Non-recyclable items gumming up the works at recycling centers

Comments Email Print
Recommunity Plastic bags clog the production line at a ReCommunity materials recovery facility.

ReCommunity is not a big fan of old garden hoses. And the recycling company is not too fond of plastic grocery bags, dirty diapers and needles that can’t be handled at its materials recovery facilities.

The influx of all sorts of unacceptable items at the company’s MRFs has gotten to the point that the Charlotte, N.C.-based firm is trying to bring added attention to the problem.

And ReCommunity is warning that there’s a higher cost of handling all of this unwanted material — a cost that could end up hitting customers in the pocketbook.

Not every MRF is designed the same, and some are able to take certain materials that others cannot based on the sorting equipment involved. That means some can take mixed plastics but others can’t, for example.

But no MRF, ReCommunity’s or not, is equipped to handle certain materials that are finding their way into single-stream recycling containers collected at the curbside.

Single-stream recycling has allowed communities around the country to boost their recycling rates by allowing residents to easily put all of their recyclables into one container. It’s the job of companies like ReCommunity to then sort it all out.

Things work great when residents pay attention to what’s allowed in their particular bin — again that varies from community to community. But costs start rising when loads contain prohibited materials.

So ReCommunity is out what with it calls an “inbound quality alert” in an attempt to grab people’s attention about the problem.

“So what we’ve seen is an overall increase in, I call them ‘non-conforming materials,’ that were never intended to go into any single-stream material program such as food waste or yard waste or hoses or medical waste,” said Jeff Fielkow, chief sales and marketing officer for ReCommunity.

“Some of these issues have been problematic in bits and pieces in the past but they’re emerging across a broader spectrum,” he said. “It’s absolutely been a slow build over time.”

In other words, ReCommunity is seeing the problem in many of the 33 facilities in 14 states where the company operates. About 7 percent of the company’s volume is plastics.

“It’s not one particular event that‘s driving this. It’s a culmination that’s been building and just needs to come to the forefront. I think people want to do the right thing in putting their recyclables in the bin. It’s a lack of great education, not keeping pace with how the programs have changed,” he said.

Education is the cornerstone to any successful recycling program. But as municipal budgets have shrunk over the years, it is not uncommon to see a cutback on spending in that area.

“I think the opportunity to reeducate isn’t always taken advantage of as it needs to be,” he said.

Rumpke Consolidated Companies Inc. is a regional solid waste and recycling company based in suburban Cincinnati that also believes that education is a key to preventing contamination.

Items such as plastic bags, buckets and pool liners continue to remain a problem at Rumpke’s MRFs, spokesman Jonathan Kissell said.

Wikipedia Old videotapes are another issue for recycling firms.

Moving to the use of single-stream carts — from plastic hand-held bins and community drop-off sites — is actually reducing the amount of overall contamination Rumpke is seeing. That’s because Rumpke’s public sites can serve as a dumping ground for unwanted, unrecyclable materials.

Rumpke sees anywhere from 5-12 percent contamination at its MRFs, including a steady stream of plastic bags.

“We have to do a lot of work to get those items out of the mix,” Kissell said. “They continue to be one of the biggest issues we face. We spend a lot of time, money and resources to get them out of the stream right up front.”

“We receive a lot of questions from residents and from community officials asking for some more clarification, especially as it relates to plastics,” Kissell said.

There can be problems when residents are guessing about what can and cannot go into a recycling container.

And that brings it back to the garden hose.

“You would be shocked at how many garden hoses a facility will get, especially this time of year,” Fielkow said.

MRF equipment, while great for plastic bottles and paper and metal cans, does not have the capability to handle garden hoses. In fact, the hose can impact productivity and gum up the works if not pulled out of the recycling stream in time.

Workers are commonly stationed at the front of a MRF line to spot and pick out materials that the system cannot handle. But if this first line of defense misses a hose, for example, in the passing conveyor belt full of recyclables, it can easily wrap itself around sorting equipment down the line.

Workers can stop the line if they spot a hose they can’t reach in time. But even a short delay slows down efficiency for the entire system, which can have dozens of workers at various points along the line. And that costs money.

But make no mistake, the problem is not limited to these hoses. Plastic bags commonly gum up equipment near the front of the MRFs that’s designed to separate paper from other recyclables. The bags wrap themselves around rotating axles and disks, requiring employees to periodically stop the line to cut away the bags.

“There’s a significant loss in productivity when items come in that don’t belong there in the first place,” Fielkow said.

While plastic bags, arguably, could be called the chief combatant of MRFs, there is another item gaining traction, Kissell said.

VHS tapes – all those episodes of “Murder She Wrote” Grandma recorded years ago – are increasingly finding their way to MRFs.

And that’s not good, he said.

“If you walk into a (recycling) plant any day of the week you are likely to see old VHS tapes. Those are beginning to become an issue for us in a similar fashion that plastic bags are. The VHS tapes rip open and the black tape inside gets strewn across our system and around the equipment,” Kissell said. “It can cause damage and down time. If we could keep those out of the mix, we’d love to see that.”

But Rumpke’s list of unwanted items that come across its conveyor belts is not limited to bags and tapes.

Legendary items that workers have encountered over the years include both a prosthetic leg and a monitor lizard.

A live monitor lizard.

Animal control and Cincinnati Zoo officials were called in to handle that one.

“Is it a cost that’s solely burdened by the end market? I don’t think so,” ReCommunity’s Fielkow said about contamination. “Is it a cost solely burdened by the processor? I don’t think so. I think it’s something that‘s burdened by the generator of the material working with processors and the end market. I think it’s really a supply chain-related matter,” Fielkow said.

With the alert, ReCommunity officials are hoping to bring the matter to a broader audience in the communities they serve and reemphasize the need to provide clean recycling streams in the first place.

“It is a topic that does require industry involvement, municipal involvement, public-private partnerships all the way around to address. I do know that if focused on, it can be remedied,” Fielkow said.