Certain terms have great importance these days at the District’s Department of Public Works.
“Trash,” which is anything disposable, isn’t called trash when it can be recycled and used again in a new form. “Residue” is anything left over after the recycling process. “Garbage,” by contrast, is discarded animal and vegetable matter and anything else that isn’t reused.
The department six months ago introduced so-called single-stream recycling for 110,000 residences and apartment buildings of three units or fewer. Signs of change were the distribution of tall blue — so bright they almost glow in the dark — and green rolling carts that replaced green cans and smaller open purple bins.
Using single-stream recycling is like making a giant stew of recyclables, throwing all the leftovers into one big pot. Residents no longer must bundle up paper and cardboard. Trash collectors don’t break their backs picking up heavy bins with no wheels or handles.
The same trucks can operate on different days for both regular trash and recycled material, resulting in considerable savings in time and manpower.
Instead of having private firms pick up recyclables from 110,000 city residences eligible for public recycling, District trucks do the job and take recycled material to a contractor’s central collection point on North Capitol Street. It is then taken by much larger trucks to a processing plant, known as a materials recovery facility, outside York, Pa.
The facility is owned by Recycle America, a subsidiary of the Houston-based Waste Management conglomerate. The company is building a newer, more modern facility due to open early next year in Elkridge, Md., near the Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport.
The interior of the 35,000-square-foot York plant resembles a Rube Goldberg creation with machines going in several directions at once and performing various tasks simultaneously 20 hours a day. The sorting is remarkably simple in concept, relying on blowers, magnets, angled screens, spinning rubber “stars,” metal rollers and, at times, old-fashioned gravity.
The critical element is the speed at which material moves along giant chutes and conveyer belts, screening the endless jumble by weight and content. An entire 17-ton truckload can take a little less than an hour to process.
Papers and plastic are spun up and over one section while the heavier cans and bottles drop below. Tin and steel are magnetic; aluminum, which is not, is separated out by an anti-current magnet that puts an electrical charge on the aluminum and sends it on its way.
The action is helped along by 20 heavily garbed employees each shift who stand before a conveyer belt going by at 150 feet a minute at the beginning and the end of the operation. Wearing large, rubberized gloves, they pick out plastic bags and other odd and unwelcome items such as fence posts and hypodermic needles. Other quality-control personnel catch stray unwanted items at the finish line before baling.
“Ninety-eight percent of the work is done by machine,” plant manager Rick Cooper says proudly. “Machines make up for 1,000 people.”
Bales of flattened plastic are sent to a plant in Raleigh, N.C., which is able to sort them by quality to be marketed for different uses: Higher-grade plastics can be sold to be made into cold-weather clothing; lower-grade plastics might end up as parking bumpers (partitions on parking lots).
Aluminum cans — the most valuable commodity but also the smallest percentage of what is collected — are sold back to manufacturers. Steel, too, goes back to a steel facility. Paper is returned to a paper mill, where chemical processes can remove the ink. Satiny paper is coated with a clay substance that, in some modern paper mills, helps remove the ink from the page.
“What we do is a halfway process,” says Jim Marcinko, regional recycling manager for Recycle America. “We make it as clean as we can, but some items such as glass and plastics are intermediary. All the junk mail and stuff is screened out and sized differently to be sold as mixed low-grade paper.”
He says Washington loads contain “pretty good material. As good as anywhere else. We’re not having household waste in the recycling.” On the down side, he notes that the company has “pretty much gotten everything at one point. Hunting season is tough because it is deer season, and we can get whole deers.”
The District collects a little less than 2,000 tons a month of recyclables, or 100 tons each working day and “recovers” more than 90 percent of the material, according to officials of the Department of Public Works’ Solid Waste Management Administration. The more that is collected and recycled, the less money is charged the District by Recycle America, which makes its money from the quantity and quality of recyclable material it sells.
The current contract with Recycle America costs $4.7 million a year, of which about $1.3 million is returned in credit. The old dual, or compartmentalized, system cost the District about $5.7 million a year, says Solid Waste Management Administrator Thomas Henderson.
“But we don’t use the financial argument, we use the environmental one,” says Hallie Clemm, a spokeswoman for the department. She also stresses the convenience and simplicity of the single-stream method.
In making the switch, the District became one of few government jurisdictions in the East to employ a method used for more than a decade in the West. Consumer complaints have dropped dramatically, and participation has gone up strikingly since the new system was implemented, Mr. Henderson says. Tonnage has increased by about 21 percent, he adds.