As recycling soars in Charleston County, officials are grappling with the next long-term steps for trash management.

That could mean a new recycling center on Palmetto Commerce Parkway. Or it might mean a hybrid facility that accepts household trash and sorts out the recyclables.

"We need to sit down and study the different options," said Councilman Herb Sass.

Whatever route is taken, action is needed because landfill space is shrinking. About half of the county's trash is shipped to Dorchester County. How millions in taxpayer dollars are spent is at stake.

Sass and Council member Anna Johnson recently made a trip to Montgomery, Ala., to see a new $35 million operation there. It allows people to throw just about anything that's recyclable into their regular trash. At the new facility, the trash is automatically sorted, according to the Montgomery Advertiser.

Most of the sorting is done by a high-tech series of machines that use optics and magnets to kick aluminum, plastic and other products into different areas. The "one bin" approach has taken Montgomery from about a 1 percent recycling rate to about a 70 percent rate in less than a month, the Advertiser reported.

Montgomery also has plans for a second phase that would create fuel out of trash. It will use "anaerobic digestion" to process organic materials into compressed natural gas and compost. The gas will be available for municipal and private-use vehicles, and will be delivered through an on-site fueling station.

"That might turn out to be something that is real viable and it would work. If waste-to-energy happens, it would be like the Wright Brothers flying a plane for the first time," Sass said.

County officials have also been to Maryland and Charlotte to see how solid waste operations are handled there, Sass said.

As things stand now, the county relies on residents to put their recyclables out for pickup. It's a system that works pretty well, but invariably materials that could be sold as scrap metal wind up in the household trash.

"There's still good stuff that gets put in people's garbage," Sass said.

The Charleston County recycling center processes aluminum, paper, glass and other metals into square bales about half the size of a compact car. The recycled material is sold, but its main value is increasing the life of the landfill, Sass said.

Last year, the county sent 107,186 tons of municipal solid waste to Bees Ferry. It also sent 154,148 tons of the waste to Dorchester County for burial at a landfill there.

Bees Ferry received 41,134 tons of construction and demolition debris. In addition, 54,352 tons of yard waste went there and was used in the county composting program. The recycling center processed 38,153 tons.

In addition to exploring new waste management technology, Charleston County is negotiating to buy about 80 acres to expand the 312-acre landfill and create more of a buffer between its operations and nearby residents.