In 2018, Alabama diverted more than 25 percent of all the trash generated in the state from landfills for the first time since the state started closely tracking where its garbage goes. Overall, Alabama recycles about 16 percent of the total waste it generates. That’s nearly double the rate of just seven years ago. And other operations, such as Huntsville’s waste-to-energy incinerator, push the state over the 25 percent waste reduction goal. Yet Alabama still lags behind the national averages of 25.8 percent for direct recycling and 34 percent for overall waste diversion, compared to Alabama’s estimates of 16 percent and 25 percent. Alabama also misses the mark on composting, which accounts for about 9 percent of nationwide waste diversion. Alabama does not have any large-scale composting operations to handle food, yard waste and other compostable materials.
Alabama first established the 25 percent waste diversion goal in 1991, but struggled to make much progress until 2008, when the state passed a law to revamp its handling of solid wastes. At the time, Alabama was facing two big problems with the way landfills worked in the state. First, the state’s recycling rate was in the single digits, with millions of dollars’ worth of valuable material being buried underground, even though there were businesses in Alabama that were having to buy those same materials from other states.
Second, Alabama had some of the lowest landfill fees in the country, and developers were beginning to take notice. Massive new landfills were being planned even though Alabama had more than enough landfill space to handle its own trash. Alabama was on the path to becoming the dumping ground of the nation, particularly for states on the east coast where available land is at a premium. So the Alabama Legislature did something remarkable: it passed a bill that addressed both issues. On April 15, 2008, then-Gov. Bob Riley signed the Solid Wastes and Recyclable Materials Management Act into law, establishing a $1 per ton fee to be added to all material buried in a landfill in Alabama.