Posted on: July 18, 2017

Nature Notes: Following the Recycling Stream


Every Friday morning Bates Trucking Crew makes its way through the neighborhood to pick up recyclable materials from our curbside. But as the waste collection vehicle speeds off into the distance, most of us are left with a nagging series of questions: Where do those materials go once they're picked up? Will they actually be recycled? Recycling has become one of the most successful, planetary positive movements in the past 45 years. But the days of sorting recyclables are long past and have been replaced by a system termed “single stream” recycling. Yet what happens after all those bits of glass, cardboard, plastic, paper, and metal get hauled away? To answer this, we did some investigative reporting and have followed the process from Brentwood to Capital Heights to Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis to China!

First, the Bates Crew is a trucking company and merely transports all of our recycling materials to the Capital Heights Recycling Center at 1000 Ritchie Road. There the material is dropped onto a tipping floor which is essentially a huge room filled with potential recyclable material. This single-stream recycling center is part industrial facility, part warehouse, and part educational center serving all of PG County. However, this Capital Heights facility is also commonly referred to as a MRF (Material Recovery Facility) and only handles part of the recycling process. Each and every Bates truck pays a tipping fee of around $25/ton to deposit our recycling into the MRF where all of the material is sifted and sorted into recoverable units. Next, an inloader puts the material into a drum feed and the sorting begins! This is accomplished by a unique combination of hard manual labor and high technology with machines which employ magnets and electric currents to separate different metals. Infrared lasers sort different kinds of paper and plastic containers from one another.

The various materials are all recycling hopefuls moving through an orchestrated, part human, part automated assembly line of conveyer belts that separate the material into commodities (cardboard, aluminum, glass, Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or #1 plastic), high-density plastics, single use plastic bottles, other metals and plastics) for post-consumer resale. The system is not perfect. We are part of the inefficiency when we include non-recyclable materials into our bins. About 15% our recycling does end up in a landfill.

Once all of the materials (now commodities) are sorted they are baled, shredded, crushed and compacted for shipment to offsite reprocessing facilities. Aluminum is the most valuable material and garners about $1000 to $1500 per ton, while glass is more challenging to sell in the current market. Much of the aluminum (Anheuser-Busch is a major buyer) and plastic stays here in the United States while the majority of the paper and some plastics are shipped internationally, especially to China. Regardless of where the materials are shipped, there follows a complex process to return these materials back into the hands of the consumer – us. For example, with plastics they are washed (to reduce contamination) and shredded during a process termed agglomeration to produce small granules. Recycled granules will be shipped to manufacturers in the U.S., China and beyond, where they will be used to make carpets or polyester fabric or even a new dress. Other granules can be melted and homogenized with heat to produce pellets. The pellets are then heated and forced into molds or extruded into new bottles.

Every piece of material that we can recycle has a positive impact on the planet and recycling one ton of plastic saves 16.3 barrels of oil (Stanford Study).

So, rest assured that your recycling is helping the ecosystem and cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions, but don’t get caught up in “wish-cycling” by throwing things into our Bates containers that are not actually recyclable hoping that they will somehow magically be recycled. They will not be recycled and will end up reducing the efficiency of the process and just filling up our landfills. For more information on what is considered unacceptable, check out the following website. http://www.princegeorgescountymd.gov/575/Unacceptable-Items

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