Where do recyclables go after you put them in the blue bin?
By now, Indian River County residents have settled into the mixed-stream recycling program, and are dumping all their approved recyclables each week into one of the big, bright-blue, wheeled bins. But where does all that stuff go? What actually happens to it? How does the mixed stream get unmixed? Who buys it? Who get the proceeds?
Tropical Recycling is the West Palm Beach-based company responsible for processing and marketing the 1,500 tons of stuff that is hauled off in those blue bins each month.
The material goes first to the Indian River County landfill where it is weighed. After that, the paper, plastic, glass and metal is trucked south to Fort Pierce and processed in a huge building that was a citrus packing house before standing vacant for 20 years. After refurbishing and rewiring the plant, Tropical purchased sorting and compacting equipment, and enlisted expert Michael Miles to make it operational.
Seeing the plant in operation for the first time is an eye-opening experience.
Entering the warehouse-like building, one is immediately dwarfed by floor-to-ceiling stacks of baled recyclables. On a recent tour, Brian Katz, owner of Tropical Recycling, led the way past a wall of bales, beyond which were mountains of unsorted, mixed stream materials – about half is paper of some sort: office paper, newspaper, cartons, cardboard – then there are steel and aluminum cans, plastic containers, glass bottles and jars.
This is the tipping floor, where collection trucks dump their mixed recyclable loads. With a claw or grapple, the materials are placed on a conveyor belt, which carries them up to the first sorting station, where workers with thick, protective gloves and masks extract plastic bags, coat hangers and other prohibited items, which can seriously damage the machinery and bring the operation to a literally grinding halt.
A series of screens lifts out the corrugated cardboard, while smaller items continue their journey along the conveyor belt. Smaller screens remove other paper while plastic, metal cans and glass fall back onto the belt. A glass breaker allows the glass to shake out into its own bin, while the cans and plastics continue their ride. An electromagnet then separates the steel cans and other iron and steel items from the aluminum, which is separated in another process, leaving only the plastics.
Throughout the process, strategically placed workers continue to pull out trash items. The final machine makes bales of plastic, paper, cardboard or metal, typically weighing a ton and ready for transport to market.
Based on detailed waste stream analyses, a mixed recyclables stream should contain only about 5 percent trash, which goes into the landfill. In reality, however, says Katz, this percentage is usually higher, because numerous other items find their way into the stream, in spite of the allowed and NOT allowed items being clearly listed and pictured in color on the top of each household recycling bin.
“We’ve found fire extinguishers, ax heads, angle iron, car parts, metal flashlights, door handles, tools, plastic bags, bike tire tubes, appliances, clothing,” Katz shakes his head. “Public education is so important.”
That task lies heavily on the shoulders of County Recycling Education and Marketing Coordinator Stephanie Fonvielle. “People think that, because something is recyclable, they can put it in the mixed-stream container. There are items, like plastic bags, electronics and appliances that we can recycle in Indian River County, just not in the mixed-stream bins.”
Mixed into the recycling stream, plastic bags can cause major problems and cost a lot of money for time and repairs. Fonvielle says plastic bags and wraps “get wrapped around the moving gears and jam up the machinery. In order to remove them, Tropical Recycling has to shut down the entire operation and carefully remove the bags by hand.”
In addition to damaging the equipment, contaminants can also degrade the materials to the point where they cannot be marketed.
Having been in the business for years, Katz has well-established market contacts – both foreign and domestic – in place. Each month, he checks current market prices and sells the recyclables. Most plastics and metals, he says, are sold domestically, while paper tends to go all over the world – to markets in China, India, Europe and South America.
After the state passed the 1988 Solid Waste Management Act and Indian River County’s recycling program began, the county marketed its own recyclables. Back then, glass bottles and jars, a particularly troublesome recyclable, were color sorted, at the landfill, into green, brown and clear, and typically recycled back into containers.
In today’s mixed stream processing, glass is broken and sent to processors who use optical sorters to separate the colors. The product, says Katz, is used for road aggregate, fill, countertops or fiberglass.
The state of Florida has set a goal of 75 percent recycling by the year 2020. Fonvielle says the county began single-stream recycling in an effort to meet that goal.
Up until recently, Indian River County recycled less than 40 percent of its trash, but the new program is pushing the numbers up: In March 1,941 tons of material was recycled in the county, compared to 1.152 tons in March 2015.
Katz says his company and the County have a revenue-sharing agreement, but declined to give details. He continues to fine-tune the operation, and plans to offer tours of the Fort Pierce facility in the near future.