Arlington residents produced 12,263 tons of trash last year, the lowest in modern times, according to town recycling coordinator Charlotte Milan. And the town produced 4,995 tons of recyclables, also less than in recent years.
Where does that mess in your blue bin go? A group of about 20 Arlington residents had a chance to see what becomes of our town’s recyclables at a June tour of GreenWorks, a sorting and baling facility in Peabody.
- Pickup and transport: JRM Hauling & Recycling employees collect town residents' recyclables and deliver them to JRM’s GreenWorks facility. Recycling trucks back into a large warehouse and dump their loads by the entry. Trucks are weighed on the way in and on the way out so JRM can calculate how much each town produces. Before dumping, employees eyeball the load, and if it looks like there is too much contamination – for example, one load was full of fish heads – the whole load is treated as trash and the sending community is charged disposal fees.
- Sorting: Remember high school physical science labs where you’d separate mixtures using such physical properties as density and size? That’s the basic idea here. In the warehouse, a Rube Goldberg-like maze of conveyor belts, ladders, crushers, magnets and artificial eyes sorts our recyclables. The steps include:
a.) Hand-picking: A front loader deposits recyclables onto a conveyor belt, alongside which a half-dozen employees stand and pick out plastic bags by hand. If too many get through, the bags gum up the rollers in the sorting machine, and the machine has to be turned off and manually cleared, similar to when too much string gets in a vacuum cleaner. Other problematic materials the pickers remove include metal coat hangers, wood and cassette or VHS tapes, whose long strands of film clog the machines.
b.) Cardboard and paper removal: After passing the hand-pickers, the conveyor belt dumps its load onto a series of spiked rollers that kick lightweight cardboard up onto another conveyor belt, which takes it to a baling machine for later transport and sale. Paper is similarly removed and transported to another facility for processing and eventual sale. Shredded and small scraps of paper tend to fall to the floor and are treated as garbage and burned; likewise for small plastic caps.
c.) Glass removal: The heaviest material – glass – falls through the rollers into what JRM employees call “the shaky machine,” which cleans and sorts the glass. Glass is dumped into a large container for sale.
d.) Plastics removal: Plastics continue to ride the conveyor belt under two lasers, or “optic eyes.” The first artificial eye detects No. 1 plastics – relatively high-value plastics, such as single-use water bottles. Each time one is detected, it triggers another machine to release a puff of air that pushes the No. 1 plastic item onto an adjacent conveyor belt that takes it to a baling machine. Other plastics move on to the second artificial eye, which does the same process for No. 2 plastics. Lower-value plastics, No. 3 through 7, continue on and can be used for such things as park benches. Again, an employee hand-picks nonrecyclables, such as plastic bags and toys, that have gotten this far.
e.) Metals removal: The conveyor belt takes the remaining items past a strong magnet, which removes magnetic metals, such as tin, for baling; nonmagnetic metals, such as aluminum, are removed by an eddy current, which propels them into a separate area for baling.
3. Sale. Arlington’s contract with JRM includes trash, yard waste and recyclables, and gives JRM ownership of the recyclables. JRM uses brokers to find buyers for its sorted recyclables. Buyers are domestic and overseas. Most materials leave Massachusetts, but because of a recent state law allowing glass to be used for median fillers in road work, there is in-state demand for glass, according to JRM’s Caitlin Smith. Trade disputes with China have reduced the market for some materials, Smith said. Because JRM owns the recyclables it collects and takes the profit or the loss, the company has an incentive to find buyers.
“Arlington is phenomenal,” Smith said, crediting the town and recycling coordinator Milan for Arlington’s low rate of contaminants. Smith and Milan organize several tours a year for Arlington residents, with the next expected in spring 2020.
Arlington’s 10-year cintract for hauling trash and recycling with JRM was signed in 2012, when JRM was building the GreenWorks facility and looking for a steady supply of recyclables to ensure its success. Under the contract, Arlington pays about $2 million a year plus about $1 million in “tipping fees” based on the weight of trash produced. Arlington does not pay for hauling of recyclables and receives no revenue from its sale, but saves money through diversion of recyclables from trash.
These terms may change when the town’s contract expires July 1, 2022. In 2018, China, which used to take the bulk of U.S. recyclables, enacted a ban on most U.S. recyclables, reducing the market and increasing costs for recycling. Many communities now face a choice between paying high fees to recycling-transfer companies, or treating the recycling as garbage, which is often cheaper but less ethically palatable. Massachusetts has a waste ban prohibiting disposal of certain recyclable materials as trash.
JRM did not respond to inquiries about whether it makes or loses money on its recyclables, and recycling coordinator Milan said she doesn’t have that information.
News stories about what’s really happening to our “recyclables” reveal they may be heaped in impoverished Southeast Asian communities, and our plastics may be burned as fuel by small tofu manufacturers in Indonesia, releasing deadly toxins and contaminating food. (See the list below.) Amid the horror stories, is recycling still a viable answer to our waste woes?
Milan says yes, with caveats. “Everything we buy seems to come in plastic, and much of it is not recyclable,” she concedes. “But it doesn’t mean we should ignore recycling as a viable way to recover value from used materials.”
She says it’s still better from the perspective of using energy, water and fossil fuel to reuse materials that have already been extracted and created. Milan notes there are domestic markets for many recyclable materials, including single-use plastic water bottles – but Americans recycle only about 10 percent of them. “If we could just recycle them, some re-manufacturer would purchase them and put them to use in a new product.”
In 2018, Arlington residents produced 538 pounds of trash – or solid waste – and 219 pounds of recyclables per person, based on JRM’s collections. That’s less trash, and more recyclables, than Americans produce as a whole. But for those concerned about resource extraction and the impact of their waste on the air, oceans, wildlife, the one sure bet is to reduce consumption on the front end.
This may mean, as Milan notes, eschewing convenience. Earlier this year, the Arlington Recycling Committee renamed itself Zero Waste Arlington in recognition of the broader attitude and behavior shifts the group hopes to engender. The committee’s revised mission is “to foster greater participation in all forms of waste reduction to improve health and restore the environment. ZWA shall conduct outreach efforts to help the town reduce generation of waste overall, while increasing the options for, and quality of, recycling.”
Arlington’s reduction in both trash and recyclables is a hopeful sign. A strong economy last year means the drop is not likely a result of reduced disposable income. Instead, the reduced waste may reflect a deliberate change in consumption habits. Growing use of composting may also be diverting waste from our trash and recycling bins.
The Atlantic covers China’s ban on accepting U.S. recyclables
Yale School of Forestry sees the upside of China’s ban, which is causing a U.S. reckoning with our waste stream
The New York Times tracks the fate of some U.S. plastics as toxic fuel for small tofu makers in Indonesia
The Intercept investigates what’s really happening with our recycled plastic, and the plastic industry’s conflicted role
This news feature was published Monday, Dec. 9, 2019.
FACEBOOK BOX: To see all images, click the PHOTOS link just below