Tour of Waste Management Facility Provides Lessons on How Recyclable Materials Are Collected and Processed

Stephanie Schwenger

The statistics are galling. We trash enough recyclable aluminum to rebuild the nation’s commercial air fleet four times every year. We throw away enough recyclable newspaper annually to build a 12-foot wall that stretches from California to New York. Each year, we bury 2 million tons (that’s 4,000,000,000 pounds!) of recyclable plastic bottles in landfills whose contents will not decompose in our lifetimes, if ever.
Even though few will admit they enjoy wasting anything (energy, time, or resources), somehow, when it comes to actual waste—to throwing away recyclable material that can be made into new products with less energy than it takes to extract raw materials—the disconcerting adage “out of sight, out of mind” persists.

waste-management-facility-tourThat’s why the ENGIE Insight Waste Solutions team recently took its Seattle-based colleagues for a tour of the Cascade Recycling Center in Woodinville, WA. The tour was designed to put waste “front and center, top of mind” and provide employees with an opportunity to learn how recyclable materials are collected and processed.

Kristin Kinder of Waste Management gave us a tour of the facility and armed us with valuable knowledge. The first lesson of the day? Recyclables are a resource used to produce new products, so rinse them well! Avoid contamination from food residue (e.g. those sticky peanut butter jars) that attracts unsavory elements like pests and mold to ensure the items you put in the blue bin actually get recycled.

As we witnessed firsthand, recyclables go straight from our bins at home to the collection truck to a recycling processing facility where they are promptly loaded onto a state-of-the-art conveyor. We watched, impressed, as the conveyer moved recyclables through a gauntlet of screens, magnetic belts, eddy currents, and air classifiers that separate materials into different containers and holding areas.

“From my understanding at first, I thought they were just taking it away and sorting it by hand. And now I see that they do it by machines. I feel like it’s really a process that could be replicated in other parts of the world that may not have a recycling program,” said one of my colleagues.

The second lesson of the day? Once sorted, recyclables are baled and then sent to various processors, all the way from China to Tennessee, for use in new goods. “I didn’t realize just how much recyclable materials are getting exported. That just makes me wonder if we could develop more local markets for reclaiming these materials to keep them in our own country,” said another teammate.

In fact, of the items that go through the Cascade Center, only glass, steel/tin cans, and scrap metal are reprocessed locally. These materials represent about 17% of recycling (by weight) processed per month at the center. We learned the strength of recycling markets depends on our demand as consumers for recycled products.

Our final lesson of the day? There are lots of things you can do to improve recycling, or better yet, to prevent waste in the first place:

  • Purchase products with less or no packaging, buy locally-made products, bring your own bags and containers when shopping, buy in bulk, or simply don’t buy at all.
  • Reuse materials instead of disposing them, purchase used products instead of new ones, or donate items in good shape to a favorite charity.
  • Rinse and properly recycling items that can’t be reused. Check your city’s solid waste and recycling website or with your waste hauler for specifics about what can be recycled in your area.
  • Purchase recycled products or products with recycled content to close the recycling loop and keep recycling markets strong.
As it turns out, it’s true, that every little bit helps.

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