Debunking the great myth of Richmond recycling
Where do our recyclable materials go after they’ve been collected? Why are they collected in trash trucks? And are they even recycled? Richmonders are skeptical as to what really happens after their full green bins go to the curb. Some even think that the material ends up in a landfill. On where our recyclables go and why that assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth.
See yourself running out of your home in your pajamas, holding a large green bin overflowing like a clogged sink full of beer bottles, wine bottles, cans of Diet Coke, and various junk mail miscellanea that has accumulated in your mailbox. As you race to the curb, you hear a large, slow-moving truck coming down the street. You exhale a deep breathe. You’ve made it!
You didn’t forget to put out this week’s recycling.
But on this summer morning, which feels rather brisk compared to the humidity and heat that awaits you in just a few hours, you pause. The large truck approaches your curbside. Two men that have been standing on the truck bound off, lifting your bin and its overflowing contents to their respective chests, before pouring your two weeks worth of recycling into a voluminous bed of discarded crap. One of the men presses a button, and a block’s worth of recyclables slowly compacts with a deliberateness that seems like torture, before gently (or not so gently) tossing the now-emptied bin back on your curbside. They hop onto the rear of the truck. Off to the next block they go.
You slowly amble towards your evacuated bin, pick it up, look inside its now empty interior. Where does all that crap go? you ask. In a word: Chester.
It’s in Chester that TFC, a company founded in 1973 by Joseph A Benedetto Jr., has a sorting and distribution plant that handles materials from nearly 250,000 households in seven greater Richmond jurisdictions. The Central Virginia Waste Management Authority (CVWMA) contracts out TFC to collect area recyclables. In return, TFC processes and then sells that material for profit.
“We’re just trying to direct as much as possible from landfills,” said Nancy W. Drumheller, Public Information Coordinator at CVWMA in a phone interview earlier this month. It’s ironic that the location–a landfill–that CVWMA and TFC strive to minimize is where many people suspect that their recyclables end up.
Where it all goes
“It’s a state-of-the-art recycling sorting system,” says Jeff Randazzo, speaking of the TFC plant. He’s the new General Manager of the facility, taking over the reigns just three weeks ago. A soft-spoken man, Randazzo began his twenty-odd years of industry experience working in New York City. He currently lives in a hotel while he scouts for a new home in the Richmond area.
- founded in 1973 in Chesapeake, VA
- Chester facility processes 20 tons per hour
- exports used cardboard to China in 27 ton shipments
- retains over 30 trucks in its fleet
The plant opened in 2001 when the previous TFC facility, located on Jefferson Davis Highway, burned down. Around the time that the new plant opened Richmond and neighboring counties adopted a “single stream” recycling system. Anyone who can remember the early days of curbside recycling programs likely remembers the requirement that various materials be separated. Between 1991-2001, CVWMA led a recycling program that required participants to sort their own materials. This extra “work” dissuaded many residents from recycling at all. The single stream system allows individuals to pour recyclable contents into a bin with the same quotidian effort that one tosses items into a trash can–virtually no second thought or sorting needed. Material Recovery Systems (know as murphs in the business) handle all the sorting. When asked if certain materials are more valuable than others, Randazzo politely shakes his head: “Everything is a valuable commodity.”
I toured Richmond’s only murph with Andy Gupton, who has held the title of Plant Manager at the Chester facility for seven years. He is a walking, talking Wikipedia entry. When I probe his brain for statistics, he recites them without hesitation, conferring with neither documents nor invoices. After our tour, he will laugh and say, “I’ve been here seven years, so I hope I’m doing a good job.”
When I discuss the misapprehension that Richmonders have about the final destination for the items that they put in their little green bins, I get two answers. Jeff Randazzo furrows his brow and politely shakes his head once again. His naiveté is understandable; he hasn’t lived in Richmond for a full month yet. Andy Gupton, on the other hand, knows exactly what I’m talking about.
“Ever since I’ve worked here it’s been a big misconception.”
— ∮∮∮ —
The facility processes roughly 6,000 tons of materials per month (roughly 300 tons per day). TFC trucks and employees collect recyclables from Richmond, as well as neighboring jurisdictions (Chesterfield, Chester, Hanover, Henrico, Goochland, and Colonial Heights). Currently, TFC uses garbage trucks to collect the materials, which Jeff Randazzo speculates is a reason why many people incorrectly assume that their recyclables are put into a landfill. TFC is currently in the process of updating its vehicle fleet to include “side-loader” trucks. Because of their more advanced compacting capabilities they will hold at least twice as much material. Randazzo estimates between 5-8 tons per full truck load, compared to the 2 tons that garbage trucks can handle. The trucks will also further differentiate themselves (and thus their services) from the fleet of garbage trucks currently used by TFC.
Once a truck completes its collection run it returns to the Chester facility where it is unloaded into what Andy tells me is the “tipping pool.” The noise of the machinery is so loud that while he shows me the facility, we don’t so much talk with one another but rather shout. The air is heavy with the day’s heat and humidity, with only fans to cool down the sweat-drenched workers.
