Part of the Master Recycler course are trips around our local area. Our first venture was to Blue Heron paper mill, KB Recycling, and the Metro central waste transfer station. We learned about how our solid waste is managed after it is picked up at the curb, and saw recycling in action at the paper mill.
Blue Heron Paper Company
Manufacturing paper on a mass scale takes one serious plant, and a whole lotta paper. Over the years things like magazines and colored paper have been integrated into the recycling of paper. The mill can remove the inks and bleach out the color without the use of environmentally harmful chemicals. Bleach is not used to whiten paper; hydrogen peroxide or acids are used instead, reducing greenhouse gases in the process. Glass is the biggest, most harmful contaminant that the paper mill must deal with. Each year they get something like 200 tons of glass in the millions of pounds of paper they receive, and it causes millions in damage to their equipment.
The mill mixes the paper with water to create pulp, de-inks the pulp with cleaners, screens the pulp for contaminants, and eventually shoots it out at 30mph along a huge series of rollers and presses to form and dry the paper. No, the process isn’t that simple, but there are the basics for you.
Incoming paper above, and the chicken plucker below to remove unwanted articles.
Rolls blaring through the presses at 30mph. Sorry about the blur.
So, this is what happens to recycling after it is collected! The warehouse is set up as a big circuit, with materials coming in for sorting, baling, and distribution to a company who is in the market for that particular material. I had no idea how much sorting is done by hand…it is baffling how much material moves through this plant, and that because of the slow down in recycling markets just how much stuff they’re having to stockpile.
Paper is the majority of the volume received at KB; plastics and metals comprised a much smaller portion than I would have thought. Trucks dump off their loads, materials are loaded on to a conveyor, and the initial sorting process begins. First, plastic bags are picked out and materials go up the cardboard ladder. Anything but cardboard falls through the ladder and moves on to the next stages, where plastics and metals are sorted out. Newsprint and other paper remains on the conveyor and is sent out the back of the warehouse into a huge trailer.
Items are sorted into large piles, which are later transferred to a larger conveyor and picked through again on their way into the baler. Once baled, the bales are stacked according to material, and hopefully a buyer will take those materials to be recycled. Right now there are bales stacked 7 high in some cases, and the warehouse is filling up rapidly.
They also accept construction debris, which must be picked through manually to salvage wood, metal, cement, and more.
The biggest contaminant at KB is plastic bags, by far. There are gobs of them apparent in the materials coming in, and they do nothing but muck up the system and slow down the sorting process. Plastic bags and films should only be recycled if clearly stated by your garbage company. In the Portland Metro area no residential haulers accept them. Grocery stores often take bag plastic bags and films, but only the stretchy kind.
Incoming stuff; note all the dust in the air!
The sorting area: conveyor belt, sorting machines, and stalls below where the sorted goods fall.
One of the big machines that sorts things by size/weight basically.
Aluminum bales being made.
A bale of plastics that is sadly in very, very low demand these days.
After our tour of KB we headed across town to the Metro Central Transfer Station off of Hwy. 30 in Portland. While standing outside the first thing I noticed was the smell, oh, the smell. I totally expected to see a huge pile of disgusting, messy trash upon walking inside, but that was not what we saw. The transfer station is organized into a few main areas under the main roof: compostable debris; u-dump debris; commerical waste; household waste; yard debris/wood. I was incredibly relieved to learn that crews sort through the commerical and u-dump waste to sort out reusables, hazardous waste, compostables, yard debris, wood, etc., to avoid landfilling it. Amen! Isn’t that amazing?!
There is a separate building on the property for hazardous waste collection and disposal; they accept things like paint, pesticides, household cleaners, batteries, fluorescent lightbulbs, and anything else with a warning label, basically. Hazardous waste should never, ever be poured down the drain or into your trash. The chemicals and heavy metals only stand to potentially hurt your trash collectors, and seep into the ground or the air once landfilled.
Interestingly enough, many hazardous items end up being incinerated. Totally a shock to me. I would have thought there was some other method, but it stands to recover energy from the materials instead of storing them indefinitely in a hazardous waste site. The latex paint collected is most often turned into recycled paint by Metro and sold in the local area; oil paint cannot be recycled and is likely to be incinerated.
That’s Bob in the hard hat; he was our tour guide.
Here’s a view of the first bay that accepts u-dump waste. Forgive me, I have some better pics but cannot find them in my mess of photos uploaded here…
Below is the residential waste pile, and conveyor that lifts it into the compactor, and is then packed into a truck trailer for hauling to the landfill. There are 75 trucks per day, at about 60,000 pounds each, that go to the Arlington landfill. That’s 4.5 MILLION pounds of landfill waste per day! Holy mackerel, that’s a lot. Sadly a lot of the household waste is putrescible (icky crap that will become putrid), and will end up creating methane as it breaks down in the oxygen deprived covered landfill. The household waste is not sorted for recoverables because it is often bagged and full of icky, potentially hazardous, stuff.
The smell was even more horrendous around this stuff. Peeee-eeeew. It must take a strong stomach and insensitive sense of smell to be able to stand the smell on a daily basis. Thanks to all of the hardworking Metro employees who endure the stench and dirtiness to take care of our waste!
After seeing these three locations I thought a lot more about the things I use everyday and my effect on the waste stream. Although recycling is good, we all need to precycle and not consume more than what is necessary. When I went to the grocery store the next day I used my own containers for meat and bulk, opted not to use any bags for my produce, and considered seriously each purchase, the packaging, and how I could avoid it.
I hope that learning about our waste stream inspires you to think carefully about your consumption and reduce how much waste you create. Remember, even though recycling is not landfilled, it is still waste. Go one step further to avoid that package, reuse it if possible, and recycle only once you cannot use it any longer. Try buying larger packages of things you use (only if you’ll actually use the whole package, of course), choosing to buy items with recycled packaging, and at all costs avoiding single use packages, bottled water, disposable items, and plastic bags, to name a few.
Items that you cannot recycle at your curbside can most likely be recycled elsewhere in your community. Although you must collect these things at home and transport them yourself, you will be preventing even more waste from being landfilled. That plastic chip bag? Those plastic bottle lids? Bakery/clamshell containers? Check with your municipality or waste handler for more info on where you can take the items not collected at your curb.
If you live in a smaller community without curbside recycling, check with your local grocery stores or waste handler to find a place to take your recycling. Again, it does take effort, but you will be saving a tremendous amount of resources by allowing materials to be re-made into other materials.
Please let me know if you have questions about our waste stream or solid waste. I hope you’ve found this page helpful and interesting!