Recycling taking refuse toward reuse

Recycling taking refuse toward reuse

URBANA – At the northern edge of the city, beyond the daily ambling of most Champaign County residents, stands a garage where remnants of their culture reside.

The products of their habits are brought here in truckloads every day: What they eat and drink, what they do for work and play.

The discarded materials were picked up from curbsides just a few hours before arriving here – the end of the line for, say, a grease-stained Papa John's pizza box that now lies next to an empty package of diapers. Glass beer bottles are mixed with cardboard. Scattered about the pile are sheets of paper, their previous owners apparently no longer concerned about the words they display.

About 4.8 million pounds of recyclables end up at this Urbana transfer station every year. But it's just the first stop in a journey that could take these materials around the world to be sold again as completely different products.

Recycling is a growing habit in Champaign County – the U-Cycle bin discarded among the rubbish might prove that point.

Some of the items at the Urbana garage began their journey in Savoy the day before. Eddie Aikman, a hauler for Allied Waste, began his day at 4 a.m.

In the Rolling Acres subdivision, near the intersection of Curtis and Duncan roads, around 9 a.m. – the middle of his workday – Aikman guides his truck through the carefully choreographed route, usually directing his vehicle forward from home to home, and sometimes reversing to pick up a house near a dead end.

He pinches a cigarette between gloved fingers and sips from a plastic bottle of Mountain Dew while a plate of freshly baked cookies sits on his dashboard.

They're from an older customer, whose recycling bin Aikman voluntarily totes back to her house from the curb. Aikman has been running waste routes for nine years now, and he visits between 300 and 500 homes per day. But getting thank-you gifts from customers is becoming more rare.

"Used to be pretty common," Aikman says. "Not so much any more. Customers are getting younger."

Marty Grant, a supervisor for Allied Waste, said the popularity of recycling – particularly as the fashionable thing to do – is growing among younger customers. These are the people who have now become adults since the first time recycling was presented in schools as a part of their education.

At one home in the neighborhood, he finds carefully arranged stacks of newspaper and cardboard. Glass bottles are removed from plastic bottles, which are separate from metal cans. Among the piles are a Swiffer Sweeper box and a container that once held 36 Snack Pack pudding cups. The whole load is dumped into his truck and compacted, as if it had never been separated in the first place.

All these items – anywhere between two and three tons in Aikman's daily truckload alone – will end up back at the transfer station in Urbana at the end of his day.

The next morning after 9 a.m., semi trailer T-219 of KRD Trucking backs down a loading ramp for the second time that day, to collect the recyclables at the transfer station. It has already made one trip to and from Allied Waste's sorting plant in Indianapolis, and again a front-end loader is shoveling heaps of trash over the top of its trailer, which can hold between 12 and 13 tons of recyclables.

The front-end loader is repetitive – scoop, reverse, turn, dump, reverse, turn – a set of directions that embodies the efficiency Allied Waste tries to create to reduce its own business costs. The only surprises come in the pops of plastic or glass bottles as they fail every minute or so under the weight of the machinery. Eventually, even the pops become predictable and repetitive.

It's all about the efficiency, Grant says. Even with the streamlining, it is not always high on returns.

"Sometimes you're recycling and not making any money," Grant says.

That is why Allied Waste mixes all kinds of different materials at the curb. Haulers used to keep the items separate on pickup, but managers found that just took more of their time, which raises business costs. It's more efficient to load a semi trailer with everything instead of sending more, smaller trucks to the sorting plant in Indianapolis, where machines do more of the work than humans, Grant says.

Some of the contents of each front-end loader scoop topple over the side of the truck – a Papa John's pizza box flutters down to join the "PFD" fireman's coat on the side of the loading bay – but the vast majority makes it in. The truck will take everything that was picked up by the recycling hauler, regardless of whether or not it is actually recyclable – non-recyclable materials will be removed later.

After a couple pats over the top of the trailer from the blunt end of the loading bucket, the truck driver rolls a screen over the top of the load and heads east on Interstate 74.

