Las Vegas Sun

January 22, 2018

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Bruce Spotleson: Sorting out Las Vegas’ recycling system

A user’s unforgettable experience at a Las Vegas recycling center.

Bruce Spotleson

Bruce Spotleson

VEGAS INC Coverage

We may be more digitally inclined these days, but the publishing industry still uses a lot of paper in serving its readers and advertisers. And just like you, we enjoy products from plastic, glass and aluminum containers throughout the course of the day. Together, these four ingredients form the bulk of recyclable materials.

Perhaps because of my legacy of paper consumption, I’m a recycler at work and home. For most locals like me, this has long meant dutifully sorting paper, plastic, glass and aluminum into red, white and blue bins that look like milk crates.

After following this process religiously for a dozen years, I suddenly was overcome by a desire to see what happens to it after it all leaves my curb.

It was 105 degrees and climbing when I pulled into Republic Services’ Evergreen Recycling Center on Gowan Road, the invited guest of Republic’s Area President Joe Burkel and the Evergreen division’s General Manager Len Christopher, a knowledgeable veteran of the recycling world. They handed me a hard hat and safety vest and off we went.

A modest fragrance welcomed us as we stood in front of a massive heap of paper, plastic, glass and aluminum all mixed together. It all ends up in a single pile before it gets processed. I figured my suspicions were correct, and that my faithful sorting of materials had indeed been for naught these many years.

My two hosts were ready for this, though, explaining that such sorting is necessary because of the trucks still used in collection. Truth be known, they would vastly prefer to sort it all out themselves, plucking out items that might damage screens, or foul costly and complex machinery and conveyors. Republic is so proud of the integrity of its sorting system, actually, that they would be happy if local households threw all their recycling materials into one large container and didn’t presort it at all.

They’d do a lot more recycling business, too. Right now, about 250 tons of residential recycling material are processed a day. In the presorted system used by most Las Vegas Valley households, this amounts to a little more than three percent of the potential total. But in the pilot program under way in a few parts of the valley—in which all household recyclables get tossed into a single large container—that number could go to 25 percent.

A couple of years ago, the single-container proposal stalled locally because elected officials worried about citizen anger over a change in the garbage pickup schedule that would have accompanied it. So it is in part a political issue now.

We came upon some equipment that recognizes and differentiates seven grades of plastic. Bottles riding along on conveyors are sorted by blasts of air, all blown into their targeted bins, destined for reuse.

“They could become the shirt on your back,” Christopher said. I tried unsuccessfully to imagine what a plastic bottle would look like in shirt form.

He clarified two things that have changed over the years. Though it was not always the case, caps on water bottles are now recyclable plastic, so they can go into the system. He also noted that used food containers are OK, as are plastic containers of Roundup or bleach, as long as they’re empty.

Glass is sorted by weight. Eventually, it will be melted to make more glass goods.

Further up the line, a new process is introduced. Aluminum cans are infused with an electrical charge, then meet up with a magnet that repels them into a chute. I’m not sure that description makes sense, but it is the best I can do.

As I stood fascinated by this spectacle, Burkel said the energy saved in recycling a single can is enough to power a television for two hours.

Three kinds of paper are automatically segregated into cardboard, newsprint and mixed types. The only paper they really don’t want is the waxy coated stuff like you get in produce boxes. Phone books are their own cyclical category every now and then.

From here, the recycling bales head to mills and ports. Much of our recycling goes to China.

“They’re actually kind enough to make something out of it there and ship it back,” Burkel said. I nodded in agreement.

We concluded the tour and I soon polished off a bottle of cold water, wondering if it would one day become the shirt on somebody’s back.

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