The next time you’re in Middle Tennessee, stop by the Hands-On Science Center in Tullahoma. Its Dino Tots toddler area has more than meets the eye: Underneath the simulated rock formation and the dinosaurs are recycled materials assembled with direct support from a recycler and local businesses.

Austin Sisco, the science center’s operations director, also works part-time as staff environmentalist at ISRI-member CFC Recycling in Tullahoma. He sourced materials from Black Rifle Coffee Co., Lowe’s, and Tullahoma-based Wisco Envelope to build the Dino Tots exhibit over a six-week period last spring. The 12-by-18-foot play area opened June 3 when the center wrapped up its month-long “Dino Days” events.

“We used chicken wire that was getting thrown away, and pool noodles,” Sisco explains. Wisco donated several rolls of paper used to make papier-mâché. Black Rifle’s bulk coffee bags provide backing and PET beverage bottles simulate bumpy rocks. “The dinosaur eyes are made out of aluminum cans turned inside-out!” Sisco adds.

“The first thing I was thinking of was making three stairs up to slide out of fake rock made from recycled materials. It turned out that that idea just kept growing and growing and growing,” he says. “The plan is to keep Dino Tots for at least five years and assess it after that point.”

A co-sponsor of the science center, CFC supported the attraction’s grand reopening in June 2021 after the museum spent 13 months shuttered due to COVID-19. The 10,000-square-foot science center features recycled objects inside and out, including bird sculptures made from recycled metal; an exercise bicycle reconfigured to generate electricity for an exhibit; two Nissan electric motors; and a jet turbine with turning blades.

“As an industry, what we’re trying to do is just raise visibility and understanding of recycling,” says Andrew Rice, CFC’s vice president. “Austin has been a great ambassador for us and the Hands-On Science Center. He’s found a way to intertwine the two.”

CFC also helped the museum with an aluminum can collection drive in April involving pupils in Coffee, Franklin, and Moore counties in Middle Tennessee. “Austin took one of our trucks and dropped gaylord boxes off at each school so that they had a spot to collect them,” Rice explains. Collected cans went to CFC for processing and payment at $1 per pound.

Decherd Elementary School, the winner of the drive, collected 696 pounds of cans. Combining payment from CFC and money from an Air Force grant for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, the center awarded the school $4,600—enough for two field trips to the site for each class.

The science center, which will turn 27 years old on Aug. 27, has applied to the state for grant funding for a 30-by-60-foot outdoor maze that would incorporate rubber from recycled tires as a base. It uses grant money to release take-home kits for electromagnets, solar-powered toy bugs, and even mini water-filtration kits that contain a plastic bottle, charcoal, gravel, and sand. “We have reached 48 states and 13 different countries,” Sisco says. “We’re a very small museum, but we have a significant impact.”

CFC makes an impression outside its facility and the museum. Andrew Rice is a member of the Tullahoma Board of Zoning Appeals, which is envisioning what the city will look like in 2040. “Something that was added into our 2040 plan is that the city would consider buying things such as asphalt paving using recycled tire rubber,” he says.

Tullahoma has a Go Green! Council that raises residents’ awareness about environmental impacts and sustainability. Sisco is CFC’s liaison to the committee. Andrew Rice adds that ISRI member Sonoco has a plant in Tullahoma that produces foam packaging and has some recycling capacity.

Community involvement has been part of the family business since Tom Rice founded CFC in 1989. He has served in leadership positions in ISRI’s Southeast Region, including as president in 2017-19. His wife, Karen, also has served the ISRI region in leadership. She and Andrew’s wife, Emily, have worked on the board of Partners for Healing, a nonprofit that provides free primary healthcare for working uninsured people in Coffee, Franklin, and Moore counties in Tennessee.

“We do our best to try to be a part of the community and a good actor in the community,” Andrew Rice says. “I would say a lot of these ideas that we have, or we’ve done in the community has been spurred on through our involvement in ISRI. The camaraderie and the general share of information, whether it’s at the meetings, or through Scrap News, are important for our industry, because we’re such a unique industry, and have such a great story to tell.”

In addition to its longtime vehicle and metals recycling operations, CFC expanded in December 2021 into paper, acquiring a nearby cardboard recycling and warehousing facility. The Rice family also owns South Central Waste Services in McMinnville, Tenn., where Sisco is the environmentalist.

“I think that our world is moving toward [recycling companies] who can handle all sorts of things for people with the understanding of how do we divert [materials] from the landfill and recycle as much as we can? Then well, if we can’t, then it’s going to go to the landfill—but we can handle that for you too,” Andrew Rice says.

All photos courtesy of Austin Sisco. Featured photo caption: The Hands-On Science Center’s Dino Tots play area incorporates recycled materials and features dinosaurs created by Manchester, Tenn., artist Soozie Lowry. Body photos caption: Different parts of the exhibit use reclaimed coffee bags, paper rolls, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans as building materials.

Dan Hockensmith

Dan Hockensmith

I'm a native Ohioan who since 2014 has called Maryland home. My background includes print, broadcast, and digital journalism; government contracting; and marketing communications.