I toured an SF Bay Area recycling center

In this post, we’ll discuss recycling and garbage collection, touching upon how it works, and why it is not yet a perfect system. TO understand this further, I visited a materials recovery facility to get a look inside an actual recycling plant.

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Do you have an altruistic dedication to protecting the environment? Recycling gives each of us an opportunity to do our part… or does it?

In this post, we’ll discuss garbage collection and recycling – how it works, what it does, and why its not perfect. To answer these questions, I visited the Shoreway Environmental Center in San Carlos, California. Adjacent to highway 101, Shoreway is California’s “greenest” recycling center and transfer station. This means that Shoreway serves as “a national model for sustainable building practices”.

As I arrive, park, and walk up, my nostrils are infiltrated by a smell reminiscent of battery acid and vomit. The dusty, chemical stench smells like a stomach ache.

Out front sits an array of 10-15 solar panels — a supplement to 2,700 others which, on good days, produce enough energy to power the entire facility. A huge cylindrical rainwater tank sits nearby. For the 70,000-square-foot facility, the roof and groundwater collection mechanisms are quite efficient – the tank requires just two inches of rain to fill.

I greet the tour guides, sign a waiver, and slip on a bright yellow construction vest, joining a large tour group of what seems to be a school field trip.

As the tour begins, my nose has acclimated and no longer notices the metallic non-natural smell. I can only imagine how my clothes and hair will reek when I get back to my office. Ew.

ReThink Waste, the organization in charge of hosting tours, does introductions. The facility covers jurisdictions from Burlingame to East Palo Alto. The Shoreway center is made up of a few different departments and organizations:
Public Recycling Center, which offers public service for drop offs of certain items.
– South Bay Recycling
Recology, is the waste hauler, which serves 93,000 homes and 11,000 businesses every week, picking up landfill, recycle, and organic waste.
– Transfer Station, which is the place where solid waste is dropped off after being collected by hauler.
– Materials Recovery Facility, which is “used for the unloading, processing and shipment to end markets of recyclables from homes and businesses”.

From employing people and vehicles for neighborhood pickup, to managing the complex robotic conveyor-belt systems, the combined efforts of all partners cover the complete recycling and disposal process.

As we enter a 3-4 story-high ceiling warehouse, tall, automated machinery creates a pandemonium as rubbish is sorted by conveyor belt, as seen here. In the distance, a Caterpillar construction vehicle transports piles of cardboard back and forth. To the vehicle’s left sits several wire-wrapped bushels of cardboard stacked cubically.

With walkways outlined by newly painted yellow handrails, the space we occupy is surprisingly clean next to the work area’s appearance below.

For legal reasons, the facility cannot possess waste or recyclables for more than 72 hours (compost is different, since it has to cook). This fact is apparent and proven by the degree of focus and attention exhibited by each orange vested worker. The plant processes 620,000 pounds of recyclables and 930,000 pounds of compost every day. Despite being a literal “dump”, the facility is incredibly well organized and flows quite efficiently.

Here’s a look inside the facility:

All of the waste you see moving through the conveyor belts came from homes in the Bay Area. At each house, you have three separate waste receptacles, one of each for compost, recycle, and landfill. By design, the landfill bin is the smallest of the three. Unsurprisingly, the landfill bin also tends to be the one completely full each week before pickup.

Once sorted, the facility relies on a number of partners to accept the waste. It is shipped overseas where companies accept it, although there are a few challenges.

Global Markets and Partnerships for Recycled Items:

Although almost every consumer good is sold encased with some type of plastic. So many things come in plastic, and

Plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, are not easily recycleable in the U.S., because its too expensive. Because of this, the US doesn’t recycle plastic bottles (if someone can figure out why else we can’t, please let me know(**link to google form). We actually ship things around the world just to recycle them. Because of this, partnerships and commodities markets for plastics matter for recyclable items.

relies heavily on partnerships and….

The United States relies on markets.
Certain regulations in
Historically, the United States has relied on agreements with with China and other countries overseas that have the capacity to process, refine, and reuse the recycled certain items for which there is no market for in the U.S., such as plastics.

Unfortunately, these agreements changed this year. Now, only very specific types of recycled items can be traded overseas.

