Bollinger County strives toward sustainable living with volunteer-staffed recycling center

When Paula Bridges arrived in Bollinger County in 1999, she was told there was no recycling in the county. 

This came as a shock to Bridges, who’d moved from Burlington, North Carolina, where recycling was mandatory. For years, Bridges had hauled her recyclables to drop-off sites in adjacent Missouri counties, but she was always in search of a closer location. 

This experience was what inspired Bridges, now chairman of the Bollinger County Recycling Board, to spearhead a grassroots movement and establish a county recycling center staffed entirely by volunteers. Bollinger County Recycling, Inc. has now processed over 234.9 tons of recyclables that would have otherwise been dumped in landfills. Since 2010, the center has been open 24 hours a day, seven days a week for environmentally minded folks to sort their recycling. 

“It wasn’t started by a city or county government, but by a group of environmentally friendly citizens who didn’t want to go to (Cape Girardeau) or Perryville for recycling,” Bridges said.

Commiserating about their long treks to find a place to recycle, a group of farmers market vendors from Marble Hill, Missouri decided to approach the city with hopes of finding a solution. Unfortunately, the city was not interested in the prospect of establishing a recycling center, Bridges explained.

Meanwhile, environmentalists including Bridges felt emboldened by the environmental threats of landfills. Once at capacity, a landfill can hardly be used for anything but extracting energy from its byproducts, such as methane. Landfill gas is usually 50% methane and 50% carbon dioxide. Landfills account for one-third of total methane gas production in the United States, and it is 25 times more effective at trapping radiation than carbon dioxide, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports. Landfills also pose threats to groundwater wells and aquifers due to the spread of leachate, which is the liquid produced by rotting garbage, as well as unregulated chemical waste. Although newer landfills are typically lined with clay to prevent leachate spreading to water sources, older landfills do not have such lining, meaning that they could contaminate the groundwater, according to the EPA. 

Eventually, Bridges realized the inability to use such large swaths of land for crops or cattle grazing could be the key to connecting with members of the community who weren’t already concerned about landfills.

She said the group of citizens-turned-recycling-activists began an education campaign in the community in 2008. Bollinger didn’t have a recycling facility, and it didn’t have a landfill either, but Bridges and her fellow activists wanted to prevent any landfills from filling up.

“Imagine a farmer not being able to use 50 acres (of land) ever because it was a landfill,” Bridges said, explaining that the group strived to educate the community in small steps.

Bridges said the community was very receptive to education on sustainable waste disposal. Her neighbors were happy to learn about recycling, so much so that they now compete with Bridges to see who puts out the least amount of garbage for pickup each week.

“People just didn’t realize they were impacting the environment because mom and dad and grandpa always threw stuff in the ground or burned it,” Bridges said.

She explained that some community members were galvanized by recollections of World War II recycling efforts. They were proud to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents, whose scrap drives for rubber, tin, kitchen fat and rags led to the manufacture of boats, planes, gas masks and life rafts.

Once the group’s mission inspired community interest in recycling, they incorporated as a non-profit and began plans for a recycling center. The University of Missouri Extension office, where Bridges was a board member at the time, helped guide the group’s efforts, connecting members to potential sources of funding like the Southeast Missouri Solid Waste Management District. Local businesses helped contribute raffle items for a fundraiser so the group could afford equipment for its recycling center. The county also offered to lease the group an old warehouse formerly used in livestock auctions, rent free, for the event.

Signs at the Recycling Center direct community members to sort their recyclables, which aids Bollinger County Recycling Inc. in finding buyers to process different materials. / Photo: Xander Negozio
 Inside the recycling center, large gaylords distinguish where community members are to place their recyclables. / Photo: Xander Negozio

The recycling center currently functions with help from donations, grants from the Southeast Missouri Solid Waste Management District and the help of passionate community volunteers who’ve contributed over 15,000 hours of labor since 2010. 

“To me, recycling (including reduce, reuse and recover) is important because of the wide variety of non-renewable natural resources that our society wastes and the immense amount of harm that the production and the disposal of the products cause,” Tory Shade, volunteer treasurer of the recycling board, said via email. Before retirement, Shade worked as a regional farm specialist for the University of Missouri Extension, which led to her participation in a southeast Missouri team initiative focusing on recycling education. 

Shade said a culture of consumption, widespread manufacturing of single-use plastics and a reliance on non-renewable resources threaten people’s way of life, which is something she’s not confident technology can fix. The convenience of unsustainable products often causes consumers to act against their own interests, she noted, like purchasing SUVs. The politicization of climate change has also made it harder to inform voters about mitigation techniques, Shade said, noting that more education is necessary to encourage people to live more sustainable lives.

“While we’re very small and can only accomplish so much for our tiny corner of the world, we do what we can to make a difference,” she said. 

The recycling center’s only paid employee has been its manager, a participant in a federal employment program for seniors doing community service throughout the year. 

Bridges said the center also grew as a community gathering place, eventually gaining a “little library” where visitors can exchange books from a small collection that rotates thematically (from books related to crafting, gardening and more). She said some folks have shown up after hearing about the library without even realizing it was part of a recycling center.

The library and operations of the center brought a sense of purpose to the community, but specifically to those who were otherwise isolated during the pandemic, Bridges said. 

She’s hopeful that the center’s efforts aren’t in vain. Only around 5% of the county’s population uses the recycling center, but community participation is growing, she says.

“It’s a good community, and now that folks have learned about recycling it’s like more people speak the language,” Bridges said. “The kids, even really young ones, are talking about it.”

Although the board members are concerned with the effects of climate change, like shifting bird migration patterns, frost dates and germination rates, they’re as entrenched in their efforts as ever.

The activists see climate change as all the more inspiration to forge ahead with their recycling efforts, Bridges said.

Graphic: Paul Schloesser

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