Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Plano recycling plant an eye-opening experience
A mountain of recyclable material is somehow condensed into transportable bundles -- find out how.
PLANO It would seem that most of us would like to try to do our part for the environment these days, right? For a lot of people, at least those with access to it, recycling is the easiest and most cost-effective way to say, "Hey, I care about the planet." But many recycling bins and canisters, including those in Plano, have no means with which to sort the various materials that people put in it. How could truckfuls of recyclable material possibly be sorted to ensure everything is recycled properly?
That was my question when I visited the Allied Waste Services recycling center in Plano. Tommy Kirk, Operations Manager for the facility, took me on a tour to try and get a better idea of how the whole system works. The minute you walk into the cavernous warehouse, you are overwhelmed with the amount of material taking up nearly every corner of free space. According to Kirk, the facility takes in about 250 tons of material every day from Plano and eight other nearby towns and cities.
The sorting process
From the massive mountain of what looks like trash, the material is then put through the sorting process. The first thing you understand is that the process is far from perfect. Kirk acknowledges that about 5% contamination (i.e. non-recyclable material) is allowed to be put into bundles that are shipped from the plant (although companies receiving those bundles do put them through sorting of their own). Viewing the various steps, it’s hard to believe that more doesn’t get through.
Two or three hand sorters (aka actual human employees) are stationed at about 5-6 different points throughout the warehouse, each looking for things that don’t belong. There are also several devices that work to separate specific materials from others. The first step is rollers that are designed to keep large pieces of cardboard on top, allowing everything else to fall through the cracks onto another conveyor belt. Following that are more rollers that do the same for newspaper, a large magnet that sucks up tin cans and spits them into their proper bin, a machine called the Titech Polysort that is able to detect plastic bottles and throw them in the right direction, and finally a so-called reverse magnet that pulls aluminum cans into the correct bin.
I was instantly reminded of the classic I Love Lucy episode where Lucy and Ethel can’t keep up with the amount of chocolate sent their way, although I doubt any of these workers would resort to sticking trash in their mouth or down their shirts (thankfully, they have handy chutes close by for disposal of non-recyclables). It seems a demanding, if monotonous job, and one that lasts longer that you might think. The AWS plant employs two shifts of workers every day. On a normal busy day (which is pretty much every day, according to Kirk), the first shift goes from 5:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., followed by the night shift from 3:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. The workers generally process about 18-20 tons of material per hour.
Where does it go from here?
Kirk says that cardboard and newspaper bundles make up the majority of their business, as they fill up 6-10 trucks with newspaper and 4-5 trucks with cardboard every day. The materials are then shipped all over the country: newspaper to Alabama, plastics to Kentucky, cardboard to Oklahoma and elsewhere in Texas, and aluminum just down the road to Gold Metal Recyclers in Dallas (of course, this brings up just how much of a carbon footprint they make in order to recycle the material, but that's a fight for another day).
The one surprising thing that becomes not so surprising once you witness the process is that the vast majority of glass either arrives broken or becomes broken as it goes through sorting. Kirk indicated that 85% of the glass is unusable for regular (i.e. for-profit) recycling. That broken glass is still recycled, though, as it is donated to paving companies to be ground up for road material. Kirk is optimistic that AWS will soon be able to install a machine that will clean broken glass and make it usable for regular recycling. He's also hopeful that they will soon install another sorting station that will allow them to separate plastic bags for recycling.
Tips for recyclers
In an ideal recycling world, Kirk says that all materials should have their labels removed and all plastic bottles should have their caps taken off, as the plastic used for the caps is a different type than that used for the bottle itself. However, even if this doesn't happen, those materials are still put through the recycling process as the caps and labels represent a minute amount of material being recycled. In a world where people have tried to “recycle” bicycles, rubber hoses, and one time, according to Kirk, a deer carcass, plastic bottles with their caps still attached are a minor concern.
Recycling is not infallible and may not ever be, but signs point toward a brighter future. Kirk, who has been with Allied Waste for a little over a year, has seen the amount of material they receive increase by about 25 tons a day during his tenure. This would seem to indicate that more and more people are seeing the value of recycling, which can only mean good things in this one effort to preserve the environment.
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