Visiting a Single Stream Recycling Sorting Facility

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Casella Material Recovery Facility (MRF) in Charlestown, Massachusetts. This is where they sort single stream recycling. I have always been fascinated by how they sort the recycling and I found the visit fascinating.  I was also struck by the fact that the person who is currently the plant manager started there almost 20 years ago sorting recycling by hand. He fully understood all the operations of his facility and could recite current prices for materials off the top of his head.

Alicia at the start of the recycle stream. This conveyor belt is taking recycling off the plant floor and starting to get it into a layer thin enough for the other equipment to work with.

Alicia at the start of the recycle stream. This conveyor belt is taking recycling off the plant floor and starting to get it into a layer thin enough for the other equipment to work with.

 

A close-up of the material on the floor of the recycling facility about to go up the conveyor belt.

A close-up of the material on the floor of the recycling facility about to go up the conveyor belt.

 

The raw material starting up into the sorting plant.

The raw material starting up into the sorting plant.

Before the recycling goes through the equipment, these quality control staff pull out things that will jam up the equipment, like plastic bags, large hard items and VCR tapes. I even saw them pull a small child's bike out off the belt.

Before the recycling goes through the equipment, these quality control staff pull out things that will jam up the equipment, like plastic bags, large hard items and VCR tapes. I even saw them pull a small child’s bike out off the belt.

A barrel of Christmas Tree lights that they pulled off the line. If you take these to Home Depot around Christmas they'll recycle them. Here they will go in the trash.

A barrel of Christmas Tree lights that they pulled off the line. If you take these to Home Depot around Christmas you can typically get discounts on other products. Here they just get sent to an electronics recycling facility.

Large plastic items that have been manually pulled off the line. These items will be recycled.

Large plastic items that have been manually pulled off the line. These items will be recycled.

Large cardboard pieces that have been separated out.

Large cardboard pieces that have been separated out.

An optical sorter taking out plastics like laundry detergent bottles. This machine has 45 cameras and a computer. When the computer recognizes the material that is being sorted it makes air jets blow at the right time to send the plastic bottle off of the belt and into a separate container. Then Quality Assurance staff grabs anything else that accidentally comes with the laundry detergent bottles.

An optical sorter taking out plastics like laundry detergent bottles. This machine has 45 cameras and a computer. When the computer recognizes the material that is being sorted it makes air jets blow at the right time to send the plastic bottle off of the belt and into a separate container. Then Quality Assurance staff grabs anything else that accidentally comes with the laundry detergent bottles.

 

These laundry detergent-type bottles used to be an undesirable material. Then a company in New Jersey patented a way to turn them into bridges and railroad ties. Now their demand is exceeding what is available on the entire market.

These laundry detergent-type bottles used to be an undesirable material. Then Axion International in New Jersey patented a way to turn them into bridges and railroad ties. Now their demand is exceeding what is available from the recycled market.

 

Plastic water and juice bottles being separated out. I spoke with a sustainability rep from Coca-Cola who told me that companies like Patagonia buy so much of this material that there isn't much left on the market to be turned back into soda and water bottles.

Plastic water and juice bottles being separated out. I spoke with a sustainability rep from Coca-Cola who told me that companies like Polartec buy so much of this material that there isn’t much left on the market to be turned back into soda and water bottles.

 

Soda cans separated out. These are considered the real money-maker in the recycling world. Aluminium cans are the highest price, per weight, commodity that the plant sorts and sells.

Soda & beer cans separated out. These are considered the real money-maker in the recycling world. Aluminium cans are the highest price, per weight, commodity that the plant sorts and sells.

 

From the catwalk you get a good view of the various baled material waiting for sale and transport.

From the catwalk you get a good view of the various baled material waiting for sale and transport.

 

Baled aluminum cans look very neat and well compressed.

Baled aluminum cans look very neat and well compressed.

 

This white stack of bales is milk jugs. They get separated out to their own pile and get sold separately for recycling.

This white stack of bales is milk jugs. They get separated out to their own pile and get sold separately for recycling.

VCR tapes are the bane of the plant operators. The film slips off the belts and gets wrapped around the equipment. If they don't cut the tapes off weekly they can get wound so tightly that they cut through the metal supports in the plant.

VCR tapes are the bane of the plant operators. The film slips off the belts and gets wrapped around the equipment. If they don’t cut the tapes off the supports weekly, they can get wound so tightly around the metal supports that they can even cut right through them causing structural damage in the plant.

 

Once the materials are sold, the bales get loaded onto container trucks for transport to the facilities that turn them into new products.

Once the materials are sold, the bales get loaded onto container trucks for transport to the facilities that turn them into new products.

The entire facility was fascinating.  What you can’t tell from the photos is that we were up on catwalks walking between the different pieces of equipment that do the sorting. The manager said that with the sorting equipment they currently have they have more staff now than they did 15 years ago. The staff supervise the equipment and check for errors. The entire facility was very loud but we had a virtual tour in their conference room first, where they explained the processes.  The other people on my tour really added to my education as well.  I met a sustainability educator who works for Coca-Cola, a bottling representative, and two people that own a facility that processes styrofoam. 

My biggest takeaway from the day is that recycling is really worth while.  There is a large demand for the items that are being sorted out. Casella tries to keep their materials in the US, but newspaper and mixed paper frequently get sold overseas.  Cardboard, aluminum and most plastics get sold domestically. Less than 10% of what comes in the front door gets sent out as actual trash!

Happy Greening!

Alicia

 

 If you liked what you just read, please signup below to receive our blog posts and tips via email.



Comments

  1. Sharon Kishida says:

    Alicia, I would love to share your terrific photo / narrative tour of Casella’s MRF with communities in my District. I am a regional solid waste – recycling coordinator for MassDEP – aka “MAC”

    thanks in advance.

    • Sharon, we love it when our readers share our posts and stories with friends and colleagues. Please share them with them. -Jon

  2. What an amazing opportunity. I’ve always wondered though if the energy required to run the plan outweighs the gain from recycling? Has there been any studies done on this? Anyways, that being said I still recycle, but I focus more on reusing what I can and not purchasing anything that is wrapped in some sort of plastic.

    • Hi Krystal,
      The rule of thumb is that recycling one soda can saves enough energy (over producing one from raw materials) to power a computer for 4 hours. That said, recycling is less about saving energy, and more about reducing landfill and using up non-renewable resources. All plastic is made from non-renewable resources (oil) so eventually we will run out of it. Paper is less clear cut, but if we were to send all of the paper products we recycle to landfills instead, we’d go right back to running out of room for trash.
      -Alicia

  3. Our apartment building pretends that we have separate recycling and I was always surprised that the DC metro area in Maryland didn’t have commingled. After living here for 2.5 years I was finally out early enough to see the recycling truck do its pickup. Sure enough it all goes right into the same hole on the back of the truck.

Speak Your Mind

*