Recycling hope: A system of transformation and giving chances

“One Individual cannot possibly make a difference, alone. It is individual efforts, collectively, that makes a noticeable difference -all the difference in the world.” -Dr. Jane Goodall

To the community around Searcy Recycling center, the cacophony coming from within sounds disjointed: Cans are crushed into metal squares that weigh as much as a car; what was once cardboard is shredded into pellets, unrecognizable from the boxes that previously carried items shipped from thousands of miles away; plastic bottles are heaved into canisters and constricted into bales. On all accounts, this orchestra of salvage may ring too harshly for the average passerby to peek inside, but to the workers who tune this clamor, it's the note of redemption and transformation.

Outside the recycling center

To state that this nondescript-facility houses what we have come to expect of a recycling facility and nothing more would be a mediocre explanation; There’s a community that exists within these recycling center walls that has experienced a myriad of profound and life-changing stories. These stories that have been called trash, and been thrown, tossed and rejected. In the wake of this rejection, these very stories that have been picked up from the street have found new purposes. These stories, whose authors’ have been beaten, dented, fragmented and distorted have found a community that transforms these blemishes into conversations of renewal. At the core of a story exists the ability of an author’s style to change, and in the stories of the workers at the Searcy Recycling Center, the narrative arc has been adjusted; loneliness replaced with a sense of meaning, individuals have a reason to get up in the morning and participate in the same society that deemed them delinquents. As the days pass, the once dented stories become flourishing, beautiful anthems of triumph. Through the simple act of recycling — whether a story or a piece of plastic — there is a deeper story and transformation at hand.

Daniel Clegg, supervisor at Searcy Sanitation and Recycling Center

For the Supervisor of Searcy Sanitation and Recycling Center, Daniel Clegg, mornings start at 5 a.m. He arrives early before his employees; igniting the machines of the trade, switching on flickering lights and answering emails in the backroom of the facility. As Clegg sorts out the day, route drivers and other employees begin to roll in between 6 a.m. For these employees, their work day will end around 3, but they have much to accomplish before that time arrives. The approaching day holds work that is challenging and often monotonous - but fulfilling all the same.

“It’s amazing what people throw away.” Said Clegg, who can often be found sifting through bottles full of unknown fluids, “I wish more people knew what we recycle… We try to educate them, but for some reason, they don't get it.”

Just some of the trash they recycle on the hour

People bring all sorts of items to the Recycling Center such as glossy paper, butter tubs, walmart bags and other annoyingly common objects that the facility doesn’t recycle. These items are removed before the recyclable materials are placed into their appropriate machines. These machines process the materials into large bales, before they are sold and hauled away by the truck load. Cardboard and newspaper go to paper mills such as Central Paper Stock, and plastic goes to different sources, one being ORE Recycling in Clinton, Arkansas, that will melt it down and use it for a plethora of different purposes. Each day Searcy Sanitation and Recycling Center produces roughly 2 bales of cardboard, which weigh 1800-2000 pounds each, and 2 bales of newspaper, which weigh 1750 pounds each.

For Clegg, it’s never been about profiting off of recycling, as the fad of recycling grew to entertain the entire nation and while most recycling centers were in their fledgling stages, Searcy Recycling Center was already well on their way towards being a recognized service in Searcy - since starting in 2003. “Recycling used to be worth a lot more, but everybody’s gotten into it. As the market [for recycling] expands the profit decreases; it’s supply and demand.”

The Searcy Recycling Center; inside and out

On top of the fact that the recycling center has grown to provide more options to the community, the Searcy Recycling Center has also opened it’s doors to provide opportunities for automated pick ups, making the decision to recycle that much easier. Although the service is now being automated — through recycling trucks with robotic arms, much akin to the garbage truck — the recycling center has seen some major factories around Searcy close their gates on the recycling center in hopes that they can recycle materials themselves, widening profit margins for themselves, at the cost of the programs the recycling center houses. With the issue of supply of recycling centers being so high, coupled with the competition of factories to recycle their own materials in-house, it’s a testament to the constant hard labor of the workers at the recycling center to keep the place running so smoothly. As for the ethical concerns of recycling go, the Searcy Recycling Center’s core message is about doing the right thing, for the right reason. It’s never been about the fiscal returns, but the caring initiative.

“It’s not about the profit, When they started recycling here they didn’t do it to get a profit.” Said Terri Rutherford, a worker at the recycling center, “It doesn’t make much profit, sanitation is profitable, but recycling by itself is not. It’s that cutting edge thing - it’s the right thing to do. Going green, we’ve been doing that before it was a thing. It’s just the right thing to do.”

With the recycling industry making an estimated $230 billion per year, it’s even more impressive that the Searcy Recycling Center has always remained focused on the narrative of “doing the right thing,” instead of “doing what pays the most,” even going as far as using motor oil to heat the building. It’s the inherent desire to do good which is so appealing about the work that Clegg has been involved in. It's a refreshing mindset, as it's hard to see these days who recycles because it's good, and who recycles because it's profitable. In the case of Searcy Recycling Center, it couldn't be more clear.

it's about transformation, not transactions.

Schools within the Searcy community frequent the recycling center on field trips, and learn not only about the process, but the importance of recycling, and the benefits and consequences of simple actions such as throwing away a piece of trash. White River Planning, a nonprofit organization working for economic and community growth in a 10-county region of North Central Arkansas send coloring books to the same schools that often visit the recycling center for field trips. According to Terri Rutherford, Director of the Searcy Sanitation and Recycling Center, these simple coloring books, and visits to the facility are great tools to inform not only the next generation, but their parents as well. “The kids go home and are telling the parents, 'Mom and Dad lets do this,'" said Rutherford.

