Longtime Lost in Montgomery readers will know how closely we’ve followed Lebanese domestic politics over the years, so it’ll come as no surprise that we’ve been fascinated by the unfolding protests over trash in Beirut. That’s right. It seems that the failing government there has neglected to pick up solid waste for a month, leaving piles of smelly waste all over the city in summer. Locals have mounted a protest campaign cleverly titled “You Stink!”
Montgomery has a lot in common with Beirut, but there’s a key difference here. The Lebanese get to see where their trash goes. We don’t.
A little history for those new to the saga (a longer version of the tale is in our Recycling FAQ):
Montgomery used to have curbside recycling. But very few people participated and it was very expensive. Mayor Strange cut the program. There was talk of a magic fairy technology that would solve our waste problem. A very expensive feasibility study showed that this plasma fantasy was not feasible. Then we were told that Montgomery was going to be “first in the nation” with a new kind of mixed-waste disposal plant that would take recyclables out of our trash and sell them. This plant would be operated by totally-not-a-James-Bond-supervillain “Infinitus Energy.” Once the (very expensive) factory was operational, we were told to leave our diapers, dead animals and pet waste on the curb (instead of in our trash cans) lest they jam up the cutting-edge plant. Nobody in their right minds did this. Time passed.
Some people from Zero Waste Houston contacted us. They wanted to know more about Montgomery’s waste disposal system. This was because they were fighting against the building of a similar system in their town. We learned a new vocabulary word: Dirty MRF. It sounds like a sex thing, but it’s actually short for “dirty materials recovery facility,” which also (if you say it in the right tone of voice) also sounds like a sex thing.
We read all about these Dirty MRFs and were shocked by how much we simply never knew about Montgomery’s sparkling new plant. We love recycling as an idea, but we were disappointed in Grandma Advertiser. A little bit of investigation would have revealed that major recycling industry groups actually oppose facilities like ours because they need usable diverted waste to make money, and dirty MRFs don’t create usable diverted waste.
It turns out that our professed “first in the nation” designation wasn’t even close to true. Facilities very similar to ours had been failing to meet recycling targets and losing money for years. One in Chicago failed to meet even a 10% recycling target. Another in California claims 50% diversion, but half of that is what they spread on top of the landfill to cover up what’s underneath. One in Illinois went bankrupt. One in Ohio doesn’t even meet a 20% target. You can read all about these plants and more in this report.
And yet, to be clear, we (the City of Montgomery) were sold a plant that promised 60% diversion. As fans of The Simpsons, we are compelled to imagine that the exchange went a little something like this (this clip will help you sing it in key):
Setting: Montgomery City Hall. A well-dressed representative of Infinitus Energy is speaking to city leaders.
Infinitus Energy: “You know, a town with money is a little like a mule with a spinning wheel. Nobody knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it. Name’s Energy. Infinitus Energy. And we come before you today with an idea. Probably the greatest idea … never mind. It’s more of a Wetumpka idea.”
Mayor Strange: “Now wait just a minute! We’re twice as smart as the people of Wetumpka. Just tell us your idea and we’ll bankroll it.”
Infinitus Energy (pulling a sheet off of a scale model of a tiny recycling plant made from a shoebox): “We give you … The Montgomery IREP Plant! We’ve sold dirty MRFs to Rockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook, and by gum it put them on the map!”
Infinitus Energy (breaking into song): “Well, sir, there’s nothing on Earth
Like a genuine, bona fide
Electrified, trash-eatin’ dirty MRF”
Mayor Strange: “I hear those things lose lots of money.”
Infinitus Energy: “It turns your waste to milk and honey.”
Mayor Strange: “Is there a chance the trash could spill?”
Infinitus Energy: “Not on your life, my mayoral shill!”
Citizens: “What about us brain-dead slobs?”
Infinitus Energy: “You’ll be given cushy jobs.”
Local Clergy: “Were you sent here by the Devil?”
Infinitus Energy: “No, good sir, we’re on the level.”
Mayor Strange: “The ring came off my pudding can.”
Infinitus Energy: “We’ll make it diamonds, my good man.”
Mayor Strange: “I swear it’s Montgomery’s only choice. Throw up your hands and raise your voice!”
Lone Citizen: “But the west side’s still all cracked and broken”
Mayor Strange: “Too late now – the mob has spoken.”
All together: “Dirty MRF, Dirty MRF, Dirty MRF!”
Evidently the folks in Houston and elsewhere fighting these plants had been trying and failing to get a copy of Infinitus’ contract with the city. So we went down to the city and got our own copy. Which we uploaded – you can read it here (Warning: it is very long and super boring). Based on this, the Houston folks produced a fact sheet about the Montgomery facility to use in their fight. That’s a PDF, and you can read it here. Here’s something shocking about the contract. Buried deep within is the possibility of, essentially, an incinerator. Even though we were told there would be no incinerator.
Then we were tipped off to a brewing controversy in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. Seems that our little plant is being used to sell other
monorails dirty MRFs. And some people there have been doing their homework. Reading their website, we’ve learned a number of shocking facts about our own facility – facts that we haven’t seen in any Alabama media outlet. The chart below is from the folks in Moncks Corner – you can see it as well as the original documents on their website (click to make the image larger):
Those numbers are astonishing. That’s a $12 million “miss” on their overall financials and a $6.5 million shortfall just this year. They seem to have actually recycled a pathetically small amount of material – less than 10% diversion, far short of the 85% they are claiming elsewhere. And the company hasn’t even made their first of 25 bond payments yet. Will they go bankrupt and stick the city with a giant pile of trash and hundreds of millions of dollars of our hard-earned money?
Why is nobody talking about this?
We hear rumors. We hear that the facility won’t let outside reviewers in. We hear that folks at ADEM won’t go on the record with their criticisms of the facility. We’ve certainly never been in there to look around. All we know is that people used to come and take the recycling from our curbs, and now we just throw everything away in one trash can and trust that our invisible trash overlords are turning garbage into money.
And all the while, a pack of slick hucksters go around the country showcasing the plant they suckered us into buying.