Junk mail. Plastic yogurt containers. Soup cans. For many, these are items typically tossed in the recycling bin. And for many, it’s a long-standing habit based in good intentions: Saving resources and wasting less.
Take an aluminum soda can. It can be recycled over and over again, using only about five percent of the energy needed to produce it originally. Its infinite recyclability means that nearly 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still being used today.
That’s the value of recycling, says Peter Spendelow, solid waste specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. “It is reducing pollution and strain on natural virgin resources.”
This concept of reusing the raw materials that make the products and packaging we buy and use has remained the basis of recycling since 1983 – when the Oregon Legislature first required that every community provide residents the opportunity to recycle.
But once you toss that mail or can, where does it go? How does that aluminum can become a new can?
The answer starts with sorting.
From your bin to a truck to a sorting facility
It’s easy to forget that the items you put in your recycling bin become commodities in a global market. “There are so many steps in the system that something really isn’t recycled until that commodity bale can actually be made into a new product,” says Pam Peck, resource conservation and recycling manager at Metro.
So you toss your recyclables into a small container in your home. From there, you’re taking it from, say, your kitchen, to bins outside – one for glass and a separate one for everything else. Those bins are then emptied into large trucks, along with the containers of all of your neighbors.
Let’s follow a load of that mixed recycling to its first stop along the recycling journey.
It’s a huge warehouse called a Material Recovery Facility - or MRF (pronounced “murf”) for short. And it rattles and hums with a web of conveyor belts and a crew of workers that separate recyclables by material type like paper, plastic or tin.
There are five MRFs that process recycling across greater Portland, which includes Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties. Far West Recycling runs two of them, operating about 180 hours a week to sort through a majority of the area’s residential recycling.
After trucks dump the recyclables on a sorting floor, workers remove large items that don’t belong there. Random things like garden hoses, area rugs, laundry baskets - you name it - can end up in recycling bins.
Then, a front loader pushes what remains onto a long conveyer belt they call “the line.” The line is where the specific sorting gets underway, with the help of both machinery and human hands.
A series of fans push small bits of paper through sifting screens and into one pile. Large magnets remove tin cans and other things made of ferrous metal. Electrical currents pull aluminum cans in another direction.
Workers stand along the line and pull out both the things that don’t belong there – including plastic bags, diapers, trash and food – as well as items that can be recycled – items like plastic milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, and dairy tubs – and toss them under the line into large cages on rollers. When the cages are full, workers remove them and feed the separated materials onto another belt that leads to a baler.
At the end of the line, the only things left are larger pieces of paper. They fall onto the floor in a pile also destined for the baler.
Recycling challenges: Changes in global markets and new types of packaging
“We’re always evolving,” says Vinod Singh, outreach manager for Far West Recycling. “We’ve been changing since day one.”
Singh began his career at Far West nearly 30 years ago on the sorting floor – processing materials by hand. There were no machines then. In fact, a lot about the industry was different.
“When I first started at the company, we barely exported anything,” Singh says. “Newspaper went to regional paper mills. Cardboard went to regional cardboard mills.”
Over the years, though, that changed. As China became a major manufacturing hub, the demand there for recyclable materials increased. For West Coast recyclers, it became easy and cheap to send materials abroad on the empty ships that unloaded goods here.
But in 2017 the Chinese government announced it was tightening the standards for the recyclables they would accept, shrinking global recycling markets and sending ripples through recycling systems across Oregon, the U.S. and Europe.
“One half of one percent contamination rate - we just can’t meet that standard,” says Spendelow. That “contamination rate” is what the industry calls the percentage of stuff in recycling bins that isn’t recyclable.
Other changes since Vinod got started in the industry: The rise of new materials and the shifting demand for old ones
“The types of products and packages we bring into our home have changed a lot over the last few years,” says Peck. The popularity of convenience food – whether grab-and-go or delivery – has inundated us with new types of plastic containers. Smartphones have replaced newspaper. And online shopping has increased demand for cardboard and other packaging used to mail goods.
That means processors like Far West are sorting and selling more cardboard, along with a lot of plastic packaging that shouldn’t go in the bins, but does.
And so the recycling system must evolve again.
More sorting and the quest for new markets
In the short term, that evolution largely falls on the processors. Singh says Far West has slowed down the volume of materials on the line and added more workers in an effort to catch more of the stuff that shouldn't be there.
When the separated and baled materials leave the compactor, they are ready for the next step on the recycling journey. They’re loaded onto trucks and ships to be sold to other businesses that use the materials to make new stuff.
Metals go to smelters in the U.S and abroad where they will be melted and poured into new products, like soda cans or machinery parts.
Paper and cardboard go to pulpers that use the old paper to make new paper.
Sorted plastics go to plastic recovery facilities to get cleaned, melted and pelletized. Those recycled plastic pellets become the raw material to make new plastic products and packaging.
Singh says recent challenges in recycling also present opportunities.
“There’s always going to be global trade, and so there will still be export markets,” Singh says, “But we’d rather drive something to a neighboring state or a local processor than ship it.”