Recycling Center Tour

Earlier this month I toured my local recycling center! I was eager to see what happens with my recyclables once they leave the curb and the folks at TFC Recycling were happy to show me around.

Once the truck carrying your recyclables has been weighed, it drops them off in a large pile to be sorted.

According to Kathy Russell, Education Coordinator, this constantly growing pile is completely sorted by the end of each day.

A view of the mound from inside the plant.  The incoming recyclables are pushed towards a conveyor belt where they make their way to be sorted.  First they travel past workers who remove things that were placed into bins but can’t be recycled, as well as sort out cardboard.

As you can see here the first two compartments are acting as a holding pen for the cardboard until its their turn to be compacted.  The last compartment is everything that came through that can’t be recycled.  🙁

More garbage picked from the line as well as any cardboard that is left.

From here the remaining materials are sorted.  Paper is air lifted into its own pile where a worker comes through and picks out anything that might have made it through by accident.

Plastic containers and paper cartons are picked from the conveyor belt by hand. Cans are sorted out by magnets and glass shot up into a grinder where it is then broken up to be sent off for further recycling elsewhere.

After all of the other materials have been sorted they are pushed one at a time onto a conveyer belt that takes them up to be compacted and bailed into cubes.

Once packaged together these bails are then transported off to other facilities to be repurposed and reused.


So, what happens after that?
– Aluminum cans and glass bottles are 100% recyclable and can be turned back into new cans and bottles.
– Cardboard can be recycled up to 7 times and is often shipped to countries that don’t have a lot of trees.
– Junk mail and newspaper are made into paper towels and toilet paper.
– Paper cartons turn into office and tissue paper.
– Plastic water/soda bottles can be made into a fiber used to fill sleeping bags and ski jackets or woven into cloth used to make t-shirts or tote bags.

Every recycling center is different as far as their capabilities and process, but most can at least recycle paper/cardboard, aluminum (this includes aluminum foil), glass and plastics #1 and 2. If you’re from Richmond, VA and have the green recycling cans from CVWMA then you can recycle all of the above plus plastics #3-7 (tubs, cups and containers only…no plastic bags!) and waxy cartons (this is new as of this year!). You can even recycle those plastic berry/fruit containers.

Make sure all glass, plastics and aluminum are rinsed clean before putting them into your bin to ensure they don’t end up getting tossed!

Making sure you know what cannot be recycled in your municipal bin is as important as knowing what can because sending improper materials can either result in disposal of stuff that might otherwise be reused or recycled elsewhere, subject workers to possible harm or bring the process to a screeching halt.

Anything soiled with food
Bubble wrap
Drink pouches (like Capri Sun)
Plastic utensils
Wigs (yes really)
Aerosol/spray cans
Dog food bags
Covers of hard bound books (rip off the cover & recycle the pages)
Spiral bound notebooks (separate the pages from the spine)
Paper coffee cups or lids
Spray nozzles

**Sharps. Eeeek can you imagine sorting through stuff and seeing a plastic container filled with blood contaminated needles come down the line? Sharps cannot be recycled so please dispose of sharps properly.

**Anything that can get wrapped up in the gears of the system. No hoses, electrical cords, rope, wire, string, Christmas lights or plastic bags! Below (on the left) is what happens to the gears get tangled up with these sort of materials (pictured on the right).  The system comes to a stop and everything then has to be cut loose before they can be up and running again.


**Plastic bags.  At TFC any and all plastic bags are immediately disposed of given the havoc they wreak on their system. Even well-meaning trash bags filled with recyclables will be send to the landfill because it slows down the process too much to send rip them open and re-sort. So, put recyclables directly into the bin. Trying to recycle shredded paper? No problem! Put your shreds into a paper bag and staple or tape shut.

Unfortunately there is a lot that is mistakenly sent to the recycling facility that cannot be processed. Remember those two pictures from the beginning?

The pile to the far right in the first picture, and to the left in the second picture is all stuff that will be sent to a landfill.  Most of it, as you can tell, is plastic bags.

For all those things that can’t go in with your everyday recyclables and couldn’t be avoided there are options to help it go on to live a new life:
– Plastic shopping bags can be dropped off at your local grocery store to be recycled.
Trex, a company that makes composite board from plastic materials, partners with grocery stores in the US and Canada to collect those difficult to recycle plastics such as frozen produce bags, bread bags, toilet paper sleeves, dry cleaner bags, etc.
– Donate clothes, rugs and books that are still in good condition to your local thrift store.
– Used wigs can be donated to a wig exchange where they are refurbished and made available to patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Terracycle connects you to recycling programs for random items from chip bags to instrument strings.

Thanks to TFC for letting me tour their facility and answering all my of questions about the recycling!