Trip Report: Where Does All That Recycling Go?

Where Does All That Recycling Go?
By Marilyn Smith
CONSERVATION 10/25/2007 N/A-Conservation

Ever wonder what happens to your recycling after it is emptied from your container on the street? In October WMC members toured Rocky Mountain Recycling to find out. A knowledgeable staff person showed us around and patiently answered questions.

Salt Lake County contracts with a waste management company to empty recycling containers left at the curb. The contents are taken to Rocky Mountain Recycling where they are sorted into paper, plastic, metals and 'other'. Machines and people sort the materials. All recycling materials are placed on a long conveyor with rollers. Small items, like dirt and gravel, fall through spaces between the rollers. An air system blows paper off to one side. A metal sorter takes most aluminum cans and other metals. The rest bounces down the conveyor where humans sort it further. They grab and discard items this company cannot recycle, such as clothing and clear glass. The conveyor dumps what is left, which is mostly heavier cardboard and plastics, in a pile at the end. Rocky Mountain requests that we rinse out containers-people have to touch them.

The piles of paper, metal, and plastics are sorted several times by the same process. In the end, the piles are sorted well enough to be sold. Depending on the intended use, the materials are allowed to have a small percentage of contaminants. It's close to impossible to get all the plastic shopping bags out of the paper pile for example.

Rocky Mountain Recycling's business is to obtain materials to recycle and find markets for those materials. Mills in the east use most of the paper and plastic. You can see an example of loose plastic bags reduced to raw plastic for industrial use at the Rocky Mt. Website: While number s 1, 2 plastic are the most valuable, (some of the #1 plastic is turned into the fleece WMC members love); there is a market for mixed plastic as well. A Utah business buys mixed and 'junk' plastic to make outdoor items such as stepping-stones, doghouses and storage containers. Coors buys brown glass to make new bottles. At this time there is no market for Styrofoam so just toss those meat trays and packing materials in the trash. Packing peanuts can be reused by stores such as Mail Masters.

Taxpayers do pay to have their recycling picked up and removed, just as we pay to have garbage removed. But recycling keeps at least 45 tons a month out of the public landfills. Landfills require land and maintenance, so the more that we recycle, the more tax dollars are saved. Not to mention that recycling materials into new products is part of the solution to global warming.

You also can feel good about recycling since it provides jobs at better than minimum wage for unskilled workers and provides health insurance. Rocky Mountain used to employ prisoners on a work-release program but found that it was more cost efficient to hire workers on the open market as they got the job done more quickly and efficiently.

Marilyn Smith organized the tour, accompanied by Bob Grant, Donna Kramer, Joan Proctor, Ann Wennhold, Rose Novak, and Donna Kramer