By M. Mitchell Waldrop
If your neighborhood is like most locales in the United States, there’s a thing that’s hard to unsee once you notice: The trucks that empty your blue recycling bin look just like the trucks that collect your trash.
So – they are taking your stuff to be recycled, right? The trucks aren’t just loading up all those carefully separated newspapers, cardboard boxes, metal cans, plastic bottles and glass jars, and dumping them along with the rest of the garbage?
Rest easy. Your recyclables are (probably) winding up exactly where they’re supposed to go. Same trucks, different destination — most often a sorting plant much like the materials recovery facility (MRF, pronounced “murf”) that Michael Taylor is explaining right now.
“Our facility serves 2.6 million people,” says Taylor, raising his voice over the din of conveyor belts, blowers and separation screens moving multiple streams of sorted recyclables through a space the size of a football field. That works out to an average of nearly 1,000 tons per day — a round-the-clock flow of material pouring in from curbside bins across metropolitan Baltimore, the District of Columbia and most of the suburbs in between.
That also makes this MRF in Elkridge, Maryland, one of the busiest in the United States, says Taylor, who runs it for the facility’s owner, Houston-based recycling giant Waste Management. But other than that, it’s pretty typical of the hundreds of other MRFs around the country. “We are a hardcore manufacturer, except we do it in reverse,” says Taylor. “We’re taking this mixed-up stream of material and we’re de-manufacturing it, breaking it down into individual components.” In the same way that Ford or Chevrolet builds cars, he says, “I’m building bales of newspaper, bales of aluminum cans, bales of PET water and soda bottles.” Indeed, this is the fundamental business model for Waste Management’s MRFs and many others: Charge cities for the cost of collecting and sorting recyclables, then share with them any profit the MRF makes from selling the sorted bales to recycling mills. These mills are the firms that will actually turn the stuff into raw materials for brand-new bags, boxes, fleece jackets, shoes and more.
Picture: Grendelkhan, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons