So, you’re diligent about putting your recyclables into your recycling bin(s) every day. You make sure to Think Before You Throw things in your recycle bin. You know that recycling saves resources, energy, and ultimately the environment. BUT, do you actually know what happens to the materials once they are picked up by our trucks? In this issue, we will explain how recyclables are treated at a special facility, called a Materials Recovery Facility aka MRF (or, as we call it in the industry, Murrrf).
The M(u)RF…Where separation happens.
Each week, or several times per week, an American Disposal recycling truck comes to pick up all of the recycled goods you have collected over a given time period. Although the trucks look very similar to our trash trucks, you may notice a small green recycling sign attached to the sides of the truck. This designates the truck as recycling ONLY. Because this truck is only collecting recyclables, it hauls these materials to a MRF for sorting rather than to a landfill.
Once our American trucks reach the MRF, the truck unloads its contents onto a large “tipping floor”. Here, you would see extremely large mounds of products waiting to enter the sorting line.
Several tractors transport materials sitting on the tipping floor onto a single-conveyor belt which allows the materials to enter a process of sorting by various mechanical, technological, and even manual means. MRF workers are stationed around the belts, in order to catch any “contaminants” that may have been collected in recycling bins. These “contaminants” are pulled out by hand and eventually transported to a landfill or scrap yard where they can often be recycled with other types of debris.
The load makes its way up the first belt. The first material to be taken out of the single stream is also the lightest: PAPER. A series of screens, vents, and air blowing devices are used to separate paper from other items since it can be lifted out of the stream easily due to its light weight. The paper is categorized by type, collected into bins, and then baled.
The remaining materials continue onto another belt. The next step removes metals from the single-stream material flow. First, ferrous metals (ex. iron, tin, and steel cans) are removed using a super-strong magnet that picks these out of the stream and places them into a separate holding container for baling. Since magnets do not attract aluminum, the aluminum products remain on the belt. These items are separated out using an “eddy current”, which repels the aluminum, flinging it out of the stream into a bin for baling.
Plastic and glass items continue on the belts. An optical scanner recognizes various plastic items shapes, sizes, and weights. Then, directed blasts of air shoot the plastics into their own bins, separating them by type of plastic.
By the time the glass is separated out of the materials stream, it has been broken down into fine pieces of glass. The glass is collected at the very end of the sorting line into its own bin.
Completing the (re)Cycle
Of course, recycling is not completed at the MRF. The baled materials are then sold to third parties to be reprocessed into new materials. For example, a paper mill will buy bales of paper and reprocess them into new reams of paper to be sold at your favorite office supply store. It is then up to us as consumers to purchase items containing recycled content, in order to ultimately complete the cycle.