I've always found single-stream recycling mysterious, if not magical.
Toss my aluminum, paper, plastic into one giant container. The truck comes to pick it up, and it somehow gets sorted into proper piles, then turned into bottles and containers that I use again.
I've secretly imagined fairies picking and sorting through all my used items.
I've also secretly been afraid of doing it wrong.
When I signed up for the service a few years ago, a friend told me I had to rinse my recyclables. I stood at the sink trying to get rid of every trace of peanut butter in the jar, worrying that I might anger the recycle fairies and taint the entire city's offerings to the recycle gods.
I've also learned from the top of my recycle bin that some things marked with the recycle logo are actually not OK. But which, exactly? And are there others?
As Earth Day has morphed into Earth Month and sustainable options have become more visible and numerous, I decided to seek out the single-stream fairies. Or at least Phil Kiemel, co-owner of Bestway Disposal, who agreed to show me around Bestway's Material Recovery Facility.
With 22 employees working eight- to nine-hour shifts, Bestway's recycle center is the local hub for recycling taken in from all trash companies. Before it opened a couple years ago, our recyclables had a bigger carbon footprint, as they were sent to Boulder for processing.
At the Interpark Drive site, truckloads of recyclables make their way through a giant conveyor system, where employees begin by picking out the garbage. Then they sort what's left, much of it by hand, in the warehouse that could easily fit a couple football fields. (Some sorting is actually sort of magical — magnets catch the steel cans, and aluminum cans are flicked away by a magnetic field.) Finally, the sorted items reach what Kiemel calls the heart of the operation, the baler.
Around the property, bales of materials are piled about 25 feet high and several bales deep, all from a few days of deliveries to the plant. Everywhere you look are recognizable brand names, and our deepest consumer secrets.
Friends might tell you they eat only fresh, natural foods, but the recycle guys know it's Eggos and Jimmy Dean. Kiemel laughs as he says one container from Divide typically has the largest percentage of bottles from any route. (Don't worry, he also promises they're not judging you if you have a bottle-heavy week. But if they find dog poop in your container, you will hear from them.)
I couldn't help but notice that sticking out the side of one bale of cardboard was some of the plastic used to wrap a case of soda. In another bale I saw a cardboard milk container, another recycling no-no — waxy-lined containers are not allowed, which means your daily cups from the coffee shop probably cannot be recycled.
Sure, the consumer, or the guys on the line, should have stopped these items from getting to this point. But Kiemel explains that most of the bales weigh at least a ton, and some contamination is expected and accepted. He also assures me that if I don't get an empty can of tomato sauce sparkling clean, it won't harm the entire batch — though it should at least be rinsed before it goes into my bin.
Overall, single-stream should be easy; generally, Kiemel says we just need to pay attention to the labels on our containers. But there are exceptions:
• While they are labeled as recyclable, plastic grocery bags and shredded paper have to be dropped off at specific sites. Grocery stores work for bags, paper-shredding companies for the bills you've destroyed.
• Styrofoam may be marked recyclable, but it's not through single-stream. (There's a list of retail sites that will take Styrofoam and other packing materials at tiny.cc/w2loex.)
• Also, we need to remove tops from containers. The plastic isn't always the same, and the caps keep air in containers, which affects how compact the bales end up. In some cases, the pressure makes the caps shoot off, which constitutes an unnecessary occupational hazard for Kiemel's workers.
Kiemel also addresses one final question speaking to my neurosis: Is it worth it? I mean, we're using water to rinse out bottles and cans at home. How environmental is that?
"It's about raw material vs. reusable material," he says, "and it only makes sense to use what already exists."