Trash Talkin! My visit to the recycling facility.

September 26, 2011 in Recycling

Trash… unites us.  It doesn’t discriminate.  It’s something we all have to deal with.  We all produce it and we all need to get rid of it.  I also believe that there’s no dissonance – regardless of your income, race, gender, political party – that we should get rid of municipal trash in the cleanest, swiftest, and most economical way.  Could someone really argue that “dirty trash” is just a “scientific theory that has not been proven”?  I don’t think so.

This article is a bit different from the others – because I want to share with you my experience visiting a recycling facility and my feelings in general about trash.

The input hall at the Casella Facility in Charlestown, MA where the recyclable materials are dropped off.

This past week, I had the seriously amazing opportunity to visit a recycling facility.  If you live in Cambridge, MA, you could also have this opportunity.  The city organizes monthly visits for residents, so email Cambridge Recycling at recycle@cambridgema.gov to sign up!

Have you ever wondered where your recycling goes after you throw your bottles and cans into your pretty toter?  Every city is slightly different in its recycling management (so check your town’s website) but my experience will give you the general picture.  In Cambridge, since October of last year, the city has implemented the “single stream recycling” approach, also now known as “zero sort recycling”.  Both mean the same thing – basically that you put everything that is recyclable, paper, cardboard, plastics, metals, and glass, all into the same container for recycling.

Recycling trucks will then come for pickup 1x/week to bring the materials to the Casella Facility in Charlestown to separate the products and then resell the recycled materials!

In addition to the high-tech machines, quality control employees remove unaccepted materials all throughout the separation process at the recycling facility.

The facility has very high-tech and sophisticated (and just super cool) technology to separate the various materials.  For instance, to separate aluminum cans, eddy currents are used to create a reverse magnetic field and repel the aluminum cans away from the conveyor belt.   For the plastics, they have a crazy enormous database stored with all commercial plastics and product information, and they use a 60-camera infrared sensor system to analyze and classify polymers, fibers, and other characteristics to identify products on a fast-rolling (500ft/minute) conveyor belt.  Once the product is identified, an air-jet will launch the item in a specific direction depending on its plastic type (PET, HDPE, PVC, …). Check out this video that I took of the sensor system.

Once the various materials are separated, they are compacted and packaged into “bushels”, weighing on the order of 1000 pounds.

Once the materials are separated, they are compacted, packaged, and sold to companies that make new products out of the recyclable materials.

These “bushels” are then sold to customers.  That’s right – recycling is a commercial (and quite profitable for that matter) business.

This experience clearly had a significant impression on me, as I think it would on others —I believe that if we are brought to clearly understand what happens to our waste, we will act differently.  Though recycling is better than throwing things away, it’s still an extremely complex process.  The best way to divert trash is — just not to produce it in the first place.

Of course, we will never completely stop generating waste.  But we can behave more responsibly.  Visiting a recycling center will definitely help you realize that throwing an empty pizza box in the recycling bin as opposed to the trash bin will make a big difference (that’s right, empty pizza boxes are now recyclable in Cambridge).

Furthermore, I want to give you a bit of recycling economics that I think will make you think twice about how to sort your curbside trash.

Approximately 60% of your waste is recyclable.  Another 20-30% is compostable.  If you recycle and compost, you could reduce your waste to 10% of what it is today!  “So what?” you may ask.  Not only does this mean diverting waste from incinerators and landfills which have significant environmental implications, but it’s extremely economical for your city!

In a nutshell, on one hand, Cambridge pays a tipping fee of about $90/ton to send waste to the incinerator.  On the other hand, the tipping fee for Casella’s recycling facility is $15/ton.  Moreover, Casella will PAY BACK Cambridge, depending on market prices for the recycled materials.  Less waste to the incinerator means more money for the town.  A lot more*.

* The city of Cambridge collects over 30,000 tons of waste and recycling per year (this excludes waste which is collected by private haulers).  Of the 30,000 tons, 44% is recycling – not bad, Cambridge!  Therefore, recycling currently saves the city almost $1 million per year in avoided disposal fees.  If everyone recycled 25% more, the city would save an additional $315,000 per year

So yes, I encourage you to become more in touch with where your waste goes.  Call your recycling center.  See if you can visit facilities. I know that Cambridge also organizes visits to the incinerator.  I’m very excited for that trip.  Well, not sure if “excited” is the right word for visiting an incinerator.  But I am curious.  And I’m sure it will have an added impact on me – and my behavior.

If you live in the Cambridge area, I also invite you to check out the free Trash Talk lectures at Harvard focusing on the anthropology of waste.  I attended the “Rags, Bones, and Plastics: Trash in Industrial America” giving a historical overview of trash in America over the past 150 years (basically, trash did not really exist before the Industrial Revolution).

That’s right, it’s time to start talkin’ trash.