We take field trips to be inspired, astounded and challenged. Today we visited the Puente Hills Material Recovery Facility, one of the most high-tech facilities of its kind. We saw the intake, processing, sorting and bundling, and got outfitted with vests and hard hats for a trip onto the facility floor.
Seeing our garbage processed in person is uncomfortable and shocking. Trucks come in, dump mounds of trash, where people stand along a conveyor belt sorting through it by hand to separate different materials for recycling. It is dirty, grueling work. The smell gets into your clothes and your skin. After 15 minutes on the MRF floor we were overwhelmed by the smell and dust in the air. It is painfully clear that we are consuming resources quickly and clumsily.
After sorting, much of the trash is compacted into huge bales of a single material (soft plastics, hard plastics, cardboard). What doesn’t go to the landfill sells to the highest bidder for recycling, or gets loaded on a barge back to China.
The polypropylene cloth that we salvage at Rewilder is not easily recycled, as it is made from a tight weave of two different materials – plastic and nylon – each running a different direction. Because the two materials cannot be quickly pulled apart, they cannot be processed individually for recycling. This is also why it is difficult to recycle things like televisions (made of so many different materials) or even those little single serve juice boxes (made from layers of cardboard and metal).
SOME FACTS ABOUT PLASTIC RECYCLING:
- Plastic waste makes up 13% of all solid waste in the US. (EPA)
- Out of 200 million tons of plastic produced each year, 32 million tons are thrown away after a single use. 9% of all plastic can be recycled, but the rest goes straight to landfill. (EPA)
- In 2013, China imported about 8-9m tons of plastics scrap. Global plastic scrap consumption will climb from 15 million tons in 2007 to around 45 million tons by 2015. (Bureau of International Recycling - BIR)
- Plastic beverage bottles (soda, juice, milk) are never truly reformed into new beverage bottles, as this requires virgin plastic. So there is no true "cycle" in the "recycling" of plastic beverage containers, which more precisely should be referred to as "downcycling". (Wikipedia: Plastics Recycling)
- Most plastics degrade during reprocessing and have only one successful recycling. Therefore, plastics from widely-collected products such as soft drink bottles and milk jugs often are downcycled into nonrecyclable items like fleece clothing and plastic lumber. (Wikipedia: Plastics Recycling)
Anyone can visit the Puente Hills MRF. They are happy to show you around if you want to see the process for yourself. We encourage it.