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Visiting the land of away

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/01/09 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Stuff

Do you ever wonder what happens to your trash and recycling when you throw it 'away'?

The land of away<br />Waste Management waste transfer facility in Northeast OhioHow your recyclables get treated<br />Waste Management's recyclables sorter in its Oakwood Village facilityto the landfill<br />Waste Management waste transfer facility where municipal waste is trucked to the landfill

Today, a dozen of us from the Natural History Museum saw up close where the 'away' in 'throwing it away' really is (at least, the first step). All of the museum's trash and our recycling is tipped from two separate dumpsters and hauled to a local facility in Oakwood Village operated by Waste Management (WM).

Trash and recycling are trucked into separate areas at the facility. WM operates what it calls a 'clean' single stream Material Recovery Facility, which means all recyclables come to them separate from trash (they handle the trash and recycling from 40 residential communities here). We have separate recycling bins here at the Museum: Recycling is collected from departments using blue recycling bins and at central locations inside the Museum.

Recycling at the Museum can be mixed or commingled plastic, glass, paper and cardboard in the same container as long as food and beverage containers are completely clean.

This cleaning of plastic and glass is a big deal, as we learned at today's field trip to the WM facility, because food and drinks can contaminate the paper and cardboard and turn the whole batch into trash. So, one thing to think about is completely separate recycling bins for food and beverage from paper and cardboard, unless you can insure that all of your containers will be rinsed well.

A lot of questions were answered today, such as, does everything really get recycled? WM Plant Manager Arnold Brock informed us that "throwing anything away is like throwing money away." WM has warehouse-sized bins, conveyer belts and sorter machines that process 7,000 tons of recycling a month. Junk mail and newspapers are baled and extruded from a machine like a giant Play-Doh Fun Factory.

The market for commodities like recyclables has taken a nose dive thanks to the global recession. "Typically you'll see a ten to twenty dollar swing in prices, but we've seen paper go from $140 a ton to $5," Brock says (editor's note: The market has recovered in 2014).

While he expects the market to recover, until it does, WM is a large enough operation to "sit on" their excess supply (although the Oakwood facility's monthly energy bill is $12,000).

Other commonly held questions were addressed, such as, can we recycle bottle caps? Yes, and you don't have to remove it from the bottle (it pops off during crushing).

Trash is dumped in a separate area from recycling, scooped from the floor with big bulldozers onto trucks heading to the American Landfill located in Stark County, OH. So, all of our trash is thrown 'away' in another county. A small, silver lining is the landfill captures a portion of the methane gas created from the festering trash and pipes it to a nearby Dominion East Ohio Gas facility which processes it as a fuel (to heat our homes!).

Recycling tips

Rinse when possible: Clearing food waste from recyclable plates and cups makes it easier to recycle.

If it can't be rinsed: It should go into a liner. Even though they add to the waste stream, blue recycling liners might be a good investment or training your staff that rinsing helps.

Plastics #1-7 are accepted and will be recycled. We saw how they separate the #1&2s (they're more valuable). #3-7s are mixed together as one commodity (will be made into a container).

Styrofoam cups and packing material is not recycled by Waste Management. You'll need to find a separate recycling solution.

Remember, we can save our business money and reduce our ecological footprint by recycling more and throwing less into the trash. Our goal at the Museum is to reverse the amount of trash versus recycling dumpster tips (WM is picking up trash twice and recycling once per week).

One quick fact that puts this goal into perspective: Americans trashed 500 million cans last year that could have been recycled (and earned $600 million not to mention reduced our landfill needs).

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