Do you remember the days before West Hartford started automated recycling collection, when all we had were those 18-gallon bins? When we had to stuff all of our discarded newspapers and magazines into a paper bag from the grocery store, keeping them separate from the soup cans and wine bottles, all visible in that bin out at the curb? And it always seemed to be windy on pickup days, sending empty plastic milk containers skittering across the street.
West Hartford introduced single stream recycling in 2008, allowing newspapers and junk mail to be commingled with other recyclable material, and in June 2010 we all got our new big blue barrels. Anything that can be recycled can be tossed right in – paper, plastic, metal, glass. It seems too easy!
Yes, all those materials still have to be separated, but that happens somewhere else.
That “somewhere else” is ReCommunity Recycling, a large warehouse-type building (it’s called a “materials recovery facility” or MRF) on Murphy Road in Hartford. West Hartford signed a contract with ReCommunity in Nov. 2012, and the company handles the recycling as the MRF for most of the towns in the greater Hartford area – even those that use another company as a middleman.
I recently accompanied West Hartford Department of Public Works Environmental Services Manager David Gabriele to audit a day’s load of West Hartford materials at ReCommunity Recycling. I learned so much (including that the facility is open air, so if I visit again when temperatures are in the single digits I will be sure to dress properly) about how the single stream process works.
Paine’s, which is the town’s contracted hauler for both trash and recycling, typically delivers about 30 tons to ReCommunity each weekday. That’s the recycling generated by both residents and municipal buildings like schools and Town Hall.
The process begins when Paine’s dumps the entire truckload onto the tipping floor, where it is fed into the in-feed conveyor by a pay loader.
Before the single stream process can really begin, however, ReCommunity’s employees inspect the materials on the conveyor, pulling out items that are clearly not recyclable and could cause human injury or damage the machinery. Plastic bags are the most common contaminant. (Plastic bags need to be thrown away, or better yet, reused or brought back to a store that will recycle them. The only time they are welcome in the recycling process is when they hold shredded paper. More on that in a future article!)
Other no-no’s that employees pull from the stream each day include scrap metal, garden hoses, and chains. They also find money and jewelry on a regular basis, and have even found handguns – including an Uzi – mixed in with the recycling.
One important reason why hazardous materials need to be kept out of the recycling stream is that in pure form or when mixed with other items, certain materials can not only harm the machinery but can also seriously injure the people who work there.
After the pre-sort, the remaining materials traverse the MRF, where 3D objects (like containers) are first separated from 2D objects (like fiber, which is about 60 percent of an average load), through a series of mechanical “fingers” of varying sizes. The “glass breaker screen” bounces objects around so that the glass breaks and lands below in a protected area, and the plastics and cardboard keep bouncing along.
Employees get involved throughout much of the process, including separating types of plastics to ensure that each kind of recyclable material is kept as free from contaminants (other materials) as possible. An optical sorter will automatically identify PET plastics containers (like water bottles) and a burst of air sends them tumbling into a separate shoot.
Ferrous metals are grabbed from the stream by a giant magnet and an “eddy current separator” pulls out the aluminum.
The separated materials are then baled together and tied with steel wires. The bales measure 3’x3’x4’, and depending on the material can weigh as much as a ton.
The residue – non-recyclable material pulled from the stream – gets hauled away as trash. That amounts to approximately 7 to 8 percent of total material.
The bales of separated materials are kept in bunkers at ReCommunity until they are shipped to processors or other end users. A sizable percentage of recycling materials is exported to China where recent enforcement of the “Operation Green Fence,” which limits the amount of contaminant mixed in with each type of material, has spurred U.S. recycling businesses to maintain high standards.
It sounds complicated, but modern technology has made the single stream process run pretty smoothly and efficiently. And although the machinery is usually run a bit slower, the ReCommunity Recycling facility is built to handle 30 tons of recycling per hour – making the process of sorting and separating an entire day’s load from West Hartford a fairly quick task.Ronni Newton is a freelance writer who is contracted as the recycling promoter for the Town of West Hartford. She will be providing a regular series of articles about what can and can’t be recycled, and updates about the progress of the town’s recycling initiative.