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From bins to Budweisers and back: the winding path of Wichita recycling (+video)

Where does your recycling go?

Follow a can of recycling's journey from a Wichita curbside to Hutchinson County, where its contents are sorted, packaged, and sold for reuse. (December 2015)
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Follow a can of recycling's journey from a Wichita curbside to Hutchinson County, where its contents are sorted, packaged, and sold for reuse. (December 2015)

Just before the sun had peaked out over a street of houses in College Hill one recent December morning, Dylan Doffing, 24, jumped out of the cab of his truck, hoisted a tan recycling bin and poured out a stream of bottles and cans, milk jugs and detergent plastics, old newspaper and lots of cardboard.

He’ll do this 400 or 500 times before the day is out, and it’ll take a bit longer than usual.

That’s because it’s just before Christmas, which is trash season: the volume of cardboard boxes is nearing its peak, according to Eric Bergin, the local manager at Waste Connections, the largest trash and recycling hauler in the city.

Waste Connections transports 1,300 tons of Wichita trash and recycling per day when it’s most busy, compared to 700 tons during low points, Bergin said. Full trucks mean longer days for Doffing and most of the 50 trash and 13 recycling collectors that run routes for the company every day.

Follow a can of recycling's journey from a Wichita curbside to Hutchinson County, where its contents are sorted, packaged, and sold for reuse. (December 2015)

Waste Connections owns one of two transfer stations in Wichita. At the Waste Connections transfer station located at 37th Street North, trucks unload into two giant piles, one for garbage and another for recycling. The garbage is then continually scooped onto a much bigger shipping container by two large tractors and taken to a landfill in Harper County. At the end of the day, or the beginning of the next, the tractors will scoop up the recycling pile.

Those loads are then sent to Hutchinson, where Waste Connections owns the only regional recycling center outside of Oklahoma City and Kansas City. There, the recycling is sorted, sold and eventually turned back into products that may one day be placed on the curb for recycling again.

Recycling heyday/blues

Doffing doesn’t pick up a bin at every house because recycling is optional in Wichita and hasn’t been promoted effectively, according to the recycling coordinator for Sedgwick County, Jo Oliver, who retired this week after 15 years in the role.

Fewer than 50 percent of the customers with the city’s largest hauler recycle, according to the county’s 2015 waste management report, even though Oliver said many neighboring cities and counties report 90 and 100 percent recycling participation.

Part of the reason is that in most of the surrounding cities that contract with one trash-hauling provider, recycling is included as part of that service. But in Wichita customers have to pay. “Those of us who choose to do curbside recycling are financially punished,” Oliver said.

Although the recycling rate is lower in Wichita, there is a lot of evidence that it’s improving. In 2012 the city began requiring all trash haulers to offer single-stream recycling that means all bottles, cans, newspapers and cardboard can be stuffed in one recycling bin.

The city also required the 13 trash haulers in Wichita to offer discounts to houses that throw away less trash. So someone like Oliver, who uses a 32-gallon bin instead of the standard 96-gallon bin, saves $4 a month, almost exactly the same amount she is charged for her recycling pickup.

Since 2011, recycling in Sedgwick County has risen by nearly 50 percent, from 45,000 tons to more than 67,000 tons. But the numbers would be even much better, Oliver said, if people knew more about the recycling program.

Derby, like most smaller cities in Sedgwick County, has contracted with Waste Connections exclusively, so it can promote recycling more easily, according to Oliver. It’s hard to get the message out to customers of 13 different companies in Wichita, she said, especially if most of them make money from collecting more garbage, not more recycling.

Making money on the environment

It’s not that recycling isn’t profitable, according to Keith Shaw, who manages the recycling facility in Hutchinson, where most of the household recycling in Wichita ends up. The plant is in the black now, he said, and was making even more money when the price of oil was higher.

