April 24, 2004


This morning I drove out to Galva to take a tour of the recycling plant there (Eagle Enterprises)---they were running an open house today, and it seemed pretty cool. It was!

The basic plan of the thing is that they have trucks to pick up recyclables from a few local towns, and a few others (e.g. Galesburg) have their own recycling trucks but drop off their stuff there. They even get some stuff from as far away as Chicago! Generally, they are paid for the task of sifting through the stuff, although if people show up with loads of specific pre-sorted things ("this is all aluminum cans", etc), they can get paid for them.

All the unsorted recycling goes in a humongous pile on one end of the warehouse. Once the conveyor line is running, a bobcat lifts loads from the pile over to the base of the belt, where it is carried up an incline to a flat portion where people start sifting. The first few open any bags and pull out the cardboard, then various other paper products are pulled, and then people to grab the various forms of plastic and glass. Steel is pulled out by magnets, and then there is some sort of machine that pulls out the aluminum cans from what's left (i.e. trash); this is called an "eddy current separator", and one guy said it involved moving magnets to repel the aluminum while another said it had something to do with "polarity" that got the aluminum spinning real fast and shooting off the edge of the belt (while the other trash just falls off the end). Only about 5% of the output ends up in the trash bin---people are pretty good about only putting recyclables in there.

The lines are all elevated so that the various sorters can just drop their items straight down into bins. For things like paper, the bins are really just walled-in sections of floor; when they fill up, they open up one wall and start forklifting stuff over to the baler. For more airy things like bottles, they use wagons that can be rolled in and out from under the belt, because it takes multiple wagonsful to make up a full bale of recycled material. Everything except the glass is fed into another machine that carries the material up high and drops it into a pile; and when a laser detects that the pile is high enough, a ram comes in and compacts it into the bale. The bale is then tied off and awaits purchase by one of the companies that uses the materials.

Who buys it? Lots of people. The glass gets sold to a company up in Chicago that removes the label and grinds it up into kiln-ready glass gravel; some of it gets reused into glass containers, some into a mix called "glassphalt" which is apparently a superior paving material, some into plain old fiberglass. The aluminum gets remade into more aluminum cans, mostly. Cardboard goes all over the place, to be made into more cardboard---they've even had inquiries from places in China. The plastic can't be reused for food containers, but it can sometimes be used in detergent bottles, or motor oil containers.

Myths debunked (or at least, things no longer true, at least not of all recycling plants): you do not need to remove the labels from your cans and bottles. You don't even need to remove the cap. You don't need to remove staples or plastic windows from the paper stuff; it's all done automatically. You don't need to get them perfectly clean, either, although a quick rinse is only polite for the workers on the line.

Cool tidbit: the truck they do pickups in is an old NYC garbage truck; and it's "dual-drive", meaning that it can be operated by one driver (on the left) and one loader (on the right); or by one guy that both drives (on the right) and loads. Much safer than making the driver keep getting in and out on the left side in order to do loading!

Anyway, that's all for now. I have a bunch of pictures, which I may or may not ever get around to posting, as usual.

"Oral sex is sex. Did we learn nothing from the Clinton impeachment?" --Dan Savage

Posted by blahedo at 6:44pm on 24 Apr 2004
The company I work for in the UK is looking into developing a mobile recycling plant to do all of this on the move and I would love to see any pictures you took. Any chance you could email them to me or post them somewhere and send me a link? Thanks Kevin Posted by Kevin Morice at 9:40am on 25 Aug 2004
Yes; taken to email. Posted by blahedo at 5:30pm on 25 Aug 2004
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