Recycling is driven by markets – numbers on the plastic containers mean different things. Some markets are better than others.
Recycling partners overseas not taking as much recycling?
China? Now we must send to other countries, like vietnam etc. But an agreement with China recently fell through where they don’t accept our plastic any more.

One reason that partnerships are falling through is contamination levels were too high (metal to plastic ratio, food residue, etc.) Think about a plastic peanut butter jar, for instance. Before the recycled plastic material can actually be used, the residue peanut butter has to be cleaned from inside the jar. How much energy does that consume? It may take an average person a few minutes and a lot of soap and water to clean it out. Water is also a precious resource, and that process consumes a lot of water.

More on Recyclable Materials

Cleaning used items such as peanut butter jars, Separating items composed of more than 1 type of materials is difficult. Cleaning used items such as peanut butter jars experience a similar fate. Both of these types of items tend to go in the trash as the most efficient disposal method.

Special Items

There are a few specific requirements when it comes to certain items.

  • Rubber goes in the trash.
  • Black plastic cannot be recycled, it must be thrown away
  • You can bring old couches and mattresses to Shoreline’s facility as well. They will remove the metal, since there is a market for scrap metal in the US.
  • Metal items such as steel, aluminum, copper, etc. These items, like the mattress components, tend to be more valuable, so there is a natural incentive to recycle it. You can take pure scrap metal to a facility and trade it in for cash.
  • Electronic waste – such as batteries or computer parts – require careful disposal. You should think of these items as hazardous materials. Batteries can be put in an orange or clear plastic bag and placed on top of the black bin. Inside the garbage or recycle is the worst place to put electric waste – and can even be dangerous. When in doubt, wait and take them to a Best Buy or Ikea, which accepts used batteries and other electrical items. In September 2016 a lithium battery started a fire that destroyed many machines and caused the entire Shoreline facility to shut down for 4 months, costing about $8.4 million overall.
  • Cardboard products may still be sent overseas.
  • Glass is sent to a local California winery for that accepts glass bottles.
  • Someone asks “what do you do with styrofoam?” The group then learns that many places in San Mateo county are supposed to be getting rid if styrofoam altogether.  Hopefully, we won’t see it as much.

Where Do Most of These Items End Up?

Utilizing both man and machine, the imprecise process of sorting recyclables is one that is only partly effective. Many materials still end up in the landfill.
Situated at the final conveyor belt in the entire automated warehouse was a lady with quick hands and attentive focus. Here, she alone is tasked with saving any missed recyclables from entering the landfill. Her job, reaching over a fast paced conveyor belt, was to hand-select with burlap gloved hands, bottles and cans and other items with a higher recycle market. Currently, its not possible to recycle 100% of everything that is recyclable. Of course many items are missed, and just ends up in a landfill.

Landfills often tend to be the best option for non-recyclable items. Most of the collected waste will end up in a landfill located in one of Northern California’s most beautiful coastal areas, Half Moon Bay.

There is a Landfill in Half Moon Bay, and they estimate they have about 15.5 years left in the landfill. 15 years sounds like a long time, but the fact that there is a finite amount of time left before they have to find a new landfill highlights a significant point that I described in a previous article (link to your other one) – garbage, especially those materials that don’t break down, will be on earth and in a landfill FOREVER. those materials will never ever go away.

Next time you walk down the aisles of a grocery store, observe the tens of thousands of products encased in plastic. Where do you think most of that plastic will go? Well, now, you know. What’s missed by the automated conveyor belts and team heads to a landfill in a small, coastal town, named Half Moon Bay to be stored underground forever. Think about that next time you buy a case of twenty-four plastic water bottles for $1.99.

Potential Solutions

Maybe, manufacturers should be responsible on bearing some of the burden of recycling, rather than municipalities.

But there truly aren’t any potential solutions. Companies like ODMI doing something pretty special. They are raising awareness at schools about pollution at oceans and beaches.

Given that it costs more to prepare these types of items for recycling than they are actually worth. To combat this, plastic is being burned as a way of disposal. Surprisingly, incinerators are actually quite environmentally friendly. They’re designed to release fewer emissions than a backyard charcoal grill.

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