Single-Stream Recycling: A Tour

Last week I had an amazing opportunity to tour the Balcones Recycling Facility as part of Austin Resource Recovery’s Zero Waste Blockleader program. For those of us north of the river, this facility is where all of our single-stream recycling goes for sorting. This facility is full of both advanced machinery and probably a couple of dozen human sorters at any time to get everything sorted.

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Huge pile of residential recycling ready to be processed

After loading everying onto a conveyer belt that feeds into the system, the first step in the process requires human sorters. They stand on both sides of the belt picking out plastic bags or utensils or other things that would interfere with the facility’s machinery. They also pick out some of the larger pieces of trash and things such as wood, which they actually support recycling for also.

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The turnoff for broken glass

After this, the machinery starts separating different types of materials. Any glass gets broken early in the process and falls through to its own turnoff.

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Looks like trash, doesn’t it?

The machines are able to separate large cardboard from smaller papers. Plastic containers and metal cans head down their own route for processing.

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Sorted cardboard heading over to be bundled

So much of the material was cardboard!

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Cardboard, cardboard everywhere

Sadly, anything containing multiple materials (such as packaging for a doll that I pointed out with both paper and plastic) gets sent to the trash. Economically, they just can’t support separating out the materials that are attached together. So please do this before tossing things in the bin. It’s easy enough when you don’t have a full conveyor belt of materials coming at ya.

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Picking rogue items from the newspaper belt

Similar to Lay’s potato chip machines that can detect burnt chips and blow them out of the main processing, there are electronic sorter machines that quickly detect the composition of materials coming down the belt and use blasts of air to sort them to the correct place.

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I think that was actually a soda can. It wasn’t really glowing, it was just moving very quickly.

The output of these machines goes through a human sorter also to handle anything that was misplaced, but the amount would be too insane for a single human to get through.

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We got a strong whiff of laundry detergent walking past this section

At the opposite end of the facility were bales of paper, cardboard, cans, plastic, and a huge pile of glass, all ready to go on to their next destination.

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Tons of paper and cardboard baled up
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Cans and plastic bales outside

Some would be taken in semis, but some would be transported by train.

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Train behind the facility, ready to cart some of it away

It was awesome seeing so much material converted to a format that could be reused rather than sent to a landfill. The only sad part was this pile at the end. The facility has to pay to send to the landfill everything that didn’t get filtered out into one of its recycling streams.

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Behind this worker and boxes, you can see the trash pile growing

 

But, well, that pile is an awful lot smaller than the everything else that does get recycled so it’s not so bad. I know that not everyone is going to want to embrace a true zero waste lifestyle which would prevent much of this refuse in the first place, so I’m enormously grateful that this facility exists and that it’s easy for folks to just toss recyclable items in their blue bin instead of contributing to our landfills. 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Single-Stream Recycling: A Tour

  1. Jenn B November 14, 2016 / 10:28 pm

    Very neat. I’ve often wondered where our recyclables went and now I’ll make sure to separate those paper and plastic packages

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rach November 29, 2016 / 7:21 am

    It must have been exciting to see the machines in action. I also got to visit my local recycling facility recently but they kept us confined to a visitor information area due to the safety risks of taking people into the sorting facility itself. Still, isn’t it useful to see how everything gets processed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Deborah Ray December 28, 2016 / 5:53 am

      It was definitely an awesome experience! Feeling the platform vibrating slightly and looking into the metal claws, it makes sense why they usually don’t let visitors see things up close. Truly grateful I got this opportunity!

      Like

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