Humans may claim to be the most or only intelligent life form on earth, but sometimes we do things that gives the claim the lie. The way we go about recycling seems to be one of those things.
In Seattle, we visited a pretty neat materials recycling facility (MRF) called Seadrunar Recycling. Seadrunar is connected to a drug and alcohol treatment center, which the profits from the MRF help to fund. In addition, attendees at the treatment center work at the MRF as part of their recovery process.
We met with a man named Kriss who is a foreman at Seadrunar Recycling. Kriss is a big man with a kind face and the expression of someone who isn’t going to be surprised by much. He came out of the office and, after introductions, said, “You ready?”
Inside we were confronted with a massive pile of mixed recyclables. Seadrunar does not accept the residential recyclables. Kriss told us that residential recyclables are the dirtiest, most messy, nasty expensive things to sort. Instead, they collect primarily from office buildings and other commercial centers like Safeco Field and Boeing.
The pile is attacked by bulldozer and by hand and fed into a series of conveyor belts. The conveyor belts shake and sift, toss and roll, and jiggle in almost every manner possible to separate the various materials. The conveyors pass by lines of workers who pick metals, glass and plastics off the line. By the end of the process, the conveyors should only have paper riding them.
Kriss told us the biggest difficulty they have right now is that the City of Seattle comingles its recyclables. Seattle used to ask for some source separation of glass, plastic, metal and paper, but currently Seattlites can put all recyclables in one bin. This saves a bundle on hauling, because compactor trucks can be used and it’s simple, but it has put a dent in Seadrunar’s profitability.
The less contaminants Kriss has in his bales, the more they are worth. A bale of white office paper can be worth quite a bit and sold to local mills, but if that paper is contaminated with different laminated papers, plastic, and glass shards, almost nobody in North America will buy it, and the prices that are paid overseas drop significantly.
The compactor trucks that collect recyclables in Seattle crush glass bottles. Glass shards stick to paper and there is no technology currently that can pull glass shards off paper cost-effectively, including hand picking. So Kriss is already fighting a losing battle with the glass.
Plastic poses another big problem: plastic is diverse. There are many different resins and many plastics are composed of multiple layers of different kinds of resins, all of which makes them difficult to use as feed stock for much of anything. Kriss can sort out some kinds of plastic: a bale of plastic films, as long as they haven’t been contaminated by too much foreign matter can be sold pretty easily. But there are other plastics that there currently is no market for. Kriss showed us the 150 bales of mixed plastics he has sitting in the yard; brokers can’t find a buyer for them.
It seems to me that we are working against ourselves here. It takes about as much effort to drop your wastepaper into a separate recycling bin as it does to drop it into a single bin. Can we have a little source separation, please?
Jim Coce sings a great song about our sometimes futile behavior.