After Chemical Spill, West Virginia CU Becomes Recycling Hub

Area residents relying on bottled water can bring their empty containers to Element FCU.

January 27, 2014

Element FCU recycling bags

Element Federal Credit Union can’t do anything to restore West Virginians’ trust in their water supply following what has been dubbed the "Aquapocalypse."

But in the wake of a chemical spill more than two weeks ago that continues to produce anxiety among the 300,000 people affected, the environmentally conscious credit union devised a way to make life easier for members and nonmembers alike while minimizing further negative impact on the environment.

For more than a week, the $27 million asset credit union based in Charleston, W.V., has promoted itself as a recycling collection point for empty containers of bottled water—and the response from residents and nearby businesses has been tremendous.

Element FCU recycling signEven though a tap water ban expired last week, most people in the nine-county area affected by the spill continue to rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking, hygiene and the like. That’s produced a lot of plastic waste in a region where recycling centers, rather than curbside pickup, is the norm.

“The recycling program has given people peace of mind,” says Miranda Nabers, marketing director at Element Federal. “We’re the middle man for them—it’s one less thing they need to worry about.”

The credit union prides itself on being an environmental steward. Element Federal runs a paperless operation, Executive Vice President Samantha Painter points out.

So when Lisa West, a collector, pitched the recycling center idea shortly after the Jan. 9 spill, it was an easy sell.

Within a day, Element Federal displayed a large vinyl banner at its Kanawha City branch and began a full-court press on social media to alert area residents about the service.

The reaction was immediate and has been overwhelming and ongoing. The credit union’s social media following spiked thanks to announcements of its recycling service, and one Facebook post triggered 35 shares.

“The most rewarding thing has been seeing that people wanted to have a place to recycle,” Nabers said. “Instead of throwing the bottles away, they wanted to be proactive.”

Painter arrived at work last Monday to a pile of bags outside the credit union’s door, all filled with bottles, which made her smile. Last Wednesday, a woman who isn’t a member dropped by with her recyclables, praising the credit union for its service to the community.

Although Element Federal hasn’t kept a tally of the collected bottles, Nabers has packed the company van to the hilt for three trips this week to the recycling center.

The pace doesn’t figure to slow down following the revelation last week that the 7,500-gallon spill from Freedom Industries’ tanks into ground near the Elk River contained a second chemical, PPH. The mixture of glycol ethers performs the same function as the initial chemical identified in the spill, MHCM—to “clean” coal from other nonburnable mined substances such as shale.

Also, residents doubt the effectiveness of methods recommended to flush their water systems of the chemicals, and last week marched on the state capitol seeking answers about immediate and long-term health impacts of the spill.

So the credit union will continue to collect bottles for the foreseeable future. Leadership has pondered whether to turn Element Federal into a permanent recycling hub.

“Honestly, I don’t see people in our area drinking tap water anytime soon, if ever,” Painter says. “It’s that disturbing.”

But Element Federal has provided a bright spot amid the turmoil, and Nabers says she’s been reminded of her state’s stubborn determination.

West Virginians, she says, are creative and persistent. "We’re going to get it done, and we’re going to make the best of the situation. That’s something about our state that’s awesome. You see neighbors helping neighbors. There’s a lot of community spirit going on."