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Where does your recycling go?

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At the Kent County Recycling Center, everything that gets put in the recycling bins across the county is sorted and sold to manufacturers or recycled goods processors. 

“People and businesses in Kent County generate around 600,000 tons of trash a year,” said Lauren Westerman, Resource Recovery Specialist. She has a degree in environmental biology from Covenant College. 

“We recycled about 35,000 tons of material last year. And that number could be doubled with just the facility and equipment we currently have,” Westerman said. 

About 180 tons come in per day to the ‘tipping floor,’ where the material waits to be put through the ringer.

Westerman is passionate about her job and the community’s future. A tour through the facility is impressive, but not glamorous. The facility didn’t give off any noticeable smell when outside, but it wasn’t exactly a perfumery on the inside. 

“The people who are here believe in it,” said Paul Smith, Operations Manager of the nearby Waste to Energy plant. “No one is here for the fat paychecks.” 

Tours of the facility are free upon appointment and normally start with a fair number of infographics about proper recycling practices for Kent County. Recently, The Collegiate toured the facility to learn more about the county’s recycling program.

Amidst the infographics about current recycling trends, the timeline of our recycling history in Kent County, and more, are real objects such as the ones below. They make the learning experience more relatable. 

A chair and a workout step stool made locally from some of the less valuable recycled plastics, numbers 3-7. Maxx Kriger

Before we went out onto the ‘tipping floor’ we had to wait for someone to clean out all the debris that was starting to form clogs in the process. As Westerman broke down the different parts/processes of the machine, she stressed that the spinning pieces, photographed below, start off the work in sorting out the material coming in from the trucks.

This is a new and unused, rotating block that, when used on an upward slant, helps lighter objects up while heavier objects fall. Maxx Kriger
This is the end result of wear and tear on the rotating blocks. It is now unusable. Maxx Kriger

During this initial part of the sorting process, plastic bags and all sorts of long stringy objects get stuck in these spinning pieces and cause problems. This is why “we are not taking plastic bags as of 2020,” said Westerman.

A pile of recyclables that are not acceptable at this facility. They have been manually cut from the spinning blocks and removed from the machine. Maxx Kriger

 Consumer confusion and false rumors about what can be recycled causes challenges for the recycling center staff. 

“Just because something is made out of recycled material or claims to be recyclable doesn’t mean you should put it in the bin at the end of your driveway,”  Westerman said.

“Please don’t try to recycle propane tanks. They could cause an explosion,” Westerman said.

Shredded paper, plastic bags, and styrofoam are all recyclable but are not accepted in Kent County’s facility. 

You’ll have to do a little extra work, but those items can be recycled in the area. You can bring your plastic bags to any Meijer and the company will recycle them. You can bring styrofoam (#6 plastic EPS) to these six locations. And KCRC’s website says you can do one of three things with shredded paper that are all better than the paper going to a landfill. 1. Recycle it through one of the shredded paper outlets mentioned on the website. 2. Compost it in your backyard compost pile. 3. Use it as mulch for around your garden beds or nest-building material for birds

While explaining how this facility works and its unique practices, Westerman pointed out that there is no universal answer to how to recycle effectively. 

“Recycling is a very localized effort so always check with your local facilities and waste removal service,” Westerman said.

She added that there was a recent National Public Radio story alleging that material collected curbside for recycling was not actually getting recycled. That upset many citizens. However, Westerman said many facts in the story did not apply to Kent County. The article claimed, among other things, that the recycling that you put in your bins to be collected is never reused in products or doesn’t even leave the recycling center. This may be true for some recycling operations, nationally, but Westerman stresses that recycling is really happening in Kent County.

The processes that are used by the KCRC are complex, effective, and unless there is machine maintenance, non-stop. Simply put, “everything runs through once,”  Westerman said. 

A rotating magnet pulls metal from the conveyor belt. People along the conveyor work to remove pieces that have somehow made it by the machine’s filtering methods. 

This next part of the machine is spectacular. A high-tech light shines on plastics and detects what kind of plastic they are based on the heat signatures given off. Then a computer plots out where on the conveyor the object is and its speed as to figure out when it will reach a large drop in the conveyor. 

The conveyor goes underneath the light and into the enclosed area where the air hoses are. Maxx Kriger

Anything that is not plastic still falls down the drop, but the plastic gets blasted with a calculated force of air to literally fly off the conveyor into one of two or three different chutes that lead to conveyors that now have only one type of plastic on each of them.

The people working on quality control along the conveyor, the high tech machines, and all the planning in the world don’t eliminate 100% of the ‘contaminants’ in the finished bails of sorted ‘product.’ 

“We are selling a product,” Westerman said. “We want to have a good product, so we want to do the best job possible sorting and rinsing.”

These are some of the non-recyclables the facility has separated out. Maxx Kriger

At KCRC the average contaminants per ton are between two and a half and five percent. Considering prosthetic legs, Christmas ornaments, propane tanks, and even the occasional live racoon come off the trucks, that’s not bad. 

“We can do a lot more,” said Westerman.

Kent County’s waste removal has come a long way, but there’s always room for improvement. Maxx Kriger

We as a county can work and succeed in making our recycled products literally make the county more money. This can be done through staying up to date on how to recycle and what to recycle and where. 

A 2015 study done by KCRC showed there was almost $2,000,000 in wasted aluminum cans and over $20,000,000 in wasted plastics here in Kent County.

Another major factor that will make the county more money and keep landfills less heaping is that “One in four households recycle here in Kent County, and even then, 33% or more in their trash is recyclable or compostable,” Westerman said.

To find out more about the local effort visit Reimagine trash. For those who live in Kent County and have confirmed with your waste removers that their recycling goes to the KCRC, here is a Kent County recycling guide.

Finished products are sorted by material and held until a processor buys them. Maxx Kriger