“The kids go home and are telling the parents, ‘Mom and Dad lets do this'"

Once recyclable material is brought into the facility, it goes through a process of being sorted. Plastic bottles are separated by color, and their caps are removed. This process of separating bottles, and removing caps is accomplished by citizens of White County working off their community service hours. Malana Litaker who has worked at the recycling center for a year and a half. Litakers work at the Searcy Recycling Center began with doing community service. The staff at the Recycling Center remembered Malana and her work ethic and offered her a full time job. By doing this the Sanitation and Recycling Center is providing much more than a location for people to recycle and the opportunity to “go green” but they are providing new possibilities to citizens who are seeking a fresh start.

“It’s beyond words. Fulfilling in so many ways and I needed it,” said Litaker with tears in her eyes. Litaker is passionate and makes the work place fun with practical jokes, and changes the atmosphere of mundane work, to one of hope and renewal.

Malana Litaker, doing part of her daily routine.

“I remember Harding bringing over some old projector screens one day” said Litaker while telling one of her many heartwarming stories, “I knew of a poor church in town that would be grateful for those and so I took the projectors to them. I probably wasn’t supposed to, but it was the right thing to do,” said Litaker.

"It was the right thing to do"

The projectors likely would have been stripped into many pieces and recycled, but giving them to a church in need was Litakers own version of recycling. According to Litaker, said she looks forward to going to work everyday, and finds meaning not only in protecting the planet that sustains us, but in encouraging and uplifting the citizens she works with that are working off community service hours, engaging with people that visit the facility each day, and finding uses for objects that are needed in the community. According to Clegg, recycling in Searcy has grown in recent years, one reason being the automated trash trucks that the recycling center began using last November, and the fact that the citizens of the county are now only allowed one outdoor trash bin per household, and bags of trash outside the bin will not be picked up by the sanitation department. These new developments allow Clegg to be more efficient at pick-ups and makes the entire job of recycling more streamlined.

“People have found just how much it cuts back on the amount of trash they have by recycling, and they no longer need bags and bags of trash like they used to” said Clegg.

According to Clegg, recycled electronics such as computers that are recycled by local schools are sent to a federal prison in Texarkana for the inmates to disassemble and scrap them for money to help fund prison programs. This program allows the recycling center to have enough revenue to continue their programs for the community.

The issue with The GoGreen Initiative

As the narrative of redemption continues to unfold at the Searcy Recycling Center, it’s rather perplexing widen our scope of Searcy, and see how little the community contributes back to the recycling center. One of the most confusing pieces would have to be Harding University’s involvement, or lack thereof. On Harding’s website, a page dedicated to the university’s recycling program has been largely misguiding, the email address for the program has been deleted, and with no warning to the student, parent or alumni, this seems inexcusably suspicious. On top of the already shaky ground of Harding’s recycling program, the “recycle” tab reads, “Items that are currently being recycled on campus include; paper, press board (packing such as a cereal box), plastic wrap/bags, corrugated cardboard, plastic bottles, aluminum and metal cans, print and toner cartridges, cell phones, kitchen compost material (available to anyone with a home based composting program) metal scraps, electronic devices (computers and accessories, TV’s and anything with a circuit board).” When the Searcy Recycling Center was asked about Harding’s recycling program, Clegg said that Harding University only dropped off cardboard and paper recycling, albeit on a semi-regular schedule. If you ask around at Harding, it’s apparent that no one truly knows who’s directly in charge of the program, as we continually were told to go to one director to another, each none wiser than the last. We were finally told, at the recycling center, and surprisingly not by Harding University, that the previous manager of the Go Green Initiative had left several years ago, and his position had been outsourced to several people at Harding, with no real direction or leader to keep the program running smoothly, Harding’s recycling program can neither confirm or deny the existence of an actual recycling program, as no true evidence exists for the complete degradation or proof of the program.

A poll of students on Harding's recycling program

Harding has often suffered a strong dichotomy between the students ideals and Harding's standards. Today, people what to recycle, and want transparency. On both accounts, Harding has made attempts, and subsequently failed. As you can see, a majority of students who took our poll would be appreciative of an increasing our recycling efforts. Searching through Harding's information about their recycling program seems too vague, while they may be recycling, it could easily be improved.

Declining recycling in Searcy may be an issue of the past, as this chart shows

In the featured chart you see that in 2004, 3.4 million pounds were recycled, and in 2014, they were down to 1.6 million. The reason for that decrease is due to businesses that have become aware of how much they were recycling and taking matters into their own hands. Many companies have found ways to start their own recycling programs. In the chart businesses that produce a large amount of recyclable materials that used the recycling center has decreased but the numbers of residential recycling has increased. It's easy for this to look like a negative thing but in fact it is a positive thing because it spreads the awareness to more people and more companies have taken their own initiatives on recycling and the Recycling Center is able to reach its local residents and continue to reach the community. While the numbers may reflect a decrease in the recycling centers profits, the workers are just happy that awareness is being spread.

Searcy Recycling and Sanitation Center offers many more services besides recycling that are just as important and vital to the community. The Sanitation Center collects all of the residential and commercial trash in the city of Searcy, and there are three different trucks that run four days a week, during this time they collect all the trash set out on the roads. On Fridays the employees collect mostly tree limbs, brush and leaves on their routes, that is then taken back to the recycling center where it is ground into mulch using a massive chipper, they then deposit the mulch at the compost center on North Main street, where it is free for the public to use. The free mulch is used by Searcy natives all over, you might even see some of it being used in the flower beds by the Searcy Courthouse, where for some workers at Searcy Recycling Center, their story was picked up, brushed off, and given life.

Searcy Recycling center; in action

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