Smart Energy Living - December 2011

Recycling Stream Picking Up Momentum:

By: Rebecca Cantwell

     The sheer size of the piles is staggering: stuff as high as a three story building with smaller humps emerging as trucks pull in at a regular clip and dump.

     The second eye-popping impression is the number of finished “products’’ lining the facility:  neat oblong bales the size of a storage shed.  One batch is  mottled with newsprint Doorbuster sales and jewelry ads. Others are layered in plastic Tide bottles and Folgers bins. A third group is striped with  squashed aluminum Pepsi and Coors cans.

     The region’s biggest recycling facility processes 550 tons a day that Coloradans dump in single stream bins -- and once you’ve seen the quick work made of transforming your recycables, you want to be part of this stream to help boost the state’s paltry 20 percent recycling rate.

     Waste Management Site Waste Management’s Franklin Street Single Stream Material Recovery Facility uses the latest in technology. Waste is transformed through high tech machines and skilled workers on lines into new products. When  you get used to the idea that everything in this facility was thrown away, it resembles a sophisticated factory with conveyor belts crisscrossing the huge building taking materials into different sorting gizmos as humans work to refine the sorting before and after each mechanized step.

     Screens separate heavier from lighter materials, magnets pull steel and tin cans into a separate stream, optical sorters make plastic drink bottles fly up while everything else falls down. After paper goods are separated from the plastics and metals, two lines of automatic balers bundle up the products.

recycling sorting facility at Waste Management     As you observe the quick work made of transforming the stuff you dumped by the curb into tidily sorted bales that exit the Denver facility (awaiting rail shipment on the spur in front) you realize that separating your throwaways into recycling and not just trash headed to a landfill leads to real results. It just makes sense to pass on your cardboard, paper, plastic and metal cans. Especially as you learn that 42 percent of your total greenhouse gas emissions are related to how you handle the materials you use.

     Waste Management spokeswoman Tiffany Moehring notes that recycling one aluminum can one time can save energy equivalent to watching three hours of television.

     And while the market for the recycled bundles has plenty of ups and downs, she says her company has been in the recycling business 60 years and ”We’re very committed to recycling whether the market is up or down.’’   While admitting that some others may have dumped recycling in landfills when the market was down, Waste Management has never done that, she says.

     According to the EPA, Americans in 2010 generated about 250 million tons of trash and recycled and composted nearly 85 million tons, for a national recycling rate of 34 percent.

     Colorado ranks well below the national average with only about 20 percent of people recycling, according to Wolf Kray, who works on recycling for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. ”It’s not uncommon for our region since we are lacking on infrastructure, with not a lot of facilities that can handle pickup. Also we are spread out and transportation issues come to play.’’

     The Rocky Mountain region has the nation’s lowest recycling rate largely because the fees for dumping in landfills are so low—roughly $15 per ton compared to $100 per ton in parts of the northeast.

     ”But recycling really does add up,’’ Kray says. “We can save the equivalent of the emissions of 256,000 cars for a year by recycling, composting and properly managing materials use in Colorado.’’
Colorado in 2012 will start working on a statewide waste diversion plan, working with industry and communities to develop ways to improve recycling access across the state. “What works in Denver does not necessarily work in Montrose or Cortez,’’ Kray says. "We want to work with experts at the local levels on what is working best and what can be done to improve things.’’

     Some communities are experimenting with incentive programs known as “pay as you throw’’ that reward customers for recycling.

     And on the other end, as Moehring notes, “There has to be a market for recycled products and a demand for them.’’


     At the Franklin Street recycling center,  Waste Management calculates the 550 tons a day of aluminum, cardboard, paper, scrap metals, plastics, wood pallets and glass that are recycled save the following: 

    -- 5,704 mature trees, enough to  produce more than 70,673,100 sheets of newspaper

     -- 2,087,679 Kilowatt hours of electricity, or enough power to fulfill the annual electricity needs of more than 173 homes

     -- 1,071 barrels of oil, or enough energy to heat and cool more than 222 homes for one year

     -- 3,080,000 gallons of water, representing enough fresh water to meet the needs of more than 41,066 people.


The Colorado Association for Recycling:
The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment:
Recycle for Colorado:
The Environmental Protection Agency:
Waste and Recycling News:
Earth 911:
Basel Action Network:  (ethical electronics recycling)

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