Resource Recovery

What happens to the stuff in your blue bin.
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What happens to the stuff in your blue bin.

Last week, on earth day, I paid a visit the state-of-the-art recycling facility in Williston' Vermont on a quest to find out what happens to cans, bottles, paper and all those yogurt containers that I diligently take to the recycling area of my local dump each weekend. Jess Sankey, Chittenden Solid Waste District's (CSWD) outreach coordinator took me around to show me what really happens to our recycling.

CSWD Materials Recovery Facility (MRF, which rhymes with Smurf) accepts all-in-one recycling, which means no peeling off labels, separating glass from plastic or other headaches for you or me. They take care of all the sorting at the facility, with a complex series of belts, disks, big machinery and good old elbow grease.

The process at the facility starts when trash haulers collect recyclable materials curbside or from the recycling ares of regional dumps, or it's trucked in from areas that don't have their own MRFs. Dump trucks arrive loaded with recycling. They get weighed on a drive-on to a scale, tip their load onto a cement floor warehouse, then get weighed on the way out. The load is pushed onto a conveyor belt by a bucket loader and taken to a presort room where workers remove trash that's been mixed in, like old shoes, doll heads, kids toys, paint sets, plastic bags and other recycling pollutants. Then, the load is pushed through three series of screens with spinning metal star shaped disks that use gravity and momentum to separate corrugated cardboard, which floats above the rest of the material, and containers and mixed paper, which fall or are blown through the screens into their appropriate bays. Newspaper and magazines are hand sorted from office paper and other smaller, mixed paper, which hits another series of screens and disks, and then once more heads to the sorting room.

Next, plastics, glass and metal are put through additional screens and hand and mechanical sorting devices, including a giant magnet which yanks steel cans out of the line. Workers hand sort clear and white plastic from colored plastic. All of it is baled with like materials.

Meanwhile, the glass bottles have fallen through one of the first screens, where they are ground up into various sizes from smooth sided chunks to powder. Paper labels are filtered out, and the glass is used in road paving and construction.

All in all, more than 1000 spinning disks sort about 80 percent of what comes through, with eighteen humans on three conveyor lines responsible for the rest. All in all, the facility processes about 22 tons of recyclable material each hour, with recyclables taking about 30 minutes to get through the cycle. Recyclables are about 95% of what comes in. The rest is trash.

When all is said and done, most of the recycled material goes to make new products of the same value. There is little downcycling. Newspapers go to Quebec for news printing, cardboard goes to Quebec and New York to be made into new cardboard, white paper goes to Maine and New York to be made into tissue. #1 plastic (PETE) is sent to Georgia and made into carpet, #2 (HDPE or colored plastic) is recyled into piping and containers, #2 (HDPE, white) is made into Tyvek at a variety of locations, aluminum goes to New York and is made into new cans, steel is sent to Ontario to make new steel, aluminum foil goes to Canada where it's cleaned and made into new aluminum foil.

What slows the process down? Trash that's thrown into the recycling bin whether accidentally or inadvertently. Bottle caps, plastic bags, dirty food containers, pieces of children's toys, shoes and all kinds of other junk somehow end up in the blue bins and then have to be sorted out by hand. Why it's a problem: companies buying recycling from CSWD can reject an entire bale (700-1700 pounds) if they look at it and determine it has more than 3% contamination. That bale then becomes trash

A couple of fun facts I learrned from Jess: the newspaper you recycle could be back in your hands in the form of a new newspaper in a week. An aluminum can can be back on the shelves in 60 days. And aluminum is the most valuable recyclable. CSWD gets around $1700 per 700 pound bale of aluminum. There are about 17,000 cans in one bale. By contrast, CSWD makes no money recycling yogurt containers. In fact sometimes they have to pay someone to take the material for reuse instead of visa versa, but they do keep those containers out of the landfill.

What you can do? Liter to Jess' spiel, recycle everything you can, but keep your trash out of your blue bin. It'll make the whole process more efficient and ensure that your recycling is made into new products and doesn't just end up as trash.

Applause to Jess, by the way. She teaches over 9000 kids about recycling each year. Yay Jess!

Watch CSWD's video here.