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STEPS crew makes old things new again

All those Amazon boxes ordered during the pandemic and placed by the curb for recycling ended up in the hands of a six-man crew at the STEPS recycling facility on Industrial Road who have the job of beginning the process of making old containers new again.

The two sheds and concrete block storage areas may look rather unorganized to those who see it for the first time, but Jarvis Mason, the leader of the group, and his five co-workers have it all under control.

“We will be the first to admit, this does not look like a recycling center if you just look at the mounds of stuff,” Sharon Harrup, the president and CEO of the local nonprofit group that employs disabled workers, said as she explained the organization behind the stacks of different types of plastic.

The volume of material the men handled last year is amazing. Harrup said the team processed 495 tons or almost a million pounds of recyclables.

“It’s these six guys that make the center hum,” Harrup said. “They know what to do and how to do it much better than I do.”

Most of the six members of the team have been working together for more than 15 years. James Hatcher is the longest-serving member of the team. He has been working at the site for 31 years.

She said the pandemic, causing everyone to be stuck at home, ordering takeout food and online shopping caused the volume of recyclables to soar this past year.

“Citizens started recycling, which is great,” Harrup said.

That tsunami of cardboard, plastic bottles and aluminum cans hit the team of six hard. In some instances the county had to use a secondary hauler to divert some of the overflow away from STEPS.

Recently, a large pile of cardboard was being stored under one of the sheds waiting to be placed into one of the two downstroke vertical bailers. Once the team has made 36 of the 1,000-pound bails of cardboard, a transfer truck comes to haul it away to be recycled.

The Town of Farmville provides the bulk of the cardboard volume with pickups three times a week.

“Once we finish, we tie it up and put it down there to keep it out of the weather,” Mason said motioning to a shed on the opposite side of the site where some bails of cardboard were already being stored.

Harrup said STEPS has a couple different vendors they work with to get the best price for the cardboard. The crew can do a truckload every two to three weeks.

While many areas have discontinued recycling plastic containers, Farmville and Prince Edward County are still able to accept plastic. Those soda bottles, milk jugs and peanut butter containers also come to the STEPS team.

The group currently works to take the garbage bags filled with plastics and sort them. Milk jugs go in one location. Drink bottles are placed in a separate pile. Colored, solid plastic is put in a box.

“Like laundry detergent, soap bottles and shampoo bottles, anything like that,” worker David Buchanan said.

The team bails the plastic into the different types of plastic the recyclers are looking for. The fact the plastics are hand-sorted by an experienced crew makes the facility a trusted source for the vendors who purchase the plastic for repurposing.

“We are sort of a good risk for vendors that need it,” Harrup said. “All that credit goes to these guys. They do their own quality control.”

The team has a tractor trailer where they put newspapers, magazines and other paper products. It takes the group about a month to fill a tractor trailer with newspapers.

Aluminum cans are run through a crusher and stored in a cage. The facility also serves as a buy-back facility and will pay individuals and organizations for aluminum cans they bring in.

The facility used to take glass but doesn’t accept it any longer. Harrup said the facility couldn’t find anyone to buy the glass as the team unloaded several bags, some with glass clinking inside that was dropped off by Hampden-Sydney College.

The recycling center also takes electronics. They take basically anything with a cord. The items are separated and sent away where the gold and copper pieces in the wiring and insides of the old TVs, VCRs or computers and taken out and reused.

One of the things the group continually battles is things getting into the recycling stream that shouldn’t be there. Styrofoam coming in along with cardboard boards is a problem, as are plastics that are not of the recyclable variety and waxed cardboard milk containers. Harrup said the key is education but said the process has been slow.

Many citizens bring their own recycling to the facility. A car pulled up and dropped off a couple bags while the group was discussing their work. The team makes sure they help them get the bags out of their car and put the materials in the proper locations.

“Most of the people in the community know that the guys that work here have some type of disability,” Harrup said. “It not a disabling condition that keeps them from working, but it would be challenging for them maybe to work elsewhere. So when citizens come in, they get to meet Reggie or Jarvis or Graham or David or Troy.”

“We will help them load their vehicle,” Buchanan said. “If they’ve got a bunch of cardboard , we’ll help them take it out.”