While most of the city's new amenities create a drain on the city's operating budget to varying degrees, city leaders expect the new Recycling and Sustainability Center to create revenue.
They also expect it to create a lot of attention and hope it will help create a cultural shift toward recycling more of the trash currently ending up in the Pine Grove Landfill next door.
Pat Biegler, director of public works, plans to open the 54,000-square-foot facility Oct. 2, but hopes to start running recyclables through it earlier so it's up and running for the opening.
Columbus' current facility, a 12,000-square-foot plant on Victory Drive, processes about 2,500 tons a year, Biegler said. She expects the new facility to process "10, 20 or 30 times that."
Getting that much tonnage into the center will require two things, she said. A cultural shift in the city toward embracing recycling and drumming up outside business from other cities, counties, large companies, universities and even Fort Benning.
Encouraging citizens to recycle more is one reason the center includes an educational component, which will bring people in to learn about the process and the value of reducing what we throw into landfills.
Biegler said officials with the Muscogee County School District have expressed interest in bringing classes out to the center, as have other groups.
"Even the Rotary Club called and said they want to hold a lunch meeting at the center," Biegler said.
The educational component is important because currently only about 4 percent of Columbus' trash is recycled, said Les Moore, the city's Waste Management Division manager. Some communities in California manage to recycle up to 70 percent, but mostly through mandatory recycling. Columbus' goal, Biegler said, is to recycle 40 percent to 50 percent.
Generating outside business will be up to Pratt Industries Inc., the contractor partnering with the city in the facility. The city will build and operate the facility while Pratt will lease the equipment to the city, market the facility, buy the recycled material from the city and sell it on the open market.
"It's in Pratt's best interest to get as many tons in there as possible," Moore said.
The city will get 90 percent of the proceeds from city-produced refuse and $40 a ton for processing and baling outside refuse, Moore said. The current small facility is already producing income for the Integrated Waste Fund, and the new one is expected to produce much more.
That will allow Public Works to help pay for the cost of trash pickup and to replace and maintain their trucks and machinery without relying so much on the city's General Fund, Biegler said.
The biggest savings to taxpayers, Biegler said, will come from extending the life of the city's landfills, which are expensive to build, operate and to close down. They even require annual maintenance after they're shut down.
Pine Grove is permitted to have six "cells," Biegler said. The city is currently using three and is building a fourth, and the entire facility has an expected lifespan of another 30 years at the current rate. If the city can increase recycling to 50 percent of all refuse, that lifespan could be 60 years.
"Closing a landfill is expensive, and this will allow us to spread that cost out over many more years," Biegler said.
The new facility is huge. To put its 54,000 square feet into perspective, a professional football field, end zones included, is about 57,000 square feet. It has a two-story open lobby with two staircases leading up to a mezzanine for viewing the recycling process.
It includes meeting and classroom space, educational stations throughout the complex, interactive exhibits, and displays on sustainability through recycling, alternative energy, energy efficiency and water efficiency.
An interesting feature off the mezzanine is a "grass roof" atop one section of the building. Moore said they will have grass planted, along with a garden possibly.
The total cost of the project, including construction, infrastructure, equipment and furnishings, is $8.5 million, said Deputy City Manager David Arrington.
The facility was paid for by a bond issue, Biegler said, but added, "This thing is going to pay for itself."
In addition to curbside pickup, drop-off points will be located at the Welcome Center on Williams Road, Cooper Creek Park, Sacerdote Lane and at the current recycling facility on Victory Drive.
The building's construction is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certified and features rainwater reclamation, skylights, solar panels, low-water use plumbing, recycled building materials, high-thermal insulation and water-efficient landscaping.
The center will change the way inmates gather recyclables, dumping them into a regular garbage truck rather than sorting the paper, plastic and glass into separate bins on a truck at curbside.
In the new facility, unsorted material will come in on trucks and be dumped onto the concrete floor at one end of the massive room. A "skid steer" (small earth mover like a Bobcat) will push the material onto a conveyor belt that will carry it to different stations where it will be separated mechanically and manually. Eventually, it will be sorted into several large bays and then dumped into a large baler that will create bales to be sold.
The exception will be glass, Biegler said. It will be put in separate bins on the trucks and diverted from the recycling center, she said, because there's not a very good market for it and it is very hard on the equipment.
On the grounds of the center, Biegler plans to establish an enormous composting operation, involving most of the 44,000 tons of inert waste the city currently collects. A large chipper currently in use at the Granite Bluff Landfill on River Road will eventually be moved to the Recycling Center grounds to help create the compost.
In turn, the compost will be used to create rich topsoil for use in capping the landfill cells as they are forced to close, again reducing the cost of that task, Biegler said.