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Recycling Rocks!

Mixed-stream recycling is pretty amazing. We get to throw all of our recyclables into one bin, and then — POOF! — they magically get taken away and sorted elsewhere. No more icky sorting of paper from soda cans, milk jugs from mason jars! But have you ever wondered how the sorting ACTUALLY HAPPENS and WHO DOES IT?

Back in July of 2016, BRIT was invited to tour Republic Services’ North Texas Complex located in Fort Worth. They graciously allowed us to take some photos and video of their sorting plant so we could come back and share their awesomeness with you.

BRIT junior intern Parker Boyce took our raw files and created the video below, set to the song “Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott and performed by Carl Stalling.

So here’s the rough breakdown of the process. (For those in the know, I apologize if some of this is out of sequence or not technically exact. Feel free to suggest corrections in the comments!)

Trucks dump all the stuff they collect onto a big warehouse floor.
Little tractors scoop up the stuff and start it onto the big, complex, super-awesome conveyor belt system.
Not everything is automated. Humans do an initial pre-sort along the conveyor belt, pulling out “plastic film” (bags, wrappers, etc.) as the stuff rolls by. They hold the film up under those big blue vacuum tubes, and it gets sucked away to a separate bundling machine.
The paper gets shaken out of the mixed stream early and sets off on its own path, the end of which is being compressed into a giant rectangular “worm.” The worm gets cut up and bound into big bales that are measured by the ton. This step looked a lot like a slow, Play-Doh factory or extruded cheese or pasta. Fun!
At some point the mixed stream goes up a belt and passes over a magnetized drum at the top, which pulls out all the ferrous metals.
Then the stream passes by a bar with an electric current (or a spinning magnet). This induces a magnetic field in NON-ferrous metals such as aluminum (google “Lenz Effect” to see how this works). The non-ferrous metal items get yanked up over the bar to one bin while the remaining stuff drops under the bar into another bin.
Now we’re left with just plastics. These are sorted by type as they pass under lasers that each fire a beam that is able to read the type of plastic (e.g., #2, 4, 7, etc.). If the plastic type matches, a puff of air shoots at that plastic piece, propelling it off down another path.

There are more intermediate steps where tiny pieces of things are shaken out over grates and a step where all of the glass shards are collected in a bin together, but there was so much going on in this place that I’m lucky I got as much as I did.

What I really took away from this trip was that (1) this giant Rube Goldberg machine is very clever and was probably very fun to design, and (2) all of this machine-based ingenuity serves to automate on a large scale a task that is very simple for humans: sorting recyclables. But if you want people to do something, it helps if you make it EASY. If we as a global community want to recycle as much as we can, then we need to make recycling take as little extra effort and time as we can. Studies show that communities that offer mixed-stream recycling report much higher participation rates than communities that only collect pre-sorted recyclables. Businesses such as Republic Services and machines such as the ones seen here are making recycling EASY. They sort our recyclables for us, so we don’t have to do it ourselves, and in the end, more recyclables are kept out of the landfill. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s certainly an idea worth supporting.

P.S. Here’s a neat video explaining the Lenz Effect (the one that allows us to automate non-ferrous metal sorting).

Research Team

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