Have you ever considered what happens to the materials you put into the recycling bin after they are picked up from your curb?
I would be willing to bet most of us just push the “I believe” button that the city you are in just takes care of it from there and turns that old garbage right back into new products you buy at the store.
The problem is “wish-cycling” doesn’t make it so. Just because you put something into the recycle bin doesn’t mean it will become a new or different product. One of the biggest hurdles the recycling industry faces daily is contamination. Yes, that container still filled with mayo or peanut butter gets tossed into the heap with the rest of the mixed recycling and ends up ruining the entire lot of paper, cardboard and other plastics. These contaminants, along with things like hoses, plastic film, and Styrofoam just aren’t currently recyclable.
The real journey begins once the collection trucks land at the Material Recovery Facility (MRF) in your city. This facility is the heart of your city’s recycling program, where huge end loaders move the materials from the “tipping floor” into a large hopper that feeds the system. This system typically consists of miles of conveyors, magnets, grinders, optical sorters, AI-powered robotic arms, and people doing quality control (QC) checks all along the way. Most MRFs take out the easy-to-recycle materials first. These would typically be glass, aluminum, tin, steel, cardboard, paper, and #1 and #2 plastics.
Each material has its own little journey to be sure it’s what it is supposed to be and sorted accordingly with similar materials. Once the materials are sorted down to their particulars, they are bound and pressed into large bales that get loaded into a trailer where they are purchased by manufactures that can take those bales and actually do something useful with them.
For instance, HDPE, (aka, #2 plastic bales) can go through yet another rigorous chipping, washing and sorting facility where, at the end of the line, there is a clean, ready-to-be-used material stream that can be added to the virgin materials to make new products that will again go through this entire process. This is called cradle to cradle recycling and it’s the ideal way to handle our precious resources.
Here’s a cool video of the process.
However, not all materials can do this and even through all the technological / mechanical sorting, materials fall through and end up on the residue conveyor destined for the landfill. This is typically due to contamination.
Contamination occurs way upstream by us, the users, simply not knowing enough about our systems and carelessly discarding items into the recycle stream that cannot or should not be there. NOT cleaning / emptying out the known recyclable containers is another way the system breaks down and creates problems downstream in the MRFs. Simply washing and emptying out your containers could mean the difference between entire bales of recycled goods getting to have a new life or going into the landfill to degrade for thousands of years or worst yet, floating off to one of the Pacific Gyres.
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