Today I had the great fortune of visiting the Seattle MRF. The MRF (pronounced “Murf”) is not a noise you make while chewing, as one might assume, but rather is Republic Services’ Materials Recovery Facility, AKA the recycling center, that serves Seattle and surrounding communities. These facilities are not typically open to the public, but as part of the local GoGreen conference happening here, there was a free tour being offered, so I along with some of my colleagues at Zero Waste jumped at the chance to see what really happens with all these recyclables.
There are a LOT of recyclables going through this facility- about 200,000 tons a year! These are materials that are being diverted from landfill and instead moved back into the production stream to make new materials- paper to paper products, glass to bottles, aluminum to cans, plastic to carpeting, decking and other end uses, and so on. And that is a good thing for waste reduction, resource use reduction, and greenhouse gas reduction, both in terms of materials recovery and diversion from landfills. Landfills are the third largest emitter of methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas, in the US. And when we can take already created materials including paper, aluminum, and plastics and turn them into new products, we are reducing the need to make new items from virgin materials and the high costs associated with those processes (e.g., the energy intensity of initial aluminum production is astronomical compared to recycling and reusing aluminum, see Action 42).
Before we entered the facility, the staff explained how the MRF works, and showed us the overview graphic above. At first glance, it seems pretty darn complicated, but in fact its an amazingly space-efficient and effective way to move all this material quickly through to sorted categories where it can be easily baled up and send to purchasers that buy the end products of these recycling streams. Conveyer belts move the materials through a series of sorting equipment that filters off first cardboard, then paper, glass, then plastics, and finally metals. All along the way are staff performing quality control to make sure materials that weren’t caught by the right sorter get filtered out.
Republic asked us not to take pictures inside the facility, which is unfortunate because WOW, was it amazing inside. But you can get a good sense of the facility by watching Republic’s video of the facility and processes here. What you can’t get a good sense of is how incredibly loud it is- we all had to wear headsets so we could hear the tour leader. And dirty- 20 minutes in the facility and my hands and face were already covered in a film of dust and dirt.
But besides the residue of all that material that is inevitably going to include small particulates that float around in the air, Seattle’s MRF is, according to their staff, incredibly clean. We have a much cleaner recycling stream than most other areas of the country, with only about 5% of the material that comes into the MRF being non-recyclable material that must be separated out and landfilled. Compare that to the up to 20 or 25% of materials entering recycling facilities in other parts of the country that end up being sent to landfill, and we should feel pretty proud here in the PNW of the job we do as consumers. The staff credit our success to a culture of recycling awareness in our area and aggressive outreach and education by municipalities to help people understand what to put and not put in their recycling.
Why is a clean recycling stream important? Because it creates end products that manufacturers that use recycled materials are more interested in buying, and that puts money back into the company and the technologies that help sustain our recycling efforts. One staff member I spoke to said that during the recession, some recycling facilities could not find anywhere to send their materials- no one would buy them, and as a result, some of these facilities and companies went bankrupt. But Seattle’s MRF continued to find buyers for its materials, testimony, the staffer said, to the cleanliness and high quality of the end products of the facility.
As we all know, recycling is only one of the three R’s- reduce, reuse, and recycle – and its arguably appropriate in third place, because it is in many ways the least important of the three. Reducing our use of these materials in the first place- especially those which have less robust markets for the recycled product, including paper and higher-number plastics- or up cycling to extend the life span of materials, certainly have greater energy and resource savings relative to recycling. But given that the average American produces more than 4 lbs of waste per day, for a total of more than 220 million lbs of waste a year produced in this country, we’ve not got a shortage of material to deal with. A LOT of this could be composted- and that is a whole ‘nother topic of discussion. By some estimates, more than half of what Seattle sends to the landfill could actually be recycled– so there is a great potential to divert even more of what is generated towards recycling.
I want to end this piece on a note that, while not exactly on the topic of climate change, was something I consider extremely important that I learned today. There were probably 50 people working inside the MRF facility today. Most of them were doing what has to be one of the most difficult, sensorily overwhelming jobs that I have ever seen, rapidly sorting and performing quality control on the waste streams. The work is repetitive, it is extremely fast paced, and the environment in which these folks work is extremely loud and dirty. Ive had some tough jobs along the way- farm laborer, chainsaw operator, wild land firefighter- but Ive never done anything like what these folks are doing on a daily basis. And pretty much noone sees them do it- they are even less visible than janitorial staff or garbage truck crews. These folks deserve our sincere thanks and respect for doing a job that cannot be easy. They are a hugely important part of the recycling process, and one that I have never heard mentioned when we talk about all the working parts of a functioning recycling pathway- consumers, collectors, and end buyers, yes, but also, let us keep in mind the amazingly hard and important work that facility recycling staff do to make this industry profitable and sustainable.