Fat raindrops splattered my windshield as I pulled the Hyundai into Waste Management Inc.’s recycling facility on Neville Island on a Friday morning in March. I couldn’t wait to finally tour the place, see how this whole single-stream recycling thing works, and find out just what-in-the-heck’s going on with our used shampoo bottles now that China’s not buying America’s plastic waste anymore.
Past an office building, through a gate, an enormous garage sat in the distance, with open bays revealing front-loaders and excavator vehicles (*I know because I’ve read “Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site” with my kids five thousand times) scooping mounds of trash—er, recycling—from one pile to another; men wearing hardhats driving little Bobcats that beeped as they sped along.
I hurried toward the visitors’ door to an office looking for Hannah Samuels, Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator for Allegheny CleanWays, who organized this field trip. CleanWays does hard-core, illegal dump site cleanups all around Pittsburgh and beyond, on land and water. Hannah does education presentations, too, and spends her free time picking up litter because she likes getting dirty. “The message is not just ‘don’t litter,’” she says. “It’s reduce consumption.”
We’re cut from the same cloth, I think.
Inside Waste Management’s meeting room I met other tour attendees; folks from Friends of the Riverfront, Sustainable Pittsburgh, along with ordinary citizens like me who were hungry to learn. We made idle chitchat, ogling the framed posters on the walls that announced nuggets of wisdom like how aluminum cans can be recycled, remade into new products, and put back on the shelves within 60 days.
Erika Young took over as our recycling concierge, I’ll call her, though her actual title is Public Affairs Coordinator for Waste Management, Inc. She knows everything about recycling, but reminded us that while her company covers much of Western Pennsylvania, residential and commercial, they do not operate within the City of Pittsburgh. City recycling is processed at the Hazelwood facility run by Recycle Source. While the City may have different rules, much of what Erika shared are standardized practices that MRF’s, or Material Recovery Facilities, use nationwide. (*Please keep in mind, what I'm about to tell you is my interpretation of what I learned. To get a full understanding of the MRF process, reach out to your local facility to inquire about taking your own tour.)
“When in doubt, throw it out,” were some of Erika’s first words, which I took like a punch in the gut. Apparently, much of the junk I’ve been tossing into my blue bin is considered “contamination,” and it messes up the whole single-stream system.
Up to 20% of Waste Management’s annual recycling haul ends up being contaminated—and thus sent to the landfill—because many of us are doing it wrong.
Beyond contamination, China’s only taking our plastic #1s and 2s these days, and very few U.S. companies want more plastic waste. While most of us happily toss in containers with the numbers 3 through 6 etched onto the bottoms, recyclers (even though they may be under contract to collect it) have no choice but to--gulp—throw that stuff in the landfill.
The ‘Tipping Floor’ of the facility, where all the sorting machines operate, can be hazardous, Erika explained, so she showed us a video instead before we headed out to that giant garage. It revealed close-up reels behind the scenes showing how cardboard boxes and yogurt tubs are sorted for their next incarnation.
What Goes On Inside That Place?!
There are 5 steps to the process in total, involving various chutes, racks, rollers, puffs of air and weight detectors to differentiate glass from cereal boxes from coffee cans. Real, live human beings are tasked with Step 1 of the sorting process. Dudes, mostly, use their hands to take heaps of refuse, spread them onto a conveyor belt, and pull out all the crap that shouldn’t be in there.
“Bowling balls, couch cushions, and yes, even deer carcasses,” Erika explained, are just some of the non-recyclable items people toss in that have to be diverted to the trash. Dog poop is another common item the guy who picked up my curbside recycling this morning told me he wishes people would stop including.
When the dudes come across our stuff that’s bagged up instead of hanging free, they tear the bags open, dump out our bottles and cans, then toss the bags into the trash, too.
If a bag isn’t see-through, they throw the whole thing out, end of story. God knows, there could be needles, broken glass, or someone’s severed foot in there, and the sorting dudes aren’t taking any chances. Can you blame them?
But it’s not just our opaque bags that are screwing up the system. It’s all bags. Even the blue ones you *thought* were made specifically for recycling. It turns out those blue bags were touted as an easy solution to get people recycling in the nineties when we all started celebrating Earth Day in earnest. Here in Pittsburgh, it was an agreement between Sophie Masloff’s administration and local grocery stores, bless their well-meaning hearts, to do something non-destructive. Read more about it in this Post Gazette article from 2018.
The bags were intended to be a mere signal to the sanitation guys who pick up curbside that the stuff in blue is recycling, not garbage. From there, those bags have always become trash. They don’t get recycled.
If you want to recycle plastic bags, keep them in one big heap and take them to a plastic-bag-dropoff bin like they have at Giant Eagle stores across the tristate area. You can include everything from plastic cracker sleeves to frozen fruit bags, as long as they’re clean.
The heroic guys who are hand-sifting materials at Step 1 on the conveyor belt are working as fast as they can to send our refuse to Step 2, where our milk jugs and glass jars get “fluffed” by a machine for further sorting. But sometimes plastic bags get sucked into the machine on the way. And that’s where things can go very wrong.
