Success in Recycled Products Starts at the Curb

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Byline: RECYCLING By Sarah Grimm For The Register-Guard

Have you ever wondered what happens to that jumble of materials collected at the curb? Do you doubt it really gets recycled? The answer largely depends on how well collection customers are following instructions. In that regard, recycling hasn't changed one bit. It still all starts with you.

The majority of commingled recycling collected in Lane County goes to one facility in Clackamas called SP Recycling. This is one of several material recovery facilities in the Portland area that use mechanical and human sorting methods to pull out the metal, plastic, and other contaminants so the rest can feed right into a paper-making facility.

While this new technology has made it possible to collect more material with fewer problems at the curb, it still has limits. Incorrect materials put into the curbside bins are causing problems not only at the recovery facility, but at end-use manufacturing plants as well. And mechanical limitations are inadvertently allowing plastics through the system, contaminating the paper feedstocks at paper mills.

Recycling industry stakeholders from around the Northwest, with a little help from the Environmental Protection Agency, are seeking common ground to minimize problems related to "garbage in, garbage out" and cross contamination issues related to commingled recycling. In the meantime, here is a list of things you can do, or rather, not do, to make sure your recycling efforts result in new products made from recycled content.

Do not include plastic bags. After a year of trying to deal with the plastic bags that curbside programs have allowed in commingled recycling, SP has reported they cannot handle that material in their facilities. Plastic bags clog and cause trouble from the moment they enter the sorting facility. The first mechanical sort system, called a star screen, pushes the mix of materials with small rotating prongs arranged in a star pattern on a rod. The rotating prongs are positioned in such a way that tin cans and plastic bottles fall between while the flat paper items are pushed along down the conveyor. Plastic bags get caught by these star prongs and quickly wrap around them, clogging the system and forcing a shutdown to remove the wads of plastic. This down time is expensive and dangerous for employees.

Do not flatten plastic bottles and tin cans. This will allow the star screening process to do its job correctly and capture everything but the paper. When flattened, tin cans and plastic bottles end up traveling with papers all the way to the paper mill. Here the paper company ends up paying twice for what they never wanted - as it comes in, and then as it goes out as garbage.

Do flatten papers. But do not cut up your boxes to make them smaller. Again, the maximum efficiency of the sorting facility depends on flat papers traveling across star screens and other round containers dropping through for the next sort stage. …