When materials first arrive they are bunched into three different piles: a mixed single stream pile (i.e. curbside recycling), one devoted just to cardboard, and a final one devoted to plastics (the latter two piles come from material specific trucks). The single stream pile contains large amounts of cardboard, a change from just several years ago, according to Andy, who said the piles used to be filled with newspapers. He estimates that there’s been nearly a 50% decrease in processed newspaper material, evidence of decline in traditional newspaper readership. Dust from paper covers the floor, stair railings, and fills our lungs as he leads me through the 60,000 square-foot facility.
The plant runs on two shifts, Monday through Friday: a morning shift (7am-3:30PM) and an evening shift (4pm-12am). Each shift has 38 workers, roughly half of which are temporary. Andy tells me that roughly 90% of materials are handled by workers, who must manually sort all items at various stations along the circuitous labyrinth of conveyors and machinery that cost TFC $5 million in 2001. Although never officially measured, Andy estimates that the elaborate conveyor system runs 1,000 feet.
The first station in the sorting process requires eight workers to remove cardboard and other non-recyclable materials. Left over material passes over rubber “stars” which propel light-weight objects (e.g. paper) roughly one foot into the air while heavier materials (e.g. glass) pass through the shaft onto a different conveyor. As a result, the next station consists primarily of loose paper that employees, when it reaches the end of the system, put into a truck to be carried off to various mills in the country. One of which is a local Sonoco facility, another is in Kentucky. “It all comes here and it all goes somewhere,” says Andy.
The non-paper materials are sorted by workers who are responsible for manually removing specific items (detergent bottles, aluminum cans, etc.) to be placed in corresponding “bunkers.” Once each bunker is full, items are then baled: a process in which materials are compacted into square-shaped objects and reinforced with strong wire (individual bales of aluminum cans weigh upwards of 1,000 lbs). On rare occasions, unusual objects will find their way into a baler. Like, oh say, an animal.
In the first year that Andy worked as Plant Manager, a deer carcass was inadvertently baled with cardboard. The carcass must have found, excuse me…”found,” its way into a cardboard-only truck. It managed to remain hidden when it was dumped in the cardboard pile in the tipping pool. It stayed hidden as it slowly moved along the cardboard conveyor, which are not sorted by workers because all materials are (at least theoretically) supposed to be cardboard and nothing else. Both cardboard and deer were compacted and baled. When workers came to move the large block of cardboard, they saw the carcass, molded perfectly into the shape of the baled and compacted cube, almost like it was imprisoned in a large invisible block of ice (“Hey, boss…you better come take a look at this”).
Although most of the materials that the TFC workers sift out and organize are typically innocuous house-hold fare, lucky ones will occasionally hit pay dirt. One line worker found $600 dollars in cash casually moving through the lengthy conveyor system. Others take a more practical approach. It’s not uncommon for workers assigned to detergent bottles to remove a bottle and use it to collect the small residual detergent left, in what seems to be a never-ending supply of bottles, before they are sent for baling. A worker can leave with one, sometimes two, full bottles of detergent from the amassed collection of residuals.
Such “wasted” materials that people discard raises the question as to how much of the material that TFC receives end up in a landfill. Andy confidently estimates 8%. “It’s pretty small.” Materials that are sent to land fills are not recyclables that fall through the cracks of the facility’s sorting system. Instead, they are “contaminated” materials that the facility cannot process. Plastic bags are the biggest “nemesis,” and are ever to happy to clog machines. Pizza boxes are unusable because the grease, Andy says, “contaminates the re-pulping process.”
Ways to help the recycling process
- Breakdown cardboard boxes to a minimum of 3” x 3” feet
- Remove caps from plastic bottles (they are not recyclable)
- Material should be thoroughly cleaned
- Do not crush/compact aluminum cans
Although milk cartons are not recycled at the facility (polycoating makes this impossible to do) milk jugs on the other hand are a high commodity for the facility. Both Andy and John are surprised when I mention that many in Richmond think that milk and distilled water jugs are not recyclable. It turns out that plastic jugs are second only to aluminum cans as the most desirable material.
TFC will begin pushing the residential use of 96 gallon single-stream carts. Virtually identical to trash receptacles used by Richmond residents, these large carts protect the materials from the elements, and are easier to move than lifting of potentially cumbersome and heavy smaller bins.
There has also been talk of updating the facility to accept a larger array of materials; currently, it can only process cardboard, paper, and 01 & 02 plastic codes. It’s “out there in the planning stages,” says Andy in a nebulous, yet confident way. I say nebulous because he, personally, is unaware just how close Richmonders are to being able to recycle more and varied materials than they do now. I say confident because he knows that there is an intrinsic motivation for recycling programs to prosper. “The recycling industry will only grow,” says Andy.
Unlike, say, the fossil fuel and crude oil industries, recycling is an enterprise that has the ability to grow exponentially–it is also something, unlike the formerly-mentioned industries, that the public, by and large, wants to increase. “The recycling industry will only grow,” says Andy.
Although not at liberty to discuss specific figures of revenue, Jeff Randazzo affirms that TFC is a company that is profitable, and can increase that profitability, as well as the number of workers it employs, should more people recycle. It’s in TFC’s business interest for more people to recycle–the more recyclable goods that the plant processes means more revenue, means more jobs, means more items that won’t fester in our landfills. Jeff Randazzo was right.
Everything is a valuable commodity, indeed.
photos by Mel Kobran
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