Recycling: saving the environment or boosting the economy?

by Kelly Corbett
Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Staff photo by Allison Potter 

Chris Olds uses a baler to compact and strap cardboard at the Waste Management facility on River Road on Tuesday, April 16.

The following is the first of a two-part series following recyclables from the bin and beyond.

Weighed in tons.

Shipped in bales.

Recyclables travel from the bin, through multiple sorting stations and out to the highest bidder before being repurposed.

The Waste Management Recycling facility, located at 1815 Capital Blvd. in Raleigh, received more than 70,000 tons of material in 2012 from municipalities, manufacturing industries and hauling companies.

Workers pick trash items, such as plastic bags and foam cups, off the lines of the materials recovery facility (MRF, pronounced “murf”) in the single-stream facility to begin the process. 

Then, the materials are fed through a line where everything is separated into commodities:  newspapers, plastics, glasses, cardboard, paper.

The plastics are transported to the plant next door and shredded.

“Before they’re shredded, they go through more lines so they’re further separated into different types of plastic, whether it’s PET or HDPE. And then each type of PET is then sorted by color,” said Chersten Cohn, Waste Management Recycling sourcing representative.

Soda and water bottles and salad dressing containers are PET, polyethylene terephthalate, and labeled with a No. 1. Milk jugs and detergent bottles are HDPE, high-density polyethylene plastics, and labeled with a No. 2.

The ground material, now a flake-like substance, is shipped to its final destination, where it could be made into fibers to make carpet or other plastic materials.

The fiber, paper, cardboard and other materials are baled up and sent to mills or out to end users.

“Our marketing group works with different buyers,” Cohn said. “And most of the buyers, we try to keep it within the U.S. … We try to send it to end users as close to us as possible because of freight costs. The local buyer might be in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, that’s where we try to keep it.”

Company representatives said the amount of materials used domestically versus internationally is “proprietary information.”

Trucks carrying bales of New Hanover County and City of Wilmington recycling are sent to Raleigh after being sorted locally. 

The county sells some of the facility’s materials to Waste Management Recycling, while the city pays $20 per ton to have the materials shipped first to the Waste Management facility, located at 3920 River Road, then to Raleigh for sorting.

For the most part, Lynn Bestul, county solid waste planner, said materials are sold to companies located in the Southeastern United States.

“Like the plastics, right now we are selling to the [Waste Management] Recycle America MRF in Raleigh, the mixed plastic,” he said. “And then sorted, because we’ve kind of had to fit the plastic sorting in with our total operation, we haven’t increased the staff to cover it yet, we don’t have any of those loads sold off yet of the clean plastic, sorted.”

The trucks come into the county facility, located at 3002 U.S. 421 N., through a scale where they are weighed. The plastics head to a garage with a recently acquired manual sorting station, the “Mini” 3-Man.

The plastics are separated into four bins — trash, No. 1s, No. 2s and No. 3-7s.

“This is kind of proving ground to show that if the materials are sorted, the value of that material increases,” Bestul said.

North Carolina General Statute 130A-309.10 prohibits the disposal of aluminum cans, plastics labeled No. 1 through No. 7 and several other materials.

The landfill operator watches the trucks as they dump the garbage, and if he notices a large quantity of any of the banned items, he can fine the hauler and track where the material came from, Bestul said. But that does not happen often. 

Random sampling of the materials is also conducted to check to see what is coming into the landfill and verify the material is from New Hanover County, Bestul said.

Once sorted, each commodity is sent through a hopper for baling. 

“PET is the biggest volume that we have, roughly 60 percent of the plastics that come in are PET,” Bestul said.

From July 2012 to March 2013, the county grossed $261,260 in commodity sales, including newspapers, old corrugated containers, plastic, aluminum, glass and more.

“It really goes to the highest bidder,” Bestul said.

The values of the materials fluctuate like the stock market, he said.

“One month, you may get $100 a ton for say cardboard,” Bestul said. “The next month, it might go up to $110, and it could also go the other direction. This year, the dollar values are starting to get back up to what they were last year. Our revenues, this year, are low, primarily because of the market value.”

The majority of the recyclables come from the county’s seven drop-off locations, approximately 5,000 tons per year. An estimated 23,600 households actively used the drop-off recycling program, with an estimated 63,000 served by the program, for a total cost including overhead of about $884,000.

About 10 to 15 percent of materials are thrown out due to contamination.

Waste Management Recycling’s largest competition in Raleigh is Sonoco Recycling, another company that bids on the county’s recyclables.

“As far as selling overseas, yes it happens,” Bestul said. “China, right now, has put closer inspections on materials. … Internationally, say they’re paying $20 more per ton higher than domestic, a lot of times it will go there. Because as much as we would love to say that recycling is strictly to support the environment, it’s economics. You’ve got to try to be able to pay for your own expenses.”


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