Shaw sold bundles of tin cans last year for around $100 per ton. Now a ton sells for around $20, he said. Plastic, which is typically made from petroleum, is harder to sell now, too, although it’s still in the $150 - $300 range per ton. (Milk jugs bring in $300, the most.)

Aluminum continues to draw the highest price at $750 a ton. Sixty percent of all the soda and beer cans come from recycled aluminum, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Recycling aluminum also reduces carbon emissions the most because it’s so energy intensive to rip aluminum from the earth and smelt it into usable metal.

But the Hutchinson plant only collects enough aluminum to ship out once a month, the least frequent of all its materials, according to Shaw, so aluminum only generates about 10 percent of the plant’s income overall.

Aluminum can be recycled forever. But paper, which generates 40 percent of the revenue, can’t be recycled indefinitely. Paper fibers can only be reused seven or eight times. Although paper brings in $45 to $60 per ton, according to Shaw, the plant ships and sells 100 tons of paper and cardboard per day.

Even glass, which is mostly made out of sand (of which there is an abundant supply), makes sense to recycle, according to Shaw. It takes half the energy to repurpose glass into fiberglass as it does to start from raw material, according to the company in McPherson that turns recycled glass into fiberglass insulation for houses.

While Waste Connections’ Hutchinson plant makes some money by recycling items, the company has other costs associated with picking up recyclables from people’s homes and shipping the items to Hutchinson.

In addition to the money it earns, for every ton of recyclables the plant processes, Shaw said, the plant prevents four tons of carbon emissions from being released. As the U.S. readies itself to meet higher emission standards set by the recent climate change agreement in Paris, recycling could become even more of a booming business.

Even with the drop in the price of oil, Shaw said, “There are still (recycling) plants coming on stream around the country. It’s not really a dying industry. It’s a growing industry.”

Hutchinson’s magic

The plant is run by just 20 people, who sort through 140 tons of recyclables per day, five days a week, according to Shaw, an Australian national who took over management of the plant a little over a year ago.

The plant receives most of its drop-offs early in the day, so it takes all day for a large tractor to scoop up the mountain of what appears to be mostly cardboard and paper.

During the winter there’s more cardboard and paper from packages. In the summer, Shaw said, the pile has a lot more cans and bottles from people drinking outdoors.

The tractor then dumps the material onto a conveyor belt, which pulls the “stream,” as they call it, up an incline.

At one point, gravity pulls three-dimensional objects like bottles and cans tumbling downward, while two-dimensional objects like paper, are dragged upward by a series of rotors. Further down the conveyor belt, rotating magnets suck the tin and aluminum cans into their own separate piles.

Steel shafts hammer the recycled glass into small pieces that fall into their own separate container.

“The glass breaker, that’s what it’s (called),” Shaw said. “We’re real technical around here.”

But much of the sorting happens by hand.

The first group of sorters pulls out the largest bits of trash, like car-tires, pieces of wood and bags of garbage. Recently they pulled out the entire front end of a Chevy.

Most of the 20 workers in the factory spend their days pulling off the three distinct kinds of plastic, or separating out plastic bags and other unusable garbage, for $10 an hour.

Their hands move quickly, flipping over paper with the back of one hand and snatching at plastic bags with another, never stopping. It’s not so much physically hard, but it’s monotonous and repetitive,” Shaw said.

One sorter pulled a hammer off the conveyor belt and tossed it across to his friend. A few months ago they found $450 cash.

Many items show up repeatedly: one wall is lined with Frisbees covered in years of dust; a staircase is topped with a small pile of shoes.

It’s the holiday season, so a couple of railings have tinsel that has been pulled off the line, in addition to a few American flags. A few basketballs and footballs will spin for hours or days, at one hard-to-reach spot, until they finally deflate and are pulled out with the trash.

But the worst thing the sorters have to deal with are the dirty diapers, Shaw said.

“It’s nasty,” Shaw said, lifting a sample dirty diaper off and holding it in the air. “You’re on a conveyor belt and there’s just a bag full of old diapers split open going past you and you gotta pick them up and throw them off. Dirty diapers are what we hate the most.”

