Sharks and hand grenades: Recycling companies sort out the trash

Mar 5, 2018

A line of recycling sorters works at Waste Management's residential sorting facility in Denver.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Public Radio

January marked a new era in recycling: China stopped accepting certain types of paper and plastics from abroad. This means companies like Roaring Fork Valley collector Waste Management have had to find new buyers. And they’ve had to adapt in other ways, too. In the second story in a series, we explore what this means for the industry — and what role consumers play.


When you head up recycling for a major national company like Waste Management, you see some strange things.


“Some type of artillery, or a hand grenade," said Brent Bell, vice president for recycling at Waste Management. "I mean there’s just some crazy stuff that people put in their recycling containers.”

The craziest thing Bell has seen on a conveyor belt at a sorting facility wasn’t explosive.


“It was a six foot shark,” he said.

Sharks and hand grenades — as well as more common materials like plastic bags and styrofoam— do not belong in a residential recycling container. They are not part of the program.

This is on consumers, but Cathy Hall, who manages the Pitkin County Landfill, said the details can be confusing for even the savviest recyclers.

“Styrofoam a lot of times is stamped with the recycling symbol, but it’s just not recyclable in our system,” Hall said.


About 20 percent of all the material that arrives at the Waste Management sorting facility in Denver is trash, or contamination.

Jose Herrera, the plant manager, showed me to the start of the sorting process, where trucks from across Colorado and parts of Wyoming dump tons and tons of recycling. Before this goes through any of the sorting machines, it’s loaded onto a conveyor that is lined with people in bright yellow vests, heavy duty gloves, hard hats and safety goggles.

“That's the area where the guys are looking for the material that is not part of the program," Herrera pointed out. "The scrap metal, the wood, the engine blocks, the lawnmowers, you name it."

The sorters worked quickly, standing elbow-to-elbow in the dusty air. They grabbed shards of metal and plastic grocery bags from the conveyor and tossed them on the ground to deal with later. Their job is to make sure the contamination is pulled out.

Herrera explained that the buyers of your used pop cans, yogurt containers or newspaper want to see no more than a half a percent of contamination.

“Quality, quality, quality. It's a big deal. It's becoming a bigger deal now,” he said.

When China stopped accepting recycling on the grounds that it was not sorted cleanly enough, it raised the bar across the industry. Domestic buyers now want to be sure that when they’re buying glass, for example, it’s only glass.

Sorters in a recycling facility wear masks because of poor air quality, eye protection and needle-resistant gloves.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Public Radio


The machines at the facility sort primarily by size and weight, but it takes a human eye to ensure quality. A lot of human eyes. Herrera said there are 38 people working on the sorting line today.

“Right now I probably have a use for another 10 or 15 people if they show up on each shift,” he said.

The job itself is a pretty tough sell.

"Repetitive, boring, stinky, cold," Herrera said. "It’s not for everyone. And it is physical, it’s dirty. Not everyone wants to do the work. And it’s unskilled labor pay. Most of our sorters here start between $11.50 to $12 an hour.”

A lot of the workers were wearing masks to cover their nose and mouth because of all the dust in the air. They were all wearing puncture-proof gloves to protect from discarded needles. Herrera said the plant loses up to a third of its workers to turnover every week.

So for now, this sorting facility is running at about 60 percent of what it was designed to handle. As Waste Management works to improve its efficiency in sorting, vice president Brent Bell puts some of the responsibility on your everyday recycler.

“We’re trying to clear up what actually goes into bins. Bottles and cans, cardboard, newspaper, those things are fine," he said. "But the garden hoses, bowling balls, basketballs, the Christmas lights, they do not go into curbside recycling program bins.”

There’s also a basic supply-and-demand issue with the mixed paper and plastics that China is no longer accepting. Now, with so much material on the market, prices have dropped; sometimes the cost of transporting material to the buyer is more than the sale price, Bell said.

The solution to that might be on us, too — on the demand side. Right now, it’s often easier for companies to make containers from scratch instead of reusing materials.

“As consumers, we need to let the manufacturers of the products we buy everyday know that it’s important to us that those products contain recycled content,” Bell said.

If a few of these moving parts come together, there is actually optimism in the industry. Domestic markets mean faster turnaround for materials to see a second life. It would also lower shipping costs and carbon emissions.

But Cathy Hall at the Pitkin County Landfill warns that recycling on its own -- even done perfectly --  isn’t a complete fix.

"Plastics really are the issue," Hall said. "Don't use plastics. We can’t recycle our way out of the plastic waste problem.”

That, too, involves cooperation on all sides, and a big cultural change.