View From a Recycling Center

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Truck on tipping floor of recycling center

More than 250,000 tons of recyclables are dropped off at Reuter MRF each year. Photo: Jennifer Berry, Earth911.com

It’s one thing to talk about, encourage and participate in recycling. It’s another to see what really happens when our waste is taken “away.”

When the Earth911.com Editorial Staff received an invitation to visit a Waste Management recycling center, we couldn’t resist. Where is “away”? What happens when our waste gets there? And would our experience live up to our expectations?

In September, our staff toured Reuter Recycling Material Recovery Facility (MRF) located in Pembroke Pines, Fla. The facility services more than 10 counties in the south Florida area, including Miami-Dade and Brower County.

Each year, the work at this MRF saves 2.8 billion gallons of water, 472 million kilowatts of electricity and 368,000 cubic yards of landfill space.

Suiting up

Before the tour of Reuter began, we donned hard hats, safety glasses, gloves, reflective vests and listening devices. Seven hundred to 800 trucks drop 3,000 to 4,000 tons of materials each day on the Reuter tipping floor (literally where the materials are “tipped” out of the trucks), and the facility has one of the highest capacities of any Waste Management MRF in the country.

Surprisingly, Reuter is a popular spot for tour groups ranging from children to students to seniors. “People who come to check out the plant leave with a new sense of ownership of their recycling,” says Shiraz Kashar, community outreach coordinator and Earth911.com’s tour guide.

“A lot of people look at this and say ‘garbage,'” he says. But Kashar compares the materials they collect to a diamond in the rough – one that just needs a bit of cleaning to extract its true value.

Shiraz Kashar, Waste Management, and Raquel Fagan, Earth911.com, overlook the tipping floor where 700 to 800 trucks bring recyclables each day. Photo: Jennifer Berry, Earth911.com

Shiraz Kashar, Waste Management, and Raquel Fagan, Earth911.com, overlook the tipping floor where 700-800 trucks bring recyclables each day. Photo: Jennifer Berry, Earth911.com

“They come here expecting to learn about recycling, which is great. But what’s really important to understand is the amount of waste we create,” says Kashar.

And we generate a great deal of waste – about 4.62 pounds per person per day, as of 2007.

“We have four sustainability goals,” says Lynn Brown, vice president of corporate communications for Waste Management. “One of them is to triple the amount of recyclables that we manage by 2020.”

One of the ways to increase recycling volume is to offer single-stream collection to customers. Reuter is such a facility, meaning that all types of recyclables can be placed in one bin before they arrive for processing – a tactic that greatly increases communities’ participation in and enthusiasm about recycling.

The switch to single-stream is working for Reuter. According to Dawn McCormick, Waste Management’s community affairs manager for the south Florida market area, participation in recycling has increased 30 percent in the last 18 months since the facility went single-stream.

Inner-workings

It is important to pay close attention to what can and cannot be recycled in your area. Every eight hours, this equipment must be shut down to remove plastic bags that become entangled in the fast-moving equipment. Photo: Jennifer Berry, Earth911.com

Walking the floor at Reuter adds a greater sense of appreciation for the technology that enables the facility to be a successful single-stream MRF.

Using a combination of manual and mechanical technologies, the facility can sort, process and bale up to 40 tons of materials per hour – approximately 250,000 tons of recyclables per year.

Materials such as newspaper, mail, telephone books, glass containers, steel and aluminum food and beverage containers, and plastic containers numbered 1-7, are all processed under its roof with speed and efficiency.

Their optical plastics  sorter has over a 90 percent accuracy rate, ensuring that the materials are properly separated – quickly. And of all the materials that enter the facility, only 10-15 percent are not recycled. Generally, this is because items are placed incorrectly in the recycling bin.

But occasionally, the materials received are a bit on the, well, wacky side. Everything from bowling balls to engine parts and garden hoses to pallet jacks have been tossed into a recycling bin and made it to Reuter.

The good news is that, of the materials that cannot be recycled at Reuter, these are not landfilled but go directly to the MRF’s sister waste-to-energy plant (stay tuned for our adventures there in a future post!).

However, tossing non-recyclable items into your recycling bin has a bigger cost than trying to figure out what to do with an old bowling ball. These items cost time, money and create hazards on the job for plant workers.

“Plastic bags are the biggest nuisance in the recycling process,” says Kashar as we walk past some 90 whirring conveyor belts. The bags get caught in the quickly spinning machinery, and at the end of every eight-hour shift, the entire line must be shut down so the bags can be cut from the equipment.

The big picture

Waste Management as a whole operates 103 recycling facilities that process more than 7.6 million tons of recyclables per year. The company is North America’s largest residential recycler. With recycling bringing in 5 percent of its revenue in 2009, this particular endeavor is a top priority. And while facilities like Reuter showcase the effectiveness of single-stream collection, the company is looking to other avenues to increase the amount of materials that can be processed.

“There’s another way, and that’s to recycle things that you didn’t recycle previously […] like compact fluorescent bulbs, like e-waste,” says Brown.

In the past, Waste Management has surveyed eco-sentiments, asking participants what defines an environmental steward. “Recycling pops right to the top,” according to Brown.

“I think there’s momentum behind recycling. I think recycling is one of those things that people really understand and believe makes a difference, which is good,” she adds.

But no matter the technology offered, successful recycling comes down to participation. “People put the bag out on the curb, and it goes ‘away.’ And they have to own a decision, right? They own the decision of ‘do I put it in the recycling’ or ‘do I put it in the disposal.’

The more people who see and know what we do, the more you’ll have making that selection correctly […] To me it’s about showing people what we do – and shame on us if we don’t show them.”

Check out a video of the Reuter MRF.

In September, a few members of the Earth911.com Editorial Staff visited three facilities operated by Waste Management: a recycling center, waste-to-energy plant and landfill. This story is the first in a series analyzing the technologies and capabilities in play that create an efficient system to maximize the recovery and utilization of waste.

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