The hard part about recycling–and waste disposal in general–is that we never get any feedback. If we’re doing something that doesn’t work for the disposal system, we have almost no way of ever knowing that we’re even doing anything wrong, let alone given a chance to improve.
And I, for one, have a million questions about the details of the whys and hows.
Why ISN’T styrofoam recyclable, even though it’s labeled as #6? I really can’t just toss it in, and it will make its way to the right place? Why do the plastic bags have to be recycled at the grocery store separately rather than going in the recycle bin, even though they’re #2 plastic? Is it better to leave the lids on plastic bottles or off? Does it matter if we take the labels off things? Exactly how much peanut butter do I need to rinse out of the jar before tossing it? Should I flatten cardboard and smash bottles before tossing them?
I like to know the details, because realistically, someone–a person, a human being, an employee of the plant–has to sort it out when we don’t do something right. And I’d like to know what I can do make that person’s job just a little bit better.
My visit to the local materials recovery facility allowed me (as well as others on the tour) the opportunity to ask just those kinds of questions. And what I learned was very interesting.
Surprisingly, the machines sort the stuff pretty well. This particular plant just upgraded to some state of the art sorting equipment, which made the job of hand sorting much, much easier. What kept recurring in our conversations was that the lack of education (or plain laziness) of patrons, concerning what can be recycled, clogs the system at every turn. Their biggest problem is that the equipment can’t process what it wasn’t designed to handle. That’s why it’s so important for all of us to only put in our recycle bins what’s meant to go in the bins.
That’s mainly why they need quality control staff in the first place. And as I looked down the pit into the piles of inappropriate things they pulled out, I could see they weren’t kidding. A mangled shopping cart, crutches, a broken wheelchair, old stained pillows, and countless plastic bags, sheet plastic, styrofoam, and more were being sorted into piles for disposal outside of their facility.
Any time something that’s not meant for their system gets in, it slows down the whole process. They have to take the time to pull it out manually, and if they miss it, it could jam the machinery down the line, or affect the quality of the baled materials they’re selling, affect the resale value of those bales, and even affect the quality of the materials remade from those recovered materials, if they’re “tainted” with pieces of things that aren’t supposed to be there.
So as for some of my questions earlier, I got the opportunity to ask! And I got some good feedback.
Regarding plastic bags, they’re one of the worst things for the whole plant. Not only can the equipment not process them, but they routinely get sucked into the machinery, jamming it. It actually breaks the gears and can compromise the whole plant’s ability to process anything at all. They wreak havoc on the system at every turn. If there was only one main thing the plant workers could ask everyone to do, it would be to NOT put any plastic bags of any kind into the recycling. That includes sheet plastic, plastic wrap, bubble wrap, those air pocket things used in shipping (even though they say right on the bag they can be recycled), and any kind of plastic grocery or storage bags.
Styrofoam is too light to be sorted properly, and it doesn’t have
much any resale value, it’s just not profitable to process, and it’s difficult to remake it into much else. They said that it’s much better to try to get people to stop producing, buying, using, and disposing of styrofoam in the first place rather than trying to make it into something else. (I tend to think that about single-use disposable containers in general, but…..that’s a discussion for another time.) Additionally, paper or cardboard are much better alternatives to styrofoam in just about every instance.
Shredded paper is too small to go through the sort process–literally falling through the cracks onto the floor–and will get swept into the trash. They CAN process shredded paper, but it should be tied in a clear bag and labeled so the hand sorters can see what it is and can pull it out and place it with the paper. This can be the ONLY exception to the no plastic bags rule. Putting it in a paper bag or other type of container is fine, just make sure it’s clearly labeled that it’s shredded paper, otherwise they just have to tear it open to make sure it’s not everyday trash. (Once it’s torn open, you can guess what happens from there…scattered on the floor to be disposed of elsewhere.)
Same with lids of bottles and other tiny bits of material: the machinery just isn’t designed to sort small pieces. Lids have a much better chance of getting to where they are going if they stay attached to the bottles. And if the bottles are smashed before the lids are put on, it makes even more likely that they’ll both make it to where they’re going. I heard lots of “POP” sounds from lids blowing off plastic bottles as they were run over by bulldozers and such as they were being pushed toward the entry conveyor. I imagine that also affects the safety of the workers down there too. No one wants to get hit by a jet-propelled plastic cap. And while receiving 400-700 tons of recycling material per day, I imagine the fact that it just plain takes up less space makes a big difference too.
Here’s a shot of the floor, in case you’re mildly curious about what falls through the cracks…
Paper labels should come off so they will get sorted into the paper rather than heading off with the glass, tin, or plastic container they’re attached to. This cuts down on contamination in the final bales of material.
Now as for the giant pieces of metal, while the system can’t process it, they end up with so much of it, the facility itself carts it to scrap metal places for cash. They said they’re not really thrilled to have to pull it out manually, but it is a source of extra revenue for them. And they were really pulling a bunch of it out. The problem with that is it takes more human power to do that. And it can impact both the machinery and the finished baled products if it doesn’t get all pulled out by hand in the first stage of sorting. I can imagine they get a pretty good chunk of change from all that stuff, that bin was enormous:
The best thing to keep in mind is what I mentioned earlier, that the system can’t process what it wasn’t designed to handle. Otherwise, the sorting system works quite well. And it would work even better if we could all make sure to do the best we can to put into the system only what was supposed to be there.
So go back and take a second look at your neighborhood’s collection policy. Check with your recycling coordinator if you have specific questions, or ask them what facility handles the recycling and contact them directly. They can’t make their recycling system better without our informed efforts.
It was a little challenging to take pictures during the tour portion, as it was important to keep moving and stay with the group, but I have a few to share. Enjoy!