Imagine your vacuum brush again, only way bigger. And instead of bendable bristles on the underside, there are heavy-duty, five-pointed discs about 12 inches in diameter, that rotate on the wheel. Plastic bags—and strands of Christmas lights, and cassette tapes—get wrapped around the points, slow the machine down and eventually stop it altogether, just like your sweeper. The guys have to manually go in there with box cutters to untangle the stuff, and that eats up a lot of time.
That can mean a major setback for a facility that’s processing ten thousand tons of material annually.
And to think that some of us are actually purchasing blue plastic bags for our recycling is ludicrous. It just goes to show how a seemingly decent idea can create bad habits without us even realizing it.
Which is kinda how the experts are talking about single-stream recycling in and of itself these days. Once upon a time, we all thought tossing all our recyclables into the same bin was a good idea that would simplify everyone’s lives. Instead, it’s created a huge headache for processors, and left us adopting tons of bad practices.
So stop using plastic bags to get rid of your recycling. Use a bin instead, and let the jugs and tubs hang free.
And be thoughtful about what you buy before you buy—making sure bottles and tubs are recyclable #1s and 2s.
We had a million questions for Erika as our tour proceeded to the place where materials are bundled like hay bales and sent off to be re-produced. Below are some of the topics we wondered about that might help you improve your recycling habits, too:
Glass: It’s a low-value commodity and there’s not a viable commercial demand for it. While Waste Management is under contract with many communities to continue accepting it, they no longer have a contract to pick up glass from folks living in the South Hills, so they recommend taking your glass to pop-up events around town that are being held by Pennsylvania Resources Council (PRC). Click here for the schedule and info.
PRC actually takes the time to sort and prepare recycled glass, then take it to buyers who actually want the stuff, only in good condition. They say that while plastic can only be made into a water bottle once (and is then “down-cycled” to a lower quality product), glass can be remade again and again and again and again…
The City of Pittsburgh still accepts glass, but to ensure that the material actually gets properly recycled, take it to a drop-off center like the one at Construction Junction in Point Breeze, at the corner of 31st and Railroad St. in Lawrenceville, or at 40 Melanchton Street in Hazelwood.
Keep in mind, broken shards of glass are considered recycling contaminants. They stick to fibrous cardboard or other materials and ruin the batch of recycling they’re attached to.
Liquid: Dump out your Pepsi before you toss it into the bin, okay? Otherwise it can contaminate everything near it.
Lids: Rubber-lined and plastic lids cause confusion and contamination. If they’re smaller than 2 inches in diameter, throw them in the trash. Erika says a pickle jar lid-size is okay; baby food jar-size not okay. She also says, of plastic water bottles, you *could* take the bottle, squeeze all the air out, then fasten the lid back on and it should make it through the machines alright, but conflicting advice says the small diameter gums up the machines, so it’s probably best to remove all lids. In fact, City of Pittsburgh doesn’t want any. And no, beer caps aren’t recyclable.
Paper Labels on Jars & Tubs: Leave them on if they’re securely fastened. Take them off if they’re dangling loose.
Cardboard Boxes: Break them down. (This is a special request from the team of awesome guys and ladies who pick up recycling in my neighborhood!)
Tape on Cardboard: if it’s fastened on well, keep it on. If it’s dangling, pull it off.
Staples on Paper & Cardboard: They’ll *probably* make it through the machines okay. Go ahead and leave them in, unless there’s like 20+ in a one-foot-square space.
Shredded Paper: Don’t put it in with the rest of your curbside recycling. Instead, put it into a paper bag and take it to a shredding event.
Peanut Butter Tubs: Give them a good wipe with a (recycled!) paper towel. You don’t even have to rinse them. As long as there’s not 5% or more of the food product still in there, it can be recycled. Washing containers can keep your house from stinking up and keep bugs at bay, but don’t go to too much trouble making them squeaky clean because that’s wasting water, which defeats the purpose.
Plastic Window in Envelopes: They’re trash that will contaminate the machines. Rip it out and toss it.
Paper: Should be a half sheet or larger in size to make it through the sorters.
Wet paper: If you know it’s going to rain all night, try to get your recycling out in the morning so the paper and cardboard aren’t soaking wet. Keep it all in a bin that has a drain hole or two in the bottom of it so it doesn’t fill up with water. The machines can handle some moisture, but liquid from soda or juice causes contamination.
Pizza Boxes: Garbage. They’re soaked in grease and can cause contamination.
Soda Can Tabs: Recyclable only when affixed to the can. If they’re removed, they’re too small for the sorter and they become instant trash.
Pet Food Bags (plastic lined inside, paper outside): They’re trash. *But* they’re great for disposing household hazards like nails, staples, and broken glass because they don’t (usually) puncture, so they’re a good way to get rid of sharp, pokey things.
Big Plastics: Baby pools, lids from rubber maid bins, laundry baskets: ALL TRASH
Scrap Metal: Not to be tossed in the trash! Take it to a specialty processor like Michael Brothers in Baldwin or Northside Scrap Metals, where you might even earn a few pennies for recycling!
Recycling is complex, and the goal is to keep it as simple as possible. What’s more important to remember is that recycling is a last resort—we should be reusing more and making a greater effort to reduce what we consume in the first place.
I'm Janeen; writer, mother, wife, and full-time, radical Reductionist. I share stupid-easy tips on how to save money while reducing your impact on the environment, & I'm committed to helping others live a life of simple sustainability.
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