Inside an industrial-looking building on South Pearl Street, big piles of mixed but recyclable waste from all over the Capital Region are pulled apart.
It’s the behind-the-scenes facility where easy-for-consumers single-stream recycling meets the reality that before they can be sold, they have to be separated.
“We tell the school kids it’s like we’re unmaking a cookie,” said Dan Kurtz, County Waste & Recycling’s district manager.
If you live in the Capital Region and leave your recycling in a single bin at the curb, it probably ends up at this enormous building in South Albany. Big 100-cubic-yard steel containers arrive daily filled with everything from newspapers to detergent bottles. It is dumped onto a sorting floor, then it is fed into a system where it is separated into commodities like paper and plastic, bailed, and shipped off to the actual recyclers, whether they be in western New York or China.
“You take the pile of dirty, nasty stuff and at the end you have clean, saleable products,” Kurtz said.
The process is fast, noisy and dusty, but facilities like this — known in insider lingo as “murfs,” or MRFs, for materials recovery facilities — are at the heart of the nationwide movement toward “single-stream” recycling.
In single-stream or commingled recycling, the sorting of different recyclables isn’t done by homeowners and businesses, as it has been for decades, but takes place in centralized processing centers like this.
Household recycling, which was almost unheard of 50 years ago, is now done by enough people that 34 percent of the country’s waste — about 87 million pounds a year — is now recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Inside the County Waste facility, about 95 percent of the separating is done mechanically — by rotating disks, screens, and magnets. Still, about 150 people work here, standing by the conveyor belts and pulling out items that can’t be recycled — or plastic items, say, that have gotten through to the paper conveyor belt.
Workers snatch contaminants away quickly as the conveyor belt speeds by. Most of what they remove is simply recycled on another conveyor line, though some ends up as trash.
Kurtz said only about 10 percent of what comes in can’t be recycled and is sent to a landfill. That’s about half the rejection rate found at many other recycling centers across the country, he said.
Single-stream has gotten new attention after Saratoga County converted its five county-owned recycling centers to single-stream recycling in early March, following a two-year review of whether privatization would save the county money. County Waste got the contract.
It typically takes people time to adjust to the single-stream concept if they are used to sorting recyclable materials themselves, but in the end more material ends up getting recycled.
“We found that when we make it simpler for the public, there’s a much higher participation rate,” said Kurtz, an Oregon native who has worked at recycling facilities across the country over the last 20 years.
Kurtz said the advantage of single-stream recycling isn’t just higher participation rates, but more efficiency and less waste. One truck can often do the work of two if it doesn’t have to have separate compartments, and waste can be compacted more tightly.
A recycling advocacy group, Keep America Beautiful, said the use of single-stream is growing, but much depends on how well it is done.
“There have been a lot of improvements and innovations, and there will continue to be more,” said Brenda Pulley, Keep America Beautiful’s senior vice-president for recycling. “At the same time, there are things that are problems. Glass is a problem. Plastic bags are a problem.”
Of 122 MRFs built in the United States from 2006-14, 107 were for single-stream recycling, Pulley said.
Cost is also a critical issue at the moment, with prices in recycling markets low. Saratoga County got out of the recycling business because it was losing about $500,000 per year with separated recycling, thanks to the costs of trucking to multiple markets. The economics of recycling are precarious even for private operators.
Currently, the price for what leaves the Albany facility, averaging out low-value plastic and high-value aluminum, is about $100 per ton.
“Right now, one of the struggles is that prices for recycling are at or near historic lows. A lot of recyclers are struggling,” Kurtz said.
U.S. prices are being impacted by the slowdown of the Chinese economy, since China is such a large purchaser of U.S. paper and metal.
“We’re pretty directly impacted by the global economy,” Kurtz said.
From Albany, the bails of paper are getting delivered to ports in New Jersey, from which they are shipped to China. The cardboard goes to two paper mills in other parts of New York state, while the markets for bailed plastics are generally in North America, Kurtz said.
The County Waste MRF processes 400 to 500 tons of materials per day, or 12,000 tons per month. It comes not just from County Waste’s commercial collection routes in the Capital Region, but also from municipalities and other waste-hauling companies as far away as Vermont and Massachusetts. Bulk plastic items like lawn chairs and laundry baskets that come from the Wal-Mart returns center in Johnstown are also sent there for processing and are among the most valuable plastics.
Typically, the commercial waste-hauler’s truck that stops outside a home is taking its load to a transfer station, where the recyclables are loaded into the 100-yard containers to be brought to Albany. The center is open five days a week, eight hours a day, though there are times when it runs 10- and 12-hour days.
“Recycling really runs with the economy,” Kurtz said. “Our heaviest times of year are around the holidays, when packaging either has to get thrown away or recycled. And then in summer, the number of beverage containers goes way up.”
In addition to the seasonally fluctuating flow of plastic jugs and cardboard, the MRF gets a lot of things that can’t be recycled, and makes you wonder what people were thinking. Animal carcasses aren’t unheard of, and neither are diapers. Garden hoses and old clothing can get wrapped up in machinery and have to be picked off by hand. Things like lawn mower blades can get through and end up severing a belt.
The rule of thumb is that anything too big to fit comfortably in a curbside recycling container shouldn’t be left out. Big bulk metal items like old refrigerators have been separated out earlier, and taken directly to scrap metal dealers.
Here’s what happens:
Each morning, the mountain of mixed material on the sorting room floor can be up to 25 feet high. The separation process starts when a front-end loader scoops loads of the household discards into a metering bin to start its journey. Often, there’s a gunshot-like pop when it drives over and crushes a plastic bottle.
A rotating wheel inside the bin deposits the material at an even rate onto a conveyor belt, and four workers wearing dust masks quickly pull out any immediately visible contaminants.
A screen system then takes the paper and cardboard, allowing heavier materials like metal cans to fall into a container below.
A magnet pulls metal cans from the plastic, while a rotating magnet repels the aluminum into a separate bin. An optical scanner separates different kinds of plastic. A jet of air blows detergent jugs, milk jugs and soda bottles off the belt, though it then requires a couple of highly trained workers who can separate them into different bins, each working as quickly as 80 items per minute. The workers get a break every two hours.
The two recycling lines converge at the center of the plant, where the separated materials are baled and the bales are then stacked until they can be loaded onto trucks for shipment.
“We knock the pile back and build it up every single day,” Kurtz said.
County Waste, which began in Clifton Park 30 years ago and grew into the Capital Region’s largest private waste hauler, was acquired in 2011 by Waste Connections, a publicly traded Texas company that operates waste disposal and recycling systems nationwide.