Not Easy Being Green Part 3: What Really Happens At Recycling Centers

Not Easy Being Green Part 3: What Really Happens At Recycling Centers

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a new series of recycling stories from Kane County Recycling Coordinator Jennifer Jarland. Got a question? Contact Jarland at 630-208-3841 or

Imagine the volume of recyclables that comes annually from your household. Now imagine the pile of recyclables generated each year from your neighborhood, your city, or the 550,000 people who live in Kane County.

Need a little help with the visualization? The volume of recyclable material collected from the curb in Kane County over a year would just about fill Soldier Field.

Once it is collected from the curb, this mountain of recyclables is delivered to Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs, pronounced like “smurfs” without the S) in the area. This is where all of the garbage is removed from the recycling and the recyclable material is sorted out before shipping it off to re-manufacturers.

Why do I have to sort this stuff out when they sort it anyway?

We all have to do our best to follow the curbside recycling guidelines in order to make the sorting system as efficient as possible.

Once it reaches the tipping floor at the MRF, the material is moved with a front loader (tractor) onto the conveyor belt into the facility where it is sorted via a combination of machines and people sorters.

CREDIT: Jennifer Jarland @ Waste Management Recycle America MRF

The conveyor belt is 3 feet wide and about a foot deep with material and it is moving fast. I have worked on one of these lines before, and it is HARD work.

The Waste Management Recycle America MRF in Grayslake processes between 420 tons and 450 tons a day. The plant runs 24 hours a day (except for the times it has to power down to manually cut all of the plastic bags out of the machinery), six days a week to process what they receive over five weekdays.

More than 70 employees work on the sorting line. They do their best to sort it all out, but there is so much in there that shouldn’t be in there that it is literally clogging the system. So again, what we put in our carts does make a difference!

For a visual on what we’re talking about here, check out this video.

Q: What makes something recyclable?

A: An item is recyclable if it is (1) made of glass, metal, plastic, or paper; (2) can be sorted by the current system; and (3) has a viable end market — somewhere to send it where they will actually remanufacture the material into new products. If it fits all three of these “ifs,” then it is recyclable in your curbside cart.

CREDIT: Jennifer Jarland @ Waste Management Recycle America MRF

There are a lot of things that just do not fit into one or more of those categories and therefore cannot go in your bin. But again, do not lose hope. There are drop-off locations for the recycling of those hard-to-sort items as well as for items that have no large-scale end market.

The MRFs, with a combination of human and mechanical sorting systems, are constrained by technology in the materials and shapes they can sort, and that creates some limitation. Then there are the market forces, which is the definitive limitation. If there is no end-market for a particular type of material, then it simply cannot be recycled because there is no one turning it into anything.

Plastic, for example is highly problematic for a few reasons:

(1) There are so many different kinds of plastic in so many different forms — and much of it is neither sortable nor marketable.

(2) It is cheaper (at the moment) to make things out of raw material — petroleum, in this case — than it is to collect all of the various kinds of plastics.

(3) The cost is high to sort the many various types of plastic, clean them, pelletize them, ship them and re-manufacture them.

(4) Much of it is such a low grade of plastic that no one is re-manufacturing it.

Again, the true solution comes down to reducing our waste as much as possible at the front end. My personal rule is to avoid buying products made of plastic whenever possible.

Yes, recycling is worth it!

Despite the fact that we cannot recycle everything that we want to, because of the reasons listed above, it is still worth it to recycle absolutely everything on the Accepted List!

The real value of recycling lies in the metal and paper resources that can be remade into new products.

Metal and paper are among the oldest forms of materials that have historically been recycled because they hold their value. Aluminum is one of the most highly recyclable materials that we place in our curbside bins. Recycling aluminum to make a new can uses 10 percent of the energy that it takes to make a can from bauxite ore.

Why mine more raw materials and cut down more trees when we can reuse these materials again and again?

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