About two hours later, the semi trailer and all its contents (save a few plastic bags that got sucked out on the highway) arrive at the Indianapolis plant owned by Republic Services, the parent company of Allied Waste. The truck rolls up to a concrete scale – altogether it weighs 53,900 pounds, most of which is the truck itself – and then around back to the garage's "tipping floor."

The driver unrolls the screen, swings the rear doors open and the first wall of trash falls out on its own. The rest is pushed out in gelatinous fashion by automated rods on the floor of the trailer. Now Champaign County refuse is mixed in with that from other parts of the Midwest: northern Indiana and Bloomington, Ind., for example.

Anywhere between five and 15 of these truckloads could arrive each day, says Mike Harvey, a supervisor at the sorting plant.

The recyclables now reach a critical point in the process. The load is about to make its way through a disassembly line designed to make it as "clean" as possible, Harvey says. The goal is that only newspaper will fall off the end of the line and the rest of the materials will have been removed along the way.

It's first loaded into a hopper by another front-end loader mimicking the movements of the Urbana loader. The hopper will hold the load to a manageable rate for about a dozen human sorters working along a conveyor belt above.

Those sorters will climb a flight of stairs to reach their positions – the machines are elevated from the floor of the plant to use gravity as a sorting tool.

Their hands and arms never stop as they sweep through the river of trash, while they sift and grab all the cardboard they can spot and drop it into a pile below them. They snatch plastic bags and toss them near a chrome vacuum system above their heads. The two materials are gathered and baled separately, and set aside in a corner of the plant.

The sorters have to work fast to stay efficient. The U-Cycle bin from Urbana made it into the flow, and needs to be removed before it jams the plant's sorting equipment. These machines can process 20 tons of trash every hour, Harvey says, and any wrench in the gears could reduce efficiency.

"It gets pretty hectic up here," Harvey says.

Now the river has been reduced to plastic and glass containers and fiber paper. It flows into a grinder, which crushes the glass into tiny fragments. That glass – and some small shreds of paper that sneak by the filters – drops like sand in an hour glass to a bin below and is set aside for now.

The trash flow, now primarily paper and plastic, spills into an agitator. The gears float the lighter paper over their tops while the heavier plastic containers fall below into a waiting trailer.

The trailer of plastic – milk jugs and apple juice containers among its contents – is about half full, and the driver is waiting for a full load before he takes it to another Indianapolis facility. There, sorters will further separate different kinds of plastic containers from each other.

Within the next few months, even that process will be streamlined, Harvey says. Republic Services is preparing to buy more equipment in the first sorting plant that would make the sorting 90 percent automatic, instead of placing demand on human hands.

"Recycling's not a money-maker, so you got to be as efficient as you can to stay in the black," Harvey says.

Meanwhile, the once-mighty river of trash has been pared to a creek of paper. It trickles to a final line of human sorters, who remove all of its pollutants: smaller pieces of cardboard that eluded the first group of sorters, plastic bags that got by and any other materials that should not have been recycled in the first place.

The conveyor belt ends, and the paper drips over the edge, now ready to be baled. Fiber paper ideally is the only material that made it through the entire disassembly line, though that is never the case, Harvey says.

The machines are not perfect, but the materials are as close to sorted as they will get. And, because the recyclables are automatically sorted, more people may be recycling, Harvey says.

Republic Services studies found that 11 percent more recyclables came through the plant when it switched to an automated process rather than asking customers to sort the materials at their curbs.

"The key is to make it simple for the customer," Harvey says.

The recyclables are no longer trash – they are now commodities that Republic Services will sell to whatever mills offer the highest prices. They still have plenty of steps to go through before they are remade into consumer products, but the newspapers, plastic water bottles and pizza boxes have reached the end of the process of being thrown away.

Plastic containers will go to plastic mills, where machines will melt them down into plastic pebbles. They'll again be sorted and stored, and then sent to another manufacturer to be remolded into forks, suitcase handles, or any other of a number of possibilities.

Hundreds of copies of The News-Gazette have floated off the end of the sorting line, and glass and plastic containers from Champaign County grocery stores will likely end up as entirely different consumer products throughout the country.

"Twenty years ago, when I got into it, I used to beat my head against the wall trying to get people to recycle," Harvey says. "Now I can't keep up with the load."