From your driveway to China

    On a morning pick-up route in Northeast Philadelphia, city sanitation workers George Sewell and Michael Jones walk down a side street, picking up blue bins at the end of driveways and dumping their contents into an idling recycling truck. They keep an eye out for foreign materials in the bins.

    What happens to your recyclables after they leave your curb? Watch the video above to see for yourself. To see how one local company recycles paper into new product, don’t miss “Recycling – Part 2” at the bottom of this story. (Video: Todd Vachon and Kimberly Paynter for NewsWorks)

    [Update: Waste Management held an official opening for it’s Forge recycling facility on Monday, April 11, 2011.]

     On a morning pick-up route in Northeast Philadelphia, city sanitation workers George Sewell and Michael Jones walk down a side street, picking up blue bins at the end of driveways and dumping their contents into an idling recycling truck. They keep an eye out for foreign materials in the bins.

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    “A lot of people they put food and stuff with the recycling,” Sewell said. “They mix it all together, so we have to make sure we’re not picking up food.”

    Sewell says diapers, his least favorite, are a common offender in the blue bins. There is none of that this morning, just a few 24-packs of Heineken that land in the back of the truck with a crash.

    “They do a lot of drinking up here,” Sewell said.

    Sewell’s are the first set of hands this recycling will go through before it is transformed into a new product, but in today’s global market for America’s leftovers, they are far from the last.

    After Sewell and his partner fill the truck, they head toward the Delaware River with the driver, Janel Joyner, to what they call the Forge, a new $20 million single-stream sorting plant in Tacony where all of the city’s recyclables are processed.

    “At the end of each day once we load the trucks, we have to come here to Waste Management to unload,” Joyner said as she pulled her rig onto a truck scale to weigh it.

    The city gets paid about $50 per ton from Waste Management for its recyclables. For each ton the city sends to a landfill, it has to pay $65. On an average day, Joyner says she picks up an average of seven to nine tons.

    Joyner dumps her load in a cavernous warehouse filled with mountains of waste and circling seagulls. She drives off, done for the day, but the soda bottles and old newspapers she just dropped off are just starting their journey.

    Cutting-edge sorting technology

    From the mountain of trash, waste gets moved by forklift onto a conveyor belt that feeds it into the connected sorting plant. The plant is a hive of activity–a tangle of conveyor belts, chutes and scaffolding that looks like an M.C. Escher print. There are six different levels, all painted John Deere green and yellow, and workers sorting recycling in protective gear.

    The co-mingled recycling coming in on the conveyor belt goes first through a pre-sort.

    “We’ll remove all the materials that are not recyclable,” plant manager Edgar Palacios said, “anything from engine blocks to strollers, you name it.”

    Tangles of Christmas lights and an old stroller lay in a pile on the ground near the sorters.

    Next, paper, cardboard, aluminum, glass and plastics are sorted into different streams. An optical scanner finds the plastic bottles as they travel past, then directs spurts of air to blow them to their own conveyor belt. A magnetic belt picks out the metal cans. In the end, all the material ends up in its own bunker on the ground floor, where it waits for its turn in the baler. There it is compressed and bound into giant bricks of a single category of recycleable: newsprint, old laundry detergent bottles, cardboard, and more.

    “That’s the final product for us,” Palacios said.

    From here, Waste Management sells its baled recycling to companies around the world, including paper manufacturers in China, plastics people in Alabama, and a tin company with plants in Europe, the Caribbean and South America. Nationwide, Waste Management says it sells about a third of its recycling to foreign markets, often in China or elsewhere in Asia.

    Your trash as a global commodity

    Bud Newman is the president of Newman Paperboard, a company a few miles away from the sorting plant that makes paperboard out of recycled paper. Newman says his company only buys material from the city if there is overflow, but decades ago, before recycling efforts were so large and coordinated, that wasn’t the case.

    “In years prior to that lots of the paper that was collected by actual waste paper companies who baled it and sold it directly to mills like ours,” Newman said.

    When Philadelphia developed a city-wide recycling program and as the program grew, it could contract with larger companies that dealt with massive amounts of waste and had more options.

    “The bigger companies now have access to shipping it all over the world and they opt for the top dollar that they can get,” Newman said.

    The demand for recycled materials swelled abroad as markets globalized and manufacturing shifted abroad. Now, as energy costs rise, it gets more expensive to make goods from virgin materials, so companies are willing to pay more for what we toss in a blue bin.

    If it sounds strange to send recycling to China to have it made into something that will likely be shipped back to the U.S. to be sold, the city says it shouldn’t.

    “This is a global business, there are no boundaries,” said David Biddle, head of Philadelphia’s recycling program.

    Biddle says old plastic bottles and newspapers are a commodity, traded on the open market, just like anything else. He estimates recycling will make the city $5 to $6 million in 2011, if prices in the volatile market stay high like they are now. Biddle says recycling is almost always more environmentally friendly than throwing something in the trash, even if that recycled good travels from Philadelphia to China to be made into something new.

    “Whether that’s in China, France, or just down the road in say, Bethlehem PA,” Biddle said, “the energy cost is much lower than the energy cost for something made out of what we call virgin material.”

    Biddle says everyone in the industry wishes domestic markets for recyclable waste would get stronger, but the global trash trade isn’t likely to slow anytime soon.


    How do you make scraps of paper into product packaging? Watch as Philadelphia’s own Newman Paper recycles paper into paper board that you just may be getting back in the form of the box for that new electronic gadget or DVD box set you just bought. (Video: Todd Vachon for NewsWorks)

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