Recycling rules have changed. About a quarter of the waste material we put in our recycling bins ends up instead as landfill. China banned “foreign waste” beginning January 1, 2018, which leaves U.S. recycling companies scrambling to adapt and so must we.
In the opening scene of the Pixar film, “Wall-e,” the eponymous robot navigates through mountains of trash, the air full of dust and blowing scraps of plastic and paper.
Waste Management’s Material Recycling Facility, or MRF, in Azusa greatly resembles that opening scene, but instead of one small robot compacting a mountain of trash, a small army of workers, trucks, bulldozers and conveyor belts are at work, moving 50 tons of trash an hour—14,000 tons a month, separating glass, paper, metal, and trash, destined either for reuse or the landfill. The facility is constantly being cleaned and monitored, but it’s dusty, smelly, and noisy.
Topanga Town Council representatives with the assistance of Los Angeles County Third District Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s office, arranged the tour of the plant after Los Angeles County awarded the trash collection contract for Topanga to Waste Management (WM).
Mike Smith, Director of Operations for the Topanga and Malibu areas, led the tour with Marc Harismendy, the MRF manager, and Greg Austin, the recycling facility’s operations specialist. The Messenger Mountain News and Supervisor Kuehl’s Mountains Field Deputy, Blake Clayton, joined Topanga representatives Stacy Sledge and Tam Taylor of the Topanga Town Council, Dayna Miller with the Topanga Community Center, and Rosi Dagit, Sr. Conservation Biologist with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM).
Tour participants learned that about a quarter of the material collected in recycling bins received at the MRF is not actually recyclable. Some of the items that end up in landfill include single-use plastic bags, plastic packaging material, bubble wrap, and plastic coffee pods.
“We get crazy things in recycling,” Harismendy said, adding that the strangest item recovered at the Azusa facility was a pair of black duffle bags containing money, drugs, a face mask, and a pair of handguns. Officers returned the duffle bags but not the contents, of course.
Less exotic items like bags of pet waste, used diapers, pots and pans and other scrap metal, and even garden hoses cause major problems for the facility.
Sorters are trained to remove non-recyclable items from the conveyor belts carrying the waste. They’re fast, averaging 50 pieces of trash a minute, but one garden hose can bring the whole system to a halt if it slips past the workers and becomes tangled in the equipment, and “down time” is lost time and efficiency.
“Scrap metal damages our equipment,” Harismendy explained.
Sorters pull out things that shouldn’t be there, but it isn’t possible to catch everything. Harismendy showed the tour group an assortment of scrap metal items that included a broom handle, a lighting fixture and what looked like an old ironing board. Other non-recyclable materials like food wrappers and plastic film can contaminate an entire pallet of recycled paper, baled and bound for China, rendering it unusable. Harismendy said that entire containers would be sent back if a sample bale was inspected in China and found to be contaminated.
Topanga’s trash travels first to Simi, where non-recyclables end up in the landfill. Recyclables are loaded into huge trucks—each holding the contents of three trash trucks—and transported to the Azusa MRF. The trucks are reloaded with non-recyclable waste for the return trip to the landfill.
Thanks to electromagnetic sorting equipment, a high percentage of cans are recycled. For aluminum, that number is 99 percent. Harismendy explained that there is a U.S. market for the recycled metal, which makes the entire process more efficient and profitable.
A high percentage of heavy plastics, like detergent bottles and carbonated drink containers are also successfully recycled, provided they end up in the right bin. Glass recycling is also fairly efficient—the material is ground up and sold in almost powdered form.
DOLLARS AND SENSE
The Azusa facility is one of the top three MRFs in the nation for volume and also for its technology, but even a state-of-the-art facility encounters problems with cross-contamination, and that hurts the plant’s bottom line.
Recycling is essential for environmental reasons, but unless it is also commercially viable it becomes impractical. The market for paper and plastic recycling is struggling, in part because there is no U.S. market for much of the material. China, which once took almost anything, now has stringent quality control standards.
“The Chinese market is not good,” Harismendy said. “There’s less demand around the world. We are selling to other markets for less.”
Harismendy explained that the Chinese buyers may reject an entire purchase order based on one imperfect bale. “It used to be 7 to 10 percent contamination was acceptable, now it’s .5,” he said. “I wish we could recycle more. I’m sure they will in the future, but it comes down to who is buying what.”
Waste Management employs two full-time quality control inspectors who sort through the bales and input the information they collect in a database to improve the recycling process. Right now, the only items that will be recycled are glass, plastics classed as 1-7 only, cardboard, and paper that isn’t contaminated with food or other organic waste.
WHAT TO DO WITH NON-RECYCLABLES?
Plastic bags, packaging, or anything considered to be plastic film is not recyclable. It is one of the biggest problems on the planet for which no one seems to have an answer, but if we can’t recycle them, then what do we do?
Smith recommended bringing plastic (film) bags back to the grocery store for recycling. Textiles are easier to recycle through organizations such as Goodwill, who can wash and repurpose clothing through their stores if it’s in good condition. When clothing is no longer wearable, they recycle it along with other textiles into cleaning cloths, some of which WM will buy back and use.
WM bulky item curbside collection events are an opportunity for residents to ensure that large scrap metal items like ironing boards or bed frames are recycled properly and don’t end up in the landfill. Appliances and even mattresses collected during a bulky items event are also recycled, and don’t end up in the landfill.
Those problematic coffee pods are technically recyclable, but are too small, and can’t be effectively recycled.
Shredded paper is another problem. While technically recyclable, it gets everywhere at the MRF and often ends up back at the landfill. This was a wake-up call to some of us on the tour, who shredded our own papers, put it in a large plastic bag and tossed it in our recycling bins. That is so wrong, we learned.
Harismendy recommends bringing documents to a shredding event to ensure that the paper ends up being reused by a paper mill.
So-called “bioplastics” (plastics made from starch or plant material instead of petroleum) also end up in the landfill. Although they are designed to be compostable, they require high-heat industrial composting that is not widely available.
Smith cautioned that recycling has changed so much in recent years that the list of acceptable items that appears on the lid of the household waste collection container may no longer be accurate.
“We have to get real,” he said. “It’s changed very fast.”
WM customers can help by making sure only cans, glass, plastics marked 1-7, clean paper, and cardboard (flattened) end up in the recycling container.
Plastic clamshell boxes used to package produce can be recycled, but not any single-use plastic film bags or plastic film packaging used to wrap up quantities of paper towels and toilet paper that we see piled high on pallets at Costco and other box stores. Paper bags or reusable bags are the best option. Food wrappers are not recyclable, but paper plates are, provided they are not soiled.
Cans, bottles and paper should never be bagged in plastic. Plastic bags should be used for landfill-bound trash only, never for recyclables.
Smith said he hoped the major message of the tour would be to focus on the limited number of things that can be recycled and make sure things that can’t, don’t end up in the mix.
“Twenty-five percent of what we bring in is contaminant,” he stated. “We need to get people to think about recycling in a different way.”
WM customers can learn more online at: wm.com