Recycling magically disappears.
We throw it all in a bin, it gets carted away and never see it again.
Most people do not know where recycling goes. Even those in the waste industry do not know exactly where our waste ends up.
In RI, for example, the main recycling facility, lists “the Middle East” as a shipping destination. When we inquired further for specific locations, the answer was “We don’t know because selling is handled by a third-party. Where it goes next changes everyday.”
Where trash goes in the next process is not treated as our problem– it is always someone else’s. That’s why we decided to dive deep into this seemingly simple question; Where does our recycling really go?
Luckily, we have a friend that knows this process better than anyone else; Meet Dave. Dave held your iced latte yesterday. You left him in the recycling, but before he is turned into new plastic, there are many obstacles to come.
First, Dave gets in the recycling truck, which takes him to the Material Recycling Facility.
The Material Recycling Facilitiy uses a wide variety of technology to sort through mountains of trash.
First, a pay loader scoops up Dave and feeds him through the drum feeder. This equipment loosens up the recycling to the right
Then, Dave moves onto a conveyor belt. Workers line up on both sides to take out recyclables that have been incorrectly placed.
Dave passes through 4 different star screens. These star screens, based on gear size and distance, sort based on density. Light materials like newsprint remain on top, while heavier materials like Dave go to the bottom.
Dave says goodbye to his metal friends as they are attracted by a magnetic conveyor belt.
There are also optic sensors, which double checks the sorting.
Despite all these high tech machines, recycling involves a lot of manual labor. Workers handsort recyclables after all the automated steps mentioned above.
After passing through one last round of manual sorting, Dave and his other plastic friends are compacted into big blocks and shipped off to a buyer.
Depending on the recycling quality, the plastic mill Dave arrives at may choose to do another sorting manually.
Next, Dave is shredded with a machine that simultaneously runs water through; this allows plastics to be washed while being broken down. The process is called wet shredding.
After, there is the drying stage, where machines either use mechanical or thermal energy to separate the water from plastics.
Lastly, Dave is molded into pellets, which can be remolded into new products.
What Dave just went through is called single stream recycling. Single stream recycling is expensive, using a complex network of machinery and a large workforce to just sort our trash.
So maybe, next time, when you see a Dave think twice about having him hold your coffee.