Picture this. The topic of the conversation is “pulverization,” and the person speaking about it can hardly contain her excitement. Sounds like a sci-fi movie, but it’s actually McAllen Recycling Manager Ouina Rutledge describing the city’s new glass pulverizer.

The big blue machine arrived in August, and it has already pulverized mountains of brown, green, blue and clear bottles and jars (up to one gallon). Blue is obviously the favorite. (Makes one wonder why the theme isn’t “Going Blue.”)

The journey of the glass bottles begins in McAllen’s blue recycling bins or in the bins at the recycling center on Bentsen Road. From there, one of the recycling center employees uses a front-end loader to lift the bottles and drop them into the meter surge hopper, which carefully distributes a few bottles at a time onto a conveyor belt. Once they reach the top of the belt, the bottles drop into the pulverizer, where tiny hammers crush the bottles into two sizes, 3/8-inch and 1/8-inch. The pulverized glass pieces drop onto a screen that prevents larger material or other matter from getting into the finished product.

Rutledge estimates the recycling center is already pulverizing up to 20 tons of glass per month. The pulverizer has the ability to crush 24 tons of glass in an eight-hour period, requiring the help of just one employee.

Although the pulverizer’s home is McAllen, it was actually made possible through a partnership between McAllen and its sister cities, San Juan, Weslaco, Pharr and Edinburg. Together, the five cities, along with the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council (our local Council of Governments or COG) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality wrote a grant. The grant, along with funding from the City of McAllen, made the pulverizer possible. Funding also includes the purchase of four-yard dumpsters and signage.

“A pulverizer is very green,” Rutledge said, “and very proactive, and the nearest city with one is Abilene.” Rutledge visited Abilene as part of the lengthy research she and other city employees conducted before deciding on the Andela pulverizer.

Not only does the pulverizer allow the city to recycle and defer mountains of glass from our landfills, but Rutledge and her co-workers in the Public Works Recycling Department have already devised creative ways to use the pulverized glass.

“Innovative Block, a company in La Feria, creates concrete products and other hardscaping materials using roughly 58 percent recycled materials. “We have realized they can use the 1/8-inch pulverized glass in their stone block, increasing the percentage of recycled materials in their products,” Rutledge said.

Recently, a Mexican company that purchases pulverized glass from throughout Mexico heard about McAllen’s new program and contacted the city with the hopes that a partnership would reduce transportation costs.

“We are also thinking about using our pulverized glass to make aquarium material and coasters,” Rutledge said.

At the mayor’s recent State of the City Address, city workers displayed garden stones they made by mixing cement and pulverized glass made in McAllen.

A focused recycling effort began in 1994 when McAllen launched its Automated Curbside Recycling Program. Every McAllen homeowner received a blue automated recycling container, which is picked up by the city on a weekly basis.

City staff reports that residents and businesses in McAllen dispose of approximately 188,240 tons of solid waste per year, all of it added to our landfills. The more we can divert from these landfills, the better.

In 2003, the city again took a leadership role in the green movement by establishing its Compost Facility. Here, the city collects tree limbs and brush, waste that previously ended up in landfills, to produce compost and mulch.

In December 2006, the city embarked on an innovative pilot program with the Wal-Mart located on Nolana and 29th Street to recycle vegetative waste. HEB has now joined in the effort, along with the McAllen Produce Trade Zone, and the city expects restaurants, other produce companies and schools to become partners. Vegetative waste, which includes fruits and vegetables, floral, and bakery products, makes excellent composting material.

The city sells the compost to citizens and commercial growers. Using compost results in a slow release of nutrients, more efficient plant uptake of nutrients, balance of soil pH, improved soil structure and water retention capacity, and a reduced need for fertilizers and pesticides.

“We hope Wal-Mart will begin carrying the compost made in McAllen for their customers to purchase,” Rutledge said. “We see local growers using this compost and then local stores buying the growers’ produce. In this way, we are creating a sustainable loop.”

Rutledge smiles as she explains how excited managers at HEB and Wal-Mart are about the vegetative waste recycling program. The partnership has resulted in an unexpected recycling opportunity. When citizens drop off their recyclables at the center on Bentsen Road and leave behind their plastic HEB bags, the city returns them to the store.

Rutledge and her co-workers love to tell McAllen’s recycling story. They had the opportunity to do just that at the National League of Cities Conference held the first week of November in San Antonio.

“We blew everybody away,” Rutledge said. “We had trees, and our booth looked like a back patio. We made the trail from the stone we created with our own pulverized glass. Other cities, exhibitors and vendors were like ‘Wow!’ And what’s particularly exciting is that now other cities in Texas are contacting us because they’ve heard about McAllen and our green projects.”

And there’s plenty for the city to talk about. In three years, McAllen’s municipal waste stream, which includes all waste except construction and demolition, dropped from 90 percent to 20 percent.

The city continues to educate residents and businesses about proper recycling.

“One thing we really need to ask of people,” Rutledge said, “is that when they come to the recycling center to drop off their glass (nothing with wax in it) and other recyclables, PLEASE take the items out of plastic bags and boxes before dumping them.”

For a complete list of items that can be recycled, visit www.mcallen.net/publicworks/recycle_recyclables.aspx.

Thursday, Feb. 25 at 10:00 a.m., the city invites the public to the dedication of the glass pulverizer and the reception following. The dedication will take place at the McAllen Recycling Center, 4101 N. Bentsen Road. Those planning to attend are asked to RSVP by calling 681-4050.

Rutledge’s enthusiasm is contagious. She lives and breathes recycling and works for a proactive city that takes its recycling efforts seriously. In McAllen, green is much more than a color. It’s a way of life.