Your Recyclables: Where They End Up May Surprise You

March 30th, 2009 by WY Daily Staff
Your Recyclables: Where They End Up May Surprise You

Sorting recyclables – about what you’d think it looks like.

Ever wonder what happens to a plastic soda bottle when it goes into the beat-up, green plastic recycling bin sitting in the driveway? Is there a big conspiracy to just use a different-colored truck to haul the “recycling” to the dump?

WYDaily traced the life of a plastic soda bottle, and found that the journey is far from simple, or sinister – a plastic bottle logs thousands of miles of travel as part of a multi-billion-dollar industry, and ends up in quite an unexpected place when it’s reborn.

The recycling programs in the Historic Triangle are all under contract with Tidewater Fiber Corp., the largest recycling company in Virginia. This is where the soda bottle in question, and its partner recyclables, starts out.

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On recycling pick-up day, a TFC truck swings through local neighborhoods and collects hundreds of pounds of “single-stream” recycling, which is rinsed-out, folded-up, reusable stuff, all jumbled together.

It also might seem suspiciously trash-like to people who are used to separating their recyclables, but it’s a new trend in the industry aimed to make recycling easier and more appealing. Folks might be more inclined to recycle if there’s less work involved.

The load is taken down to the TFC transfer station in Newport News, near the shipyards, where it’s compacted. An 18-wheeler hauls the crushed mess over to TFC’s Chesapeake facility where it’s all scooped into a big, spinning cage that shakes the items loose onto a conveyor belt.

TFC general manager Nikolas Larum explains what happens next: “After that, there is some human sorting, but most of the process is automated. Using gravity, air currents, and lasers – things like that – the commodities are identified and sorted into compacted units.”

Sounds like something from the sci-fi channel.

These units of paper, metal, glass, and plastic have become big money as resalable global commodities since recycling has become mainstream. Because the average American currently produces over 1600 pounds of trash per year, and about 30 percent of that is recycled, then a company like TFC will end up with thousands of tons of material annually that it can sell for a decent profit.

The recyclables can be remade into whatever demand dictates, from boxes and bottles to clothes and carpets.

There’s the problem: The demand is dwindling. The global recession has caused the recycling market, along with nearly every other market, to collapse.

“There’s lots of supply and really low demand,” according to Larum. “Paper, plastic, metal, it’s the same thing. They’re losing prices across the board – so far, the cost is getting higher to pick recyclables up and we make much less selling it. Warehousing the unsold commodities is becoming common in the industry.”

Economic troubles are interconnected in commodities markets. If people buy less, there’s less to deliver, and when there’s less to deliver, there’s less need for recycled-material boxes to package merchandise and less need for post-consumer plastic for making products.

Doesn’t sound too promising for TFC, or for residents’ tax dollars that pay for the service, but Historic Triangle localities happened to be exceptionally lucky when they renegotiated the recycling contract last year.

Recycling service will remain at a set cost until 2014, regardless of fluctuations in the market, according to Tracy Hofmeyer of the Virginia Peninsula Public Service Authority. That may have sounded like a good deal for TFC before the market tanked, but now it’s looking pretty grim for them and for other companies trading in post-consumer commodities.

Local recyclables, though, are still being picked up and are going through the process. The crushed cube of plastic with some Triangle resident’s soda bottle inside it would ideally be sold, according to Jon Marks, CEO of National Recycling Network, which is a U.S.-based international plastics dealer with more than 500,000 successful shipments.

The #2 plastic in a soda bottle is high-density polyethylene, with lots of lower-end consumer uses. “China is the single largest consumer of waster products, hands-down, and we have the best trash in the world,” says Marks.

So Triangle recyclables, like a plastic soda bottle, travel to Chesapeake, then 7,000-plus miles on to China or another country, and then what?

That soda bottle “would probably end up as your child’s toy in a McDonald’s meal,” says Marks. That’s 7,000-plus miles right back again.

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