandable leaders wouldn’t want to open up their coffers yet again.

But isn’t there an old saying about getting what you pay for? In this case, it seems all too likely that a lack of investment by the city in proven recycling strategies is going to lead to another episode of disappointment – and recyclables headed to disposal.

First, let’s look at why mixed-waste processing didn’t work in Alabama the first time around. When the plant closed, the former operator explained it was unable to achieve its expected throughput, a fact that neither the city or RePower have addressed in their statements about rekindling the operation.

Another point Infinitus leaders made was they did not receive sufficient value for the bales they were moving out the door.

Right now seems like a foolish time to test the market again. Thanks to China’s National Sword (which was not in place when Montgomery made its first mixed-waste plunge), export options have tightened, and domestic buyers are able to be far more demanding in their buying specs. In response, single-stream facilities around the nation are investing in more sortation and communities are cutting items from their curbside programs – that’s the exact opposite of inviting residents to throw everything in one cart.

Meanwhile, commodity prices have seen little improvement and for some items, notably mixed paper, the floor has completely fallen out.

RePower has argued its fuel product can help provide the revenue needed to make the plant profitable, even amid today’s downstream disruptions. It’s true that such a revenue stream was absent from the Infinitus operation, but it’s also true that RePower’s fuel pellet model is itself underpinned by unknowns. Just look to another community that recently undertook lengthy negotiations with RePower to get a mixed-waste facility built.

Last August, the Southeastern Public Service Authority in Virginia walked away from its contract with RePower, in large part because the company could not nail down a contract with a power provider to use the promised pellet feedstock. The negotiation process in Virginia was marked by delays on the part of RePower, and discussions only lasted as long as they did because the waste startup dangled $3 million in front of the authority’s board.

It’s hardly surprising the Virginia deal crumbled when officials looked for economic assurances. Refuse-derived fuel (RDF) hopefuls have always struggled to prove viability because the strategy has many factors working against it: High moisture content in RDF pellets mean they are prone to degradation, and the products also face high storage costs compared with coal and  freight costs that waste incinerators and landfills do not have to bear.

That all means that Montgomery is putting its materials recovery hopes into the hands of a company that has been rebuffed by local officials elsewhere in the southern U.S. and that uses a strategy based on promises instead of proof.

Industry’s blueprint ignored

Montgomery leaders – notably Mayor Todd Strange, who approved the Infinitus deal – cannot genuinely say they have no other options available to them if they want to offer recycling to city residents.

In 2016, a group of recycling stakeholders led by the Southeast Recycling Development Council released an extensive report that offered concrete steps for lifting recycling in the state of Alabama. It encouraged single-stream curbside collection for all communities with populations over 5,000 and development of a hub-and-spoke infrastructure for more rural areas.

The process also led to the development of the Alabama Recycling Partnership, which includes the state’s environmental agency and major stakeholders such as Procter & Gamble that have offered grant funding to places like Montgomery – if local leaders will implement the well-thought-out recommendations from the report.

Instead, Montgomery is taking the easy way out, choosing a plan that requires no real work on curbside infrastructure, no resident outreach and no alignment with local markets.

“We call our city the Capital of Dreams,” said Mayor Strange in a statement announcing the RePower deal last week, “and today is yet another milestone fulfilling that promise.”

That’s a fitting soundbite for the city’s recycling vision. If local leaders think mixed-waste processing is going to turn out better than it did the first time around, they are dreaming indeed.

Dan Leif is the managing editor of Resource Recycling and can be contacted at [email protected].

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