What happens after the bin? Behind the scenes at the recycling center

A column from Waste Management.

  • Tuesday, February 12, 2019 1:30am
  • Opinion

By Hannah Scholes

Special to the Record

For many residents in Snoqualmie recycling isn’t a chore, it’s a life value. These folks devotedly study their recycling guide and prepare recyclables accordingly, but many still wonder what happens to all that stuff after it goes in the blue bin. This month our team takes you behind the scenes at the recycling center to de-mystify the recycling process.

After recyclables are collected at the curb, they go to a recycling sorting center. In the industry we affectionately refer to these facilities as MRFs (materials recovery facilities) and it’s here that the real magic happens. We use a combination of advanced technology and manual sorting staff to separate the materials. A series of conveyor belts ferry recyclables through a highly organized maze of magnets, screens, bunkers and bins.

It’s easy to get lost in all the action at the MRF, so here are a few examples of sorting techniques:

Spinning disc screens separate flat objects from containers. Think of these screens as a series of rows made of circular gears with gaps in between. Paper and cardboard “surf” along the top of the gear screens, while bottles and cans fall below.

Powerful magnets collect metal cans and safely deposit them in their own bunker.

Optical sorters use a laser to scan and identify specific types of plastic. Our optical sorter looks for PET bottles (the kind generally used for water or soda). When the machine identifies a bottle, a burst of air shoots it off the conveyor belt and into a separate container.

Workers at the facility sort a few other materials by hand and provide quality control support for the various machines.

Once all the materials are properly separated, we compact them into bales and ship them to market to start their lives as new products. It takes just 60 days for your soda can to be back in action as a new can, and that empty detergent bottle could come back as a park bench or part of your fleece jacket. Depending on the type of material, the end market could be local, in a neighboring state, or across the globe. Team WM develops relationships with a broad range of manufacturers to ensure all recyclables have a bright new future.

So, how can super recyclers support this process? By recycling all bottles, cans, paper and cardboard loose in the recycling cart. Plastic bags can damage equipment and cause safety hazards to workers because they easily get tangled up in the sorting equipment.

If you are interested in learning more about the recycling process, take a peek at our video of the Cascade Recycling Center in action here or schedule a free facility tour.

Help clean up recycling with tools and tips at RecycleOftenRecycleRight.com.

Hannah Scholes is Waste Management’s education and outreach manager.

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