Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Last week I was part of a team of school district staff on a field trip to our local recycling facility. I love learning how things work and where stuff goes and comes from (but not enough to submit myself to the Master Cleanse, mind you) and this was just such an opportunity, kind of like last spring when I got to go on a submarine and it even submerged and left port. But that's another story, in which I admit that I was surprised submarines had absolutely no windows, not even those little portholes like on the ride at Disneyland.

If the aim of this trip was for us to come back with renewed vigor and vision for our schools' recycling programs, it totally worked. I came away with a stomachache just thinking about even one plastic bottle sitting forever in a landfill. Word to the people is: when in doubt, recycle; at the plant they'll sort the trash out of the recycling, but there's no sorting at the landfill.

Now about that sorting. I truly had no idea how it worked, imagining all this time that our recyclables were simply dumped into some huge metal centrifuges, and, with effective "spinning" technologies, materials were divided by weight and density. And I didn't give a whole lot of thought to what happened to all that stuff next.

Perhaps my most significant observation at the recycling center was how both simple and complex is the process of sorting our plastics, cans, bottles, and papers. The first thing that happens, for example, is that trucks carrying recycling dump everything into huge piles in a big room. Then a crazy system of conveyor belts carries the materials up and through the building past real human beings who first pull out stuff that shouldn't be there, like potatoes (I saw a lot of potatoes! Who are these people putting perfectly good potatoes in recycling?) and engine blocks, which the owner pointed out would really "muck up our operation." Hand sorting is followed by some very cool and high-tech (European) "optical" sorting which I will describe in layman's terms: mixed materials pass under a light/mirror thingy which is meant to reflect off of metal recyclables. When the reflection occurs, a puff of air is activated from below, which tosses the metal materials up into the air and into a separate area. That gizmo was fun to watch.

As you ascend higher up through the building, the sorting becomes more precise, with colors of glass separated into different bins and opaque and clear plastics distinguished from one another.

As you may imagine, it's a messy, noisy, smelly operation. A fine layer of material fragments including glass covers all walkways, stairs, and floors, crunching underfoot. The air is cloudy with particulates. I'll admit, I experienced one gagworthy whiff that relegated me to some mouth breathing. It's a dangerous job, too--but the company boasts full healthcare for all its employees AND their dependents.

I confirmed that we don't need to sort our own recylables--the trucks will still commingle the materials until they reach the plant. Cleaning and/or rinsing items isn't necessary either, and in Southern California, there's a good argument for conserving the water you'd use. FYI: You shouldn't put the plastic caps back on the bottles you recycle, even if you smush them--they do some bionic smushing of all the plastic into tight cubic bales, and caps on bottles prevent optimal smushage.

All our recycling, once it's sorted into like materials, is sold and shipped, mainly abroad. Cardboard goes to Asia; paper to Mexico...some glass goes to California vineyards with which the company has contracts. Some of the buyers reuse the materials, others recycle them.

Watching all that waste--albeit recyclable--made me want to Reduce My Use. I found myself taking some accountability for the byproducts of my daily life. It feels good to recycle, but we're still consuming a ton of stuff and throwing it away at alarming rates, where it has to be driven somewhere and dealt with.

I don't know what to tell you if you're not even using your potatoes, though. Reduce them to french fries, at least!

1 comment:

Debbie said...

This is great to read!! I have been wondering about the whole sorting process and will not worry so much about whether or not something should go in the recycling bin. I'm putting it in there instead of the trash!! But no potatoes, of course :) That's just weird.