Field Trip to My Trash {Recycling Facility Field Trip}

I recently took a trip to a recycling facility. Field trips were the best days when I was in school. Usually just the break in routine was enough to get me excited, but field trips were usually fun, too. This was all of that and good for you, too.  If you want your kids to have their own recycling adventure, you can check out this recycling curriculum, designed for elementary school-aged kids by a national recycler.

My township went to “single stream” recycling a couple of years ago. Homeowners get to throw all of their recycles into one bin, and they get sorted out at the Materials Recycling Facility (MRF). Apparently, that increases recycling rates by 50%.

recycling dos and don'ts
from Allied Waste/Republic Services, applies to Radnor Township- 2012


You can take your own Waste Management recycling tour via this video. My initial impression when I saw this was that the process moves super fast, just like our exuberant Waste Management PR host for the tour, Patty Barthel. It’s hard to find people so excited about trash! If you go in person, you’ll get to wear those super sexy hard hat, safety glasses, earplugs, and safety vest, just like I did. (Sorry, I’m not giving up that picture!)

My big aha moment was that recycled materials are not just trash to avoid, they are an industry. An industry! It produces jobs. It generates millions of dollars in raw materials. It is highly automated. It is continually evolving. Oh, yeah, and it keeps our stuff out of landfills.

This state-of-the-art facility is only a year old, built in November 2010, but I’m wondering why we don’t have one of these in every neighborhood.  This relatively small facility was very impressive. It processes over 20,000 tons of material each month: glass, metal, plastics, and paper.  I don’t really know what 20,000 tons looks like, but I do know what a Boeing 757 looks like, and this facility processes the weight of two hundred sixty-one Boeing 737’s each month.

Recycling is mandated by the state, but controlled by counties or municipalities in Pennsylvania. It turns out there are lots of MRFs in our region, but they don’t all operate exactly the same. You need to dig a little to know what to put into-and keep out of-your bin. Go to your township’s homepage, and there’s probably a link for Trash & Recycling. It’s worth checking out, because there are plenty of things that go through the line that shouldn’t. Patty said she’s seen these kooky things, among others, on the recycling line:

Bowling balls do not belong in recycling.
  • bowling balls
  • mattresses
  • garden hoses
  • asphalt
  • car batteries

When I was there, I saw these non-recycles on the line:

  • Barbies
  • bath towels
  • window blinds
  • a basketball and baseball
  • a full plastic bag holding carefully shredded paper
  • tires
  • an umbrella

An umbrella???? Seriously?

The entire facility is a series of conveyor belts that look a lot like the rides at Sesame Place. Patty called it an amusement park for your water bottle.

At the end of the ride, everything is baled and sold as a resource for new materials. There are bales of rigid plastic, other plastics, paper, and metals. Less than 10% of what comes in leaves as trash.

Single Stream recycling is highly automated through disk screens, optical sorters, magnets, and air flows in addition to the facility workers, but it only works when dissimilar materials are separated from each other. If you buy something that has a cardboard liner inside a plastic wrap, remove the cardboard from the wrapper, otherwise the whole thing ends up in the landfill.

Speaking of plastic bags, they don’t belong in curbside recycling at all. Shopping bags, dry cleaning wraps, and trash bags can be dropped off at many local grocery stores. They literally gum up the works. Don’t use plastic bags for your recycles, or they end up caught in the gears and screeners, like this.

What can you recycle at this facility? Do you need to wash, sort, or separate into your bins? In part two of about my trip to the recycling plant, I’ll spill the beans.

Um, you compost beans. They don’t recycle well.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Barb @ A Life in Balance

    I’m anxiously awaiting the follow up post on recycling. I was so excited (yes, I’m a nerd!) to learn recently that I could recycle more than grocery bags at the grocery store.

    Thanks for the tips about taking packages apart before recycling them. What a shame about the person who dumped their shredded paper in a plastic bag. I’m thinking if they had put it in a paper bag, it would have been fine?

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