Inside the recycling process at Recycling Works
You've probably grown up hearing 'reduce, reuse, recycle,' but do you know what happens during the recycling process? Do your items actually get recycled?
This week is Earth Week, which made it a perfect time to stop by Recycling Works in Elkhart to learn what happens after you put your items in the recycling bin.
The next step is a truck coming to the curb to pick up your recycling. The truck travels to the recycling center, and drops it on the warehouse floor.
The area, called the Tipping Floor, has a huge pile of waste. This pile was taller than me, and taller than Logan Miller. He's the plant manager at Recycling Works.
Logan estimates it'll take about two hours to sort through this pile.
"We have trucks coming in all day, every day, from about a hundred mile radius. We're sorting through the material as fast as we can," he says.
Unfortunately, not all the waste in the pile is recyclable. The waste goes through a series of steps to be sorted. The key to recycling is doing it quickly. Even if the pile isn't empty, the incoming trucks don't wait to bring more recycling.
Recyclable items have to be sorted appropriately. Workers pull off any items that can't be recycled. They also separate different types of plastics into different bunkers.
A giant magnet is used to collect tin and metals.
There's also a large screen that allows paper to float up, while containers fall back. This is a great system, but it is susceptible to clogging. Items like cords, rope, clothes, or bags can tangle around the system.
"If there’s something that can be tangled around something, we definitely don’t want that in the stream," says Miller. "We’re cleaning these screens five to six times a day. That’s completely due to bags and plastic wrapping material."
During break, workers have to cut these items off of the machine, wasting valuable time in an otherwise speedy process.
Just like trash bags, many consumers bag their recycling. Since items have to be sorted, someone has to rip open any bags that come off of the incoming trucks.
Logan opened one bag in front of me. While I was expecting something gross, we actually find a lot of things that should be recycled.
"This is all good material, but it's not loose," he lamented. "We can't get to it."
Even if good items come in like this, they might have a one way ticket directly to the landfill. Workers aren't likely to open every single bag at the facility. If this happens, and your items go to the trash, you're really not helping the planet.
"The messaging for no bag recycling is very serious to us," explained Miller.
Items that don't come in on a bag and are sorted successfully go through a baler. The items end up as a thousand plus pound block. Several blocks of the same material wait outdoors, and are eventually sent to an end user. That's typically the factories where new products are made.
"These are really resources," said Miller. "They can use water bottles to make new bottles. The can use paper to make more packaging. Recycling is very necessary for our manufacturing in this state and in our region."
To stay as eco-friendly as possible, Recycling Works ships many of their items somewhere local. A lot of recycled items stay in Michigan or Indiana, or other neighboring states in the Midwest. This also helps keep the process short.
"Going from your curb to our facility, baled, and shipped, it can be less than a week," Miller informed.
Any rumors that 'recycling is dying' or 'items don't actually get recycled' aren't true - as long as consumers recycle properly and don't send their items to curbside recycling in bags. Just place your items directly in the bin.
My visit showed me that recycling is making a positive impact on the planet, and it's happening right here in our backyard.
If you don't already recycle, this Earth Week is a great time to start. If you're still confused on what should or shouldn't go in the bin, don't worry. You aren't alone! Check out that link for more coverage on this topic.
In the meantime, if you have any pressing questions for Recycling Works or would like to start recycling, you can visit their website for more information or to request pickup.