Friday, January 04, 2008

Environmental Myth Friday ~ It's all recyclable

The start of my career was as a customer service rep to answer questions about a City's recycling program. I had some very entertaining conversations over the years to be sure. When it comes to recycling, everybody has an opinion. People read a news piece or hear something from a friend, and consider it their personal duty to call up and rag out some poor little intern to try and get the City to change its evil ways.

One conversation that stands out was with a woman who wondered why our city didn't have a program like Seattle where residents pay different rates based on the size of their trash containers. The incentive is to recycle more and throw less away. The less you throw away, the less you pay. The smallest container Seattle offers is a mere 12 gallons!

According to this woman, her trash bin was merely serving as overflow. Since she recycled "everything," she really didn't need a trash can at all, and shouldn't have to pay for it. Everything? I asked. Through the conversation, it was revealed that this woman was not particularly waste conscious - she had not implemented steps to reduce the amount of waste she generated in the first place. Her thought was that everything was recyclable, and that they would figure it out.

Is this the"they" she was referring to?

Once recyclables are picked up at the curb, they are taken to a Materials Recovery Facility, abbreviated as MRF and pronounced like MuRF. The collection trucks dump their loads on the tipping floor, and a tractor moves the material to a conveyor belt. There is usually some type of shredding device that partially opens trash bags. The rest of the job is done by a couple dozen human beings. Ok, to be honest, in some parts of the country where trash rates are at a premium, and technology to manage waste is more economically viable, and high-tech machines may be in place to sort out some commodities mechanically. But, here in sunny southern California we have cheap landfill rates and cheap labor, so what's the incentive to change?

Oh wait - one "high tech" machine I have seen at a local MRF was a spinning drum that picked up the lids of steel cans. I noticed all around the catwalk we were walking on, there were lids that had flown off of the drum at some point. I hightailed it out of there when I realized one of those puppies could come loose at any time and fly at me like a ninja star.

But I digress...Again, here in California, most of the MRF sorters are Latino, and, perhaps surprisingly, women. Men work in the more physically demanding jobs at the MRF. Gloves, masks, hats, goggles, and other safety gear are offered, but depending on the facility and applicable OSHA standards, not all of the safety articles are necessarily required to be worn. At one visit, the only sorter I saw wearing a mask was a woman who appeared to be six months pregnant. After visiting the facility mentioned above with the ninja star tin can lid hurler, I was hacking up black sh*t for 2 days afterwards, having stupidly not worn a mask myself during that tour.

Back to the sort line. The bags are partially ripped open, and the first two people finish ripping open the bag and clear the shredders (dangerous job). The material continues along a conveyor belt where people are stationed to pull certain items. An "easy" commodity may be aluminum cans. A more difficult commodity may be plastic of a certain number (the number with the recycle symbol around it on the bottom of many containers). The sorters pick their assigned commodity off the line and throw it in a chute that leads to a bin. Once that bin is full, the material is baled and waits to be picked up to go to the next line of processing.

There are some complicating factors to this process. One, contamination. If there is a half-filled jar of peanut butter with an aluminum can stuck in it, neither of those items are going to be pulled off the line. Make sure you rinse (afraid this practice will waste water? consider using the dishwasher or soak a bunch of containers together in the sink) and dry your items before placing them in the bin.

Contamination also involves materials that weren't supposed to be there in the first place: paper towels, the wrapper from the paper towel roll, a "composite" piece made of different plastics, like a toy. It is important to know which commodities your city takes in its recycling program because those are the materials that are being handled by the MRF. In theory, yes, everything is recyclable. If there was a market for the material and an identified way to handle it, then yes, we would have no trash, and I would be out of a job. But, it is hard enough to find a market for the items we do recycle. Our agency has heard both two scenarios presented to us to our faces - one, from a broker, stating that China (primary buyer of many recyclables) is very strict about the material they receive, and wants clean, single commodity bales and uses the material directly in the goods they are producing. Then, a contractor who told us he has been to plants in China that take mixed plastic bales and burn them for fuel. Unless we are willing to hitch a ride over on a cargo container, the answer to the question What happens to our recyclables? is murky at best. We'll save electronic waste recycling for another day's rant.

Another type of MRF is called a dirty MRF. Here, residents place all of their waste in one container and sorters at the dirty MRF dig through the mounds of cat crap, rotting meat, and dryer lint to find that one lousy aluminum can. Can you imagine? In the mix are also syringes (despite State law), live ammunition, and just about any other thing conceivable. Having a dirty MRF program supposedly makes the recycling program easier for residents to participate in, but at what cost?

As mentioned previously, many of our recyclables are being shipped overseas. How they are processed and whether or not they are returned to us in new products is not known. Wouldn't it be better if we were taking care of our own waste here? Or at least if we knew it was being processed "somewhere" and turned it into new goods (safely, of course)? The only way to ensure this happens is to buy recycled. Look for products that use post-consumer material in their packaging. Or look for goods that use less packaging to begin with. And be kind to those on the other end. "They" are pretty amazing folks to spend their days wading through our detritus, and are the true master recyclers.


Jenn said...

What a great post! I live in an area where we don't have separate fees for recycling pick up and so many people take it for granted and throw anything into our bins. I remember having arguments with a former roommate that broken lightbulbs were not appropriate to include in our recycling boxes. I'm looking forward to your future posts on this great theme!

Junie Moon said...

This information is very helpful, thank you. Our processing system is pretty much the same here in Tucson. I've tried to be very careful but have just recently learned that much of those things I thought were recyclable are some of the very items they have to remove. So, I shall apply this new learning to my recycling efforts.

woof nanny said...

I go house to house in my job as a house/dog sitter, and I am blown away by either people's lack of recycling, or recycling incorrectly. At the last house I was at, I had to pull items out of the blue bin (dry cleaning bags and hangers, paper towels, plastic bags, foam food containers). Most of the time, I find the Mexican maids and gardeners won't recycle at all, even when requested, signaling a cultural difference. I think a lot of the confusion deals with consumers lack of willingness to read instructions. In some areas, the trash men are pretty good about telling people what is and is not acceptable. But as the system becomes more and more automated and requires more quick work times, that diminishes. It also surprises me that recycling differs city to city in the same state. For example, the city I am currently staying in has no yard waste pick-up, so it all gets thrown away.

Jane said...

Great post! I just saw an Oprah show this week were a woman said in regards to trash, "We don't throw things away, we throw them to some place that is real." Now, you have further clarified that for me with recycling.

The big key is reduce.

joseph said...

I am a "Local Government Official" for a place you probably never heard of (Hernando County, Florida, pop. 169,000), and am engaged right now in an ongoing discussion in our community about the future direction of our solid waste management program. I was Googling "Dirty MRF" and among the hits was your blog from January 4, 2008. I was intrigued by what you wrote.

I take it you are (or have been) employed in some capacity in the business of solid waste recycling. I would be interested in any other information you might offer. If you are inclined to do so, my email address is

In addition you could also go to

and advancing the timer to 1:11:20 for the start of my recent presentation to our Board of County Commissioners.

One particularly passionate individual in our community wants the County to build a Dirty MRF, which is something I do not support. A neighboring county tried this some years ago, but abandoned the idea as it proved to be too costly and was ineffective. I also do not believe we are large enough to justify the start-up cost associated with such a facility. We have a rudimentary Clean MRF that has been around for close to 20 years. As a dedicated recycler myself, I believe separation at the source is a much better and more effective method of recycling. The contamination of recyclables caused by commingling is just too problematic.

Joe Stapf
Utilities Director
Hernando County, FL