Monday, 16 January 2012

Field Notes: Phoenix Recycling Plant Tour

One thing I love about Janiece Sneegas, General Assembly and Conference Services Director for the Unitarian Universalist Association, is she geeks out about visiting recycling plants as much as I do. In fact I reckon if Jan used Foursquare I would have ousted her as the Mayor of Recycling Plants USA ages ago. She's toured ones in Boston, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Minneapolis and most recently Jan, myself and Brett Lyon of MeetGreen ventured to the Phoenix recycling center on a site visit to plan for UUA's waste management program for General Assembly 2012.

We learnt a lot of interesting stuff about recycling in Phoenix, including:
  • The city of Phoenix sends approximately one million tons of solid waste to landfills each year. That’s over a half ton of garbage per person per year in Phoenix. 
Residential recycling is offloaded into the plant.
  • Currently, 120,000 tons of residential solid waste are processed for recycling each year in Phoenix through a co-mingled program, meaning all recycled materials are put in one bin: paper, plastic, glass. Pretty much everything except polystyrene is accepted. Plastic bags cannot be put in residential bins, but the City does partner with local retailers to provide Bag Central recycling drop off locations.
Plastic bag recycling drop off
  • While city residents and Phoenix's Convention Centre benefit from City of Phoenix managed recycling programs, the City of Phoenix does not offer recycling to commercial businesses, such as hotels, who must contract with private providers to recycle regularly.
Recycling bins, Phoenix Convention Center
  • The City offers tours to learn what happens to recyclables in Phoenix. If you live or are meeting in Phoenix and want to know more I'd encourage you to connect with them to set up a tour as Jan, Brett and I did.
We also learnt a lot of surprising things most people may not know about recycling generally. Things like:
  • Recycling is a dangerous job. While watching residential recycling arrive at the plant we watched in a panic as workers quickly retrieved two propane tanks off the belt. Had they not caught them the tanks would have wound up in mechanical sort apparatuses, something that could have severely injured workers, not to mention damage expensive machinery. So please: never ever put gas canisters or other dangerous materials in the recycling! There are people working in there!
Workers sort out large non-recyclables from residential offloads
  • Recyclables are not waste - they're a commodity. Recycling is all about material recovery for sale to markets. It's done because people make money. Goods we place in our recycling bins may be redistributed globally. Glass to Mexico. Plastics to China. Paper products to the northeast. A bale of compressed soda cans can fetch $2000. In the hour we toured the plant we watched 3 bales come off the sort line. Not bad for a few hours work!
Aluminum bales being bundled for sale to markets
  • People put a lot of stuff in their recycling bin that can't be recycled. In addition to gas canisters, plastic bags and shrinkwrap we saw a disturbing amount of plastic snowmen and Santas pass by us on the sort line while in Phoenix. All of which couldn't be recycled. Why so much of Frosty and Saint Nick? Turns out people not only try to recycle a lot of things they can't, but they do it in high volumes around the holidays. So do your recycling plant (and your neighbour) a favour: before you buy that next tacky plastic holiday lawn ornament ask if you really need it, because it can't be recycled if you come to your senses it later!
Non-recyclable debris is sifted off the recycling line, including carpet, vinyl and film plastic
  • Women and men have different recycling skills. When it comes to assigning workers to different sort lines in a recycling plant, it appears that if you want to sort specific kinds of plastic accurately you may want to ask a woman. Men, it turns out, are often better at efficiently sorting mixed recycled waste, while women excel at plastics identification. Who knew!
MOUSETRAP! Oh no, it's just mechanical recycling at work
  • Not everything is recyclable. But these things aren't problems - they're opportunities! Apparently a lot of people also toss out mini-lights around the holidays (at least in Phoenix they do - about 6 strings were pulled from the sort line during our time there). They must be like me and hate getting sore fingers trying to find out exactly which little bulb is out. Why fix an old string when you can just buy a new one and toss the old string in the recycling bin? I mean that copper is recyclable, right? Well, yes. Technically. But not practically. In order to recover the metals from holiday lights, wires have to be stripped, something that is impractical for a large-scale recycling plant to do. A problem, yes. But also an opportunity! Phoenix is responding to this unique waste problem by working with community groups to set discarded light strings aside during the holidays. The groups then pick them up, strip the metals and receive a share of the recycling revenue to support their activities. Good to know some creative solutions can emerge for the stuff we can't recycle!
UUA site crew (2010) Patricia Cameron, Don Plante, Melissa Saggerer, Shawna McKinley & Jan Sneegas

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