It’s a question that might start a household debate; what can be recycled and what can’t?
San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the U.S., meaning we produce a lot of trash. However, two local recycling facilities are making a significant dent in the amount of recyclable material that ends up in landfills.
One of the facilities processes over 400 tons of material daily, Monday through Friday. That adds up to two-thousand tons every week, the same weight as roughly TEN average adult whales!
Most San Antonio homes have access to color-coded bins to make the process easier, but deciding what goes in each bin can also lead to a debate.
In this episode of KSAT Explains, we show you how two local companies combine humans and robots to streamline the recycling process and explain what recycling means.
Recycling in a Nutshell
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first started recording recycling data in the 1960′s. During that time, over five million tons of materials were being recycled in the United States. Fast forward to the latest data from 2018, that number is over 69 million tons across the U.S.
Recyclable items include glass, paper and cardboard, steel, aluminum, some plastics, rubber and leather, wood, yard trimmings, food, and countless other items.
The obvious goal of recycling is to prevent materials that can be reused or composted from wasting away in a landfill. Still, most would argue the most important goal of recycling is to reduce greenhouse gasses on Earth.
“In 2018, the recycling, composting, combustion with energy recovery and landfilling of MSW saved over 193 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. This is comparable to the emissions that could be reduced from taking almost 42 million cars off the road in a year.” - EPA
Most household items can be recycled in some form or fashion. For example, maybe you have an old lamp or piece of furniture? Don’t just toss it; Take it to a thrift store. Someone might rehab it or use the materials from it.
Have some old clothes? Donate them to homeless or animal shelters instead of putting them in the trash. Both ideas are forms of recycling and keeping items out of landfills.
But the most common method of recycling involves your everyday trash, and making sure those items end up in the right place is crucial in the recycling process.
Republic Services Recycling Facility
In San Antonio, Republic Services is the sanitation service used by most residents.
Republic Services also provides service to residents in:
Somerset (as a community drop box - Containers are located at 7650 S Loop 1604 W, Somerset, TX 78069)
The company provides each address with a couple of different bins, one with a black lid, one with a light blue lid, and one with a green lid.
The bin with a black lid is for non-recyclable garbage. Anything put in this bin will go directly to the landfill.
The bin with a light blue lid is for recyclable materials, such as the items we discussed above. Anything put in this bin will end up at the Republic Services recycling facility on San Antonio’s east side.
The bin with the green lid is for compostable materials, such as food scraps and lawn clippings. (NO plastics in this bin, including garbage bags with leaves or branches)
They accept materials from Republic Services customers, the City of San Antonio, the City of New Braunfels, and other smaller operators within the city.
“We have to process 215 or more tons a day, per shift, to stay in front of that. So you’re looking at 430 tons,” said Operations Manager Tim Tiemann. The team works in two shifts to meet their daily goal.
They also have to keep “uptime” in mind. Uptime means how long the machines are up and running. The facility’s goal is the uptime of 85% or better.
For example, if the machine runs smoothly all day long, that’s considered 100% uptime. This is the best-case scenario because the crew could potentially exceed their processing goal for the day.
On the flip side, if a shirt or wire gets caught in one of the machines, operations have to be put on hold to remove the debris. That is considered “downtime.” For Tim and his crew, a broken machine equals money lost.
At the end of each shift, workers have to cut these unwanted items out of the machinery, which takes time.
The ideal materials for the recycling facility are paper, cardboard, bottles, and cans. Tim calls this the “core four.”
“The termination of other things that were thrown in there based on what a customer thinks is recyclable adds to that,” said Tiemann.
Some of the random items we noticed while visiting the facility were boots, stuffed animals, laundry baskets, and even toolboxes.
As loads of materials speed down the conveyor belts, Tim’s crew picks out items that may damage the equipment or can’t be processed by the facility. Some of those unwelcomed items are combustible cans, electrical cords, clothing, medical waste, or large pieces of plastic like dry cleaning bags.
Those materials could put that goal in jeopardy by clogging up the equipment as the team works to meet its “uptime” goal.
Roughly 100 trucks arrive at this facility on any given day. They are immediately weighed to see how much material they are carrying. Tim said each truck carries roughly three to four tons of material.
After being weighed, the trucks dump their loads into giant holding piles inside the facility. Tractor operators blend those materials to break them up. The materials have been compressed in the back of the trucks up until being dumped. This is called “fluffing.”
From there, the material is dumped into what is called a “drum feed.” This machine grinds products into smaller bits.
Next, the ground-up material is transferred to the pre-sort line. This is where skilled workers sort through the materials to pick out any potentially damaging items or things that can’t be recycled. This is also where glass is sorted out.
Those materials are carried through miles of conveyor belts and sorting systems until they end up in the right section of the facility.
Republic Services uses AI technology to discard unwanted items. The AI systems use cameras and robotic arms with suction cups on the end to grab materials that aren’t supposed to be on that conveyor belt.
Watch: Republic Services robotics system in action
Tiemann said it’s all about capture rate, meaning how much paper or plastic they successfully collect.
“If it’s smaller than a business card, we’re probably not going to capture it,” said Tiemann.
Once they make it through the sorting process, the materials are bailed and inspected for quality.