It usually doesn’t smell that bad, especially the “single-stream” from the small cities: they tend to sort out their trash ahead of time so they don’t have to take as many trips to the outdoor bin. But Wichita’s recycling, which constitutes 70 percent of the plant’s intake, is “a bit dirty,” Shaw said.

The workers wear protective glasses, as bits of material spit through the air unpredictably, underneath the hanging fluorescent lights. Their ears are bombarded with tractor beeps, the thunder of materials crashing and the constant hum of the belt.

The conveyor belt does stop when a sensor is covered in dust and malfunctions, the machinery gets jammed up or one of the bins is full and needs to be emptied. Shaw was brought in because of his mechanical expertise and his employees love to come tell him in person when it’s broken down. “I think they like to see the pain in my face,” Shaw said.

Chunks of material fall to the floor and along the metal walkways, all of which has to be swept up at the end of the day and put back on the conveyor belt tomorrow.

The end of the line

At the end of the process, a compactor squeezes all “the dries,” i.e. the paper and cardboard, into a dense block and twines it all up. Another compactor thrusts 100 tons of pressure at the “wets,” i.e. all the metal and plastic.

“It’s like having 100 cars stacked on top of each other,” said Shaw, as a small stream of water trickled from the most recently smashed block of metal.

Then these crumpled cubes, which weigh around a ton each, are loaded onto shipping containers in the back of the four acres of building space.

And when a container is full, the company that buys it is responsible for sending a truck to pick it up.

In total, Waste Connections shipped 22,554 tons of recycling from Sedgwick County in 2014, bumping it into first place for the most-recycled material shipped by any one company in the county.

Only 12 percent of what Hutchinson receives will ultimately end up back in the dump as garbage, Shaw said, which is better than the national average of 20 percent.

Across the street from the recycling plant, the American Packaging Corporation sells and distributes cardboard to area businesses, which they quite likely bought from the paper mill in Hutchinson, Shaw said, which in turn bought the raw materials from him. The cardboard goes for a little detour before reappearing across the street.

But Shaw thinks more could be done. He, his wife and teenage daughter fill up two bins of recycling every two weeks. If the government “mandated” recycling, pickups could become weekly instead of biweekly, he said, and the plant could extend its hours, hire more workers, reduce carbon emissions, shrink landfills, and “then the industry can achieve its full glory.”

Percent of trash that is recycled

14.7 percent* - Sedgwick County.

32 percent* - Kansas

*The numbers may not be comparable. Jo Oliver, Sedgwick County’s long-time recycling coordinator, said the county doesn’t include washing machines, refrigerators and scrap metal in its recycling rate, as some communities in Kansas do. The low rate of households recycling in Wichita contributes to the county’s low number, Oliver said.

Where your recyclables go

Material

Percent of Hutchinson plant’s revenue

Price per ton (est.)

Where it ends up

Final product

Plastics

35 percent

$150 - $300

Currently Illinois. 2011 it was Georgia. Also China.

Misc. carpets, etc.

Cardboard and paper

40 percent

$45 - $60

Sonoco Hutchinson paper mill

Cardboard in toilet paper rolls

Aluminum

10 percent

$750

Alabama

Beer cans

Glass

5 percent

$76

McPherson

Insulation for houses

Tin

1 percent

$20

Gary, Indiana, Tube City

Steel products

Scrap metal / misc.

10 percent

Misc.

Misc.

Misc.

Path recyclables take

1) Sorted by households into one recycling bin

2) Picked up every two weeks

3) Piled at the transfer station at 37th Street North

4) Packed into bigger truck and sent to Hutchinson (20 - 40 tons per day, estimated)

5) Sorted in Hutchinson into glass, aluminum, tin, cardboard, mixed paper, newspaper and three kinds of plastic.

6) Shipped to buyers in Hutchinson, McPherson, Illinois, Alabama and Indiana.

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