More Communities Turn to ‘single-stream' Recycling

(NECN: Peter Howe, Avon, Mass.) With recycling rates stagnating or dropping in recent years, a growing number of New England communities are responding by turning to "single-stream" recycling -- giving homeowners the convenience of just throwing all their recyclables in one bin instead of having to sort out paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, and other recyclables.

In Massachusetts, more than 20 cities and towns have adopted single-stream recycling in the last year, and now 69 of the state's 351 cities and towns offer it, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Brookline and Franklin, Mass., are among larger communities that have recently adopted the system.

But did you ever wonder how your jumble of trash in a green bin gets turned back into recyclable commodities? Waste Management let NECN visit a sprawling 1.5-acre materials recovery plant in Avon, south of Boston, on Thursday to find out.

Plant manager Gary Hartmann and Robert Comi, Waste Management's area director of recycling operations for New York and New England, explained that the process involves at every step subtracting one kind of material from a river of waste that rushes along a maze of conveyor belts and hoppers. Using spinning spindles, optical scanners, magnets, and plenty of human intervention -- typically two dozen workers each shift stand alongside the flow of waste and pick out things that don't belong -- the plant divides up the stream of waste into cardboard, various weights of paper, steel cans, aluminum cans, glass, and multiple types of plastic.

At the other end, materials are bundled not by size but by weight -- into bundles that typically way 2,000 pounds each, although a bundle of newspaper can weigh anywhere from 2,100 to 2,300 pounds depending on how rainy and wet it was the day the waste was collected. About 94 to 96 percent of everything that comes into the plant is successfully recycled, and only 4 to 6 percent goes back out as unrecylable trash -- although even that gets reused as fuel in a trash-to-energy incinerator.

While for many New Englanders the holidays are about celebrating and giving, Robert Comi says they also definitely mean: much more trash. "We see about a 25 percent increase in waste that's generated this time of year" between Thanksgiving and New Year's, especially a big spike in cardboard and gift wrap from shipping containers and presents and empty wine bottles from holiday parties.

Comi said in communities that adopt single-stream recycling and provide homeowners with sufficiently big bins to hold a week or two of recyclable waste, "We typically see anywhere from a 25 to 35 percent increase in recycling rates.'' Since Waste Management bought the Avon facility in 1998, they estimate they've processed 20 billion pounds of waste there, with energy savings equal to powering 180,000 homes for a year. While it's all about being green, it takes some power machines -- and some very hard working people willing to put up with a tough, dirty job -- to make recycling and saving the planet actually work.

With videographer Christopher D. Garvin

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