Waste Not: A Tour of a Recycling Facility

Behind the scenes at our local materials recycling facility you’ll find tons of products, dedicated staffers and eye-popping machinery.
by Ayn-Monique Klahre | photography by Joshua Steadman

Here in the Triangle, it’s very easy to recycle: You open that big blue bin, toss in a plastic water bottle or soup can, and walk away feeling virtuous. But what happens after you roll your bin to the curb? Where does it go, and how does it get bundled back into the raw material that manufacturers can use to make new goods? WALTER set out to investigate.

We connected with Mel Gilles, education and outreach specialist for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, who arranged a tour of one of our local Material Recovery Facilities (insiders pronounce them “murfs”). This is the spot where all the contents of your single-stream recycling bin—aka your mixed-together plastics, glass metal cans and paper—go to be sorted and baled before they’re sold to manufacturers as raw material.

On the approach: a giant, active warehouse buzzing with big rigs and seagulls. Inside: mounds of materials, neon green-clad staffers and a Rube Goldberg of machines that sort the goods. Ramps, magnets, blowers and spinners move the material through one conveyer belt after another to drill down into categories (cardboard, paper, clear plastic versus colored plastic, aluminum and more) then press like materials into giant cubes called bales. Along the way, the machines get an assist from human hands, a necessary extra step to weed out the items that we—whether as “wishful recyclers” or just plain lazy ones—toss in that can’t be recovered here (some items, like steel, electronics and textiles, can still be recycled through local Convenience Centers). If those get mixed in, the bales get contaminated; too much contamination, and no one will buy them. Among the items they find and eject: garden hoses, small appliances, wire hangers, food, dead animals, clamshells and gobs of plastic bags.

We caught the MRF on a slow day—they often process between 500 to 550 tons of material per day. Around the holidays, the action ramps up as people consume and discard at higher rates (another problematic item: string lights, which can wrap around gears and seize up the equipment). Up to 20 percent of the load the MRF gets from household recycling bins is not recyclable here, and a single misplaced item (say, a lawnmower blade) can cause thousands of dollars’ worth of damage in an instant. “We have to remind people to put trash in the right bin, not the bin that makes you feel better,” says Gilles, who’s part of a team working on statewide guidelines to reduce confusion around recycling. In the meantime, Gilles challenges us all to reduce and reuse first, before putting something into the recycling bin. Back on-site, we found a dedicated staff, many of whom have been there for a decade or more, who truly feel like they’re making a difference in the community. And if there’s one message they want you to take away, it’s this: When in doubt, throw it out!