Trash takes high-tech, circuitous recycling route at facility

2013-03-25T00:00:00Z 2013-03-25T11:45:03Z Trash takes high-tech, circuitous recycling route at facilityMarc Chase, (219) 662-5330
March 25, 2013 12:00 am  • 

CHICAGO | A labyrinth of conveyor belts, magnets and people move and sort about 600 tons of old plastic bottles, cans and used paper each day.

What a few decades ago would have been tossed in the landfill is now being recycled at the Waste Management-Recycle America facility on Chicago's South Side.

The facility processed about 1,300 tons of Northwest Indiana recyclable material coming from the company's Gary transfer station in January and February alone, company officials said.

It's all made possible through a combination of high-tech engineering and a small group of people who fill in the blanks that sophisticated machines can't fill, said plant manager Hector Fonseca.

Recyclable refuse -- sorted out from the rest of the garbage stream at regional transfer stations -- arrives at the South Side facility by the semitrailer-full.

Heavy equipment pushes it onto a series of conveyor belts where it all begins its path through the 180,000-square-foot, 40-feet-high facility.

Inside, it's like a high-tech game of Chutes and Ladders as conveyor belts move the material through various stages of the sorting process.

Large sheets of discarded cardboard surf over the top of massive gears while smaller bits of paper fall through openings and onto other conveyor belts headed for other sorting areas.

Magnets pull and repel aluminum cans and other metal recyclables into sorting lines.

But even with all of this high tech, the occasional aluminum can makes it onto a conveyor belt carrying paper -- or a spent plastic milk jug into the cardboard line.

For that, workers along the conveyor network snatch up out-of-place objects and sort them.

At the end of the long route, materials are crushed and bundled together into ton-sized cubes sold back as raw materials to manufacturers.

Innovation is reflected even on the final warehouse-sized floor where the bundles of recycled materials await shipment.

Workers at the facility discovered storing the cubes of crushed detergent bottles next to the cubes of crushed plastic milk jugs cancels out the lingering smell of rotting milk.

"It works," Fonseca said. "Really."

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