What happens to your recycling | March 7, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Cover Story - March 7, 2012

What happens to your recycling

Residents increase recycling by 25 percent. How it's processed and where it goes.

by Dave Boyce

Rube Goldberg may take a pass, but Willie Wonka would surely appreciate the daily machinations of the big blue (and green) sorting machine that sorts San Mateo County's trash at 333 Shoreway Road in San Carlos.

For fans of watching conveyor belts move things in different but complimentary directions, the RethinkWaste facility is a dream come true. Every weekday at 7 a.m. under the roof of a 70,000-square-foot building, a loud ballet begins on the rolling 4-foot-wide rivers of recyclable detritus, some 250 tons of plastic, paper, glass and metal.

Blasts of air elevate the lighter pieces and send them spinning away. Glass falls and breaks and is whisked off to a glass-collection point. Infrared detectors can sense the difference between one plastic and another, and sort accordingly. Metal items leap up to meet rotating magnets, a relationship all too brief as the magnets then release them to a bin of their own. Everywhere is noise, lots and lots of noise.

Amid this trash-handling extravaganza is an elevated floor crossed by other conveyor belts at about table height and lined by people wearing safety gear, including masks, hard hats and gloves. The sorting machine skips over some cardboard and plastic bags; these men and women extract these items and redirect them to other fates.

Garbage is handled next door and huge piles of yard clippings sit downstairs, so there are odors, some unpleasant, that greet visitors approaching the building. But that is in the natural order of things, is it not?

It's all in a day's work with single-stream recycling, a year-old program in which San Mateo County residents and businesses dump their paper, glass, metal and most plastics — a notable exception being plastic bags — into one big blue bin for curbside pickup each week.

There are many destinations for this stuff, said Monica G. Devincenzi, the recycling outreach and sustainability manager for RethinkWaste. Among them:

• Half Moon Bay's Ox Mountain landfill for the garbage.

• Asia via cargo container for the plastic and paper.

• Domestic recyclers for the metal, glass and construction debris.

• Outdoor compost farms in Tracy and Milpitas for the food scraps and yard waste.

Recycling is generally seen as a positive practice, but how long does that aura stay with the materials as they leave San Carlos for a succession of handlers somewhere on the planet? It's easy to find stories of low-wage laborers toiling in huge factories run by morally deficient management.

"We make sure that when we send materials, that (the shippers) are working with companies that do the right thing as far as the process and the facilities go," Ms. Devincenzi said.

RethinkWaste, also known as the South Bayside Waste Management Authority, is a joint powers authority funded by taxpayers from 12 public jurisdictions, including Menlo Park, Atherton, the West Bay Sanitary District, and San Mateo County, which represents unincorporated communities such as Ladera, Emerald Hills and North Fair Oaks. (Woodside and Portola Valley use GreenWaste Recovery in San Jose.)

Actually collecting the materials once a week from the curb are the employees and trucks of Recology San Mateo County. Another familiar name, RecycleWorks, is a government program within the county Public Works Department that reaches out to residents and businesses to promote environmentally responsible practices.

Capital costs

Single-stream recycling completed its first year in January, and "it's going really great," Ms. Devincenzi said in an interview.

The program has raised operating costs by about 15 percent, in part to fund new equipment, she said.

The automatic sorting machine ran $17 million. Another $13 million went to build the building where it sits. (It's a green building and Rethink Waste is hoping for a grade 2 or 3 — silver or gold — on the four-point scale of the U.S. Green Building Council, Ms. Devincenzi said.)

Also new are Recology's tractor-trailer trucks. Compared to the old trucks, the new ones carry more material, don't weigh as much and get better mileage, she said. The new equipment and building would have been necessary in any case, Ms. Devincenzi said, "so there would have been rate impacts even if we didn't change the services or service providers."

New, too, is the compost program that does curbside collection of biodegradable materials, such as yard trimmings and food scraps. These represent a fourth R — rot — to go with the longtime best-practices triumvirate of reduce, reuse and recycle.

Taking the time to make compost of food scraps and yard clippings takes a big bite out of greenhouse gas emissions, Ms. Devincenzi noted. It sidesteps the methane gas production that happens in landfills when carbon-based materials are simply buried and allowed to decompose. Methane is some 22 times more potent in its planet-warming effects than carbon dioxide.

About 45 percent of the facility's electricity comes from solar panels on the roof, the equivalent of taking 252 cars off the road each year, she said.

RethinkWaste is planning to publish details on the impact to the carbon footprint of the recycling center brought about by the new facilities and equipment, Ms. Devincenzi said.

As for the future, garbage may be a future candidate for a conveyor belt, the idea being to find and capture misplaced recyclables, she said.

The facility may eventually develop a capacity to sort asphalt, rocks and ceramics. In 2011, trucks carried away some 30,000 tons of construction and demolition debris from the San Carlos facility to a recycler in the South Bay, Ms. Devincenzi said.

There are other initiatives: the Rethink@Work campaign will this spring celebrate the recycling and composting efforts of individual people at their places of work, Ms. Devincenzi said.

The BizSMART@Work program will award businesses for their recycling and composting efforts in 2011.

Asked to characterize the categories of businesses and their participation rates in recycling and composting, Ms. Devincenzi said that RethinkWaste is gathering data in collaboration with Recology. This same collaboration is attempting to characterize commercial waste with an eye to determining what can be done about appropriately disposing of it.

Sorting jobs

The sorting jobs are for 18 months and give 22 hard-to-place workers and people formerly on public assistance a chance to acquire job skills such as preparing for an interview, showing up for work on time, working with others and managing a paycheck, Ms. Devincenzi said.

"The program has turned out to be a 'win-win' for all of the parties involved," she said.

The sorters get two 15-minute breaks a day and 30 minutes for lunch, she said. Asked about the speed of the conveyor belt as it passes by, and who governs that speed, she said she had no information on the velocity of the belt, but said that the regulating factor is tons per hour.

A rough estimate by this reporter: 240 feet per minute, or about four feet per second. They're busy.

Overall, the facility has 61 employees, Ms. Devincenzi said. All but the sorters are represented by a union.


Go to RethinkWaste.org for more information.


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