“They’ll reject the material or they’ll downgrade it. Something that happens if they downgrade it...they can send it back to us. So we pay for the freight for that truck to come back here. Plus, we have to figure out what’s wrong with the material, reprocess it yet again and try to sell it again. So that’s a problem,” said Tiemann.
Workers make the bale “pretty” by picking out visible items that may have slipped through the process. If the bale has too much contamination, such as plastic bags or diapers, the mill sends them back and Republic Services.
Finally, the bale of cardboard, plastics, and cans is purchased by mills that will recycle the materials.
Another recycling technique partly involves the food you and I eat.
Organics include yard trimmings, tree trimmings, and food waste, like table scraps. Items that were once living and are now dead...or can be consumed...are considered organics.
Atlas Organics, a company out of Spartanburg, South Carolina, has a partnership with the City of San Antonio. Their facility on the southwest side of town composts food scraps and lawn clippings into high-quality soil and mulch.
They use a massive sorting system to reduce the amount of contamination in the recyclable materials. Contamination includes anything non-biodegradable, like plastics, pizza boxes, and lawn equipment.
“I’ve seen weed eaters, pieces of lawnmowers, rims, hubcaps, a bunch of different of everything,” said Eduardo Gutierrez, a spotter with Atlas Organics.
The San Antonio location is the first in the world to use AI technology to help human workers keep contamination out of compostable materials.
The system, developed by AMP Robotics, uses cameras to scan for items deemed as contaminated. If the computer senses a piece of trash, it deploys a robotic arm to swiftly suction the item and drop it into a bin below. The items pulled out by the robot will end up in the landfill.
The company says over 370,000 residents in the city of San Antonio are part of the solid waste program. Furthermore, Atlas Organics said 90% or roughly 300,000 of those residents have a green cart for organics/compost. The items thrown in the green bin end up at Atlas Organics.
Watch: Todd Knief with Atlas Organics explains what goes in the organics bin.
Todd Knief is a business sales representative with Atlas Organics. He said, “we’re trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, right? Methane gas. And this year alone, we have reduced the amount of tons going to the landfill, about 40,000 tons that have been diverted away from landfills. Last year alone, we diverted 67,000 tons.”
The process begins with a truck entering the facility to be weighed. Materials like tree branches and wood scraps are dumped into giant piles. Atlas Organics employees transfer those materials into a giant shredder with tractors that breaks the large materials into smaller pieces.
Next, the material goes through a trommel screen. Think of a giant spinning drum with one-inch holes inside. This process takes the fine particles out of the material, reducing dust.
It also shrinks the materials into a smaller size that Atlas employees and robots can pick through on what is called, you guessed it, the pick line.
Then, that material is spat out into a giant pile at the end of the sorting line. It is there that the magic really starts to happen.
During a visit to Atlas Organics, KSAT witnessed a large truckload of produce arrive on-site. It was mainly just clippings of vegetables, but there were also whole stocks of broccoli...whole carrots...and even entire onions.
While it is an uncomfortable amount of food waste, the positive is that it all goes to Atlas Organics to be put to good use rather than the landfill.
“A lot of that food waste material that doesn’t make it to H-E-B or a local grocery store chains comes here. 50 to 60 tons of material actually get dropped off right here at the end of our line. And we process that, mix it, turn it with the organics that goes through the sort line, so we get our carbon source, and now we have our nitrogen source,” said Knief.
The freshly mixed materials are then transferred to a secondary location to go through a second screening process. This is where any contamination that snuck through the initial sort line...will be sifted out.
Finally, the freshly ground material sits in giant piles for up to two months to let microorganisms do their job. This curing process is necessary to create high-quality compost.
“So let’s say you want to put some top dressing on your grass in the spring to wake up. Nitrogen provides that energy for your grass to wake up out of hibernation and creates that greening effect. Carbon working with nitrogen is organic material put back into the soil structure for healthy planning,” said Knief.
What Goes in the Recycle Bin?
KSAT’s Myra Arthur did an experiment for this episode, saving items she believed could be recycled. We brought those items to Republic Services to see how she did.
Some takeaways from this show and tell:
- Not all plastics and cardboards are equal
- Clean your items before throwing them in the recycling bin
- Small plastic wrappers are better off in the garbage
- Combustible cans are dangerous to the facility
- Dirty diapers are a big “no-no”
Questioning if something can be recycled? Use this tool to look up your item and find out where it goes.
Plastic is categorized into seven different categories with what is known as a Resin Identification Code or RIC. The codes were first developed by the Society of Plastics Industry Inc. (now the Plastics Industry Association) in 1988. However, these codes were not intended to be a communication tool for consumers, they were created to keep consistency between resin makers.
The Plastics Industry Association began working with ASTM International in 2008 to modernize the RIC system.
The RIC system, ASTM D7611, is now identified as a solid triangle stamped into plastic products with a number in the middle. The number identifies what chemicals the product is made with.
Tim Tiemann with Republic Services mentions “low-grade” plastics in the video above. Low-grade plastics are items like CDs (#7), dry cleaning bags (#4,) and styrofoam products (#6.)
The Republic Services recycling facility only wants items with the numbers 1, 2, and 5. They say rigid plastics, like bottles, jugs, and tubs, are ideal.
The City of San Antonio said to ball up your plastic bags and put them all inside one instead of throwing them out individually.