You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

SOCRRA recycling center has to fix your mistakes: Poop, plastic bags

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 9/24/2019 Bill Laitner, Detroit Free Press
UP NEXT
UP NEXT

We all make mistakes. Wishful recyclers make some doozies.

I used to screw up too, with the best of intentions.

But instead of keeping trash from landfills, I sent more by contaminating the loads. Instead of making profits for my town, I cost us downtime at the recycling plant. And instead of helping the Earth, I messed up some hardworking folks.

Now I know better, after meeting those folks. I joined them for half a day on their sorting lines, where they showed me how hard they work to fix recycling mistakes — yours and mine. 

I worked at five stations inside one of Michigan's biggest recycling plants, the SOCRRA facility in Troy, 5 miles north of Detroit. It serves 13 cities in Oakland County.

The scene: a sprawling three-story plant, relentless noise and dust, trash underfoot, slick steel stairways, and piles of recycling waste that rides up on fast conveyor belts. Sorters must constantly run their hands through the waste in search of contaminants to yank out. That means they're surprised at times by hypodermic needles, live ammunition and more. 

“I just had a dead rat come by,” exclaimed Rhonda Rollins of Southfield, during a break in her shift as line leader for mixed paper. To my shocked look, Rollins piled on: “Oh yes, and we get dog poop.”

What? From recycling bins? She made a face and shrugged.

a person wearing a hat: Detroit Free Press reporter Bill Laitner works the line sorting recycling as it whizzes by on a processing conveyor belt at SOCRRA material recovery facility in Troy in August. SOCRRA serves 12 municipalities in southeast Michigan. © Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press Detroit Free Press reporter Bill Laitner works the line sorting recycling as it whizzes by on a processing conveyor belt at SOCRRA material recovery facility in Troy in August. SOCRRA serves 12 municipalities in southeast Michigan.

The sorters wear sturdy work gloves, and those in hazardous areas also have arm guards plus tough glove liners to guard against "sharps." Still, they're under constant stress, never knowing what nasties you and I tried to recycle.

More: 12 recycling 'mistakes' you shouldn't toss into your cart or bin

More: You may be recycling the wrong way and it's costing everybody

More: Recycling rejects: Don't make these 10 mistakes

Here's a few of the recycling mistakes they have to grab: baby diapers, more and more adult diapers, coat hangers, garden hose and coils of wire. None can be recycled, but wishful recyclers keep trying. Every recycling mistake costs taxpayers money in extra labor costs to yank the garbage off conveyor belts, then funnel it to pickup points and truck it away. Serious screw-ups? Clunky metal auto parts, which can break recycling machinery; and oceans of plastic bags, which clog the machines.

In the early days of recycling, half a century ago, sorting was done by picky pioneers intent on saving the Earth. They drove stuff in their cars to official gathering points, where everyone talked over what went where. Later, it was the drivers of special recycling trucks who did the sorting. At curbside, they'd pitch stuff into various compartments on their trucks, leaving behind in a household's bin any recycling "mistakes," often with a note about "What you did wrong."

These days, everything's different. Across much of metro Detroit and in big cities nationwide, residents use roomy recycling carts and they're told to toss everything in together. Conventional garbage trucks collect the stuff, smashing it into a giant lump like they do with any trash, and then dumping their loads at the recycling plant, where processing equipment strews the waste onto convey belts and sends it past sorters standing at stations throughout a giant building. The new system, called "single stream," can handle a lot more recycling tonnage. But there's a downside: a lot more contamination. 

The Chinese got picky

At the same time that carts are tempting Americans to toss most anything into their recycling, decisions halfway across the globe have put recycling into a crisis. Over the last three years, China started rejecting boatloads of foreign waste, pointing out contamination in too much of it, from unwashed plastic food trays to greasy cardboard pizza boxes. Ultimately, the Chinese all but stopped accepting any American recycled materials. That forced SOCRRA and other waste processors to seek local buyers. And they're getting almost as picky as the Chinese.

These trends raised the stakes for SOCRRA's two dozen hourly workers. All of the sorting is up to them. They have just seconds to grab the nasties as powerful conveyor belts race by. Over and over, all day long, they must reach into the waste stream, fluff up the material in search of contraband, and grab it. Otherwise, the bad stuff contaminates SOCRRA's output of paper, plastics and cardboard. It can even break the machinery and shut down the line.

Workers with Leadpoint sort recycling at different stages at the SOCRRA material recovery facility in Troy, Aug. 14, 2019. SOCRRA serves 12 municipalities in southeast Michigan. © Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press Workers with Leadpoint sort recycling at different stages at the SOCRRA material recovery facility in Troy, Aug. 14, 2019. SOCRRA serves 12 municipalities in southeast Michigan.

Pressure is on U.S. recycling plants to churn out cleaner materials. The crisis has some communities suspending their recycling, as Westland did in March. Others are charging residents more as U.S. markets become glutted with recycled waste and prices crater. SOCRRA has urged its households, with about 800,000 residents, to visit www.socrra.org and bone up on the stricter rules for recycling with carts. 

My coworker Rollins said that, soon after getting her job at SOCRRA, she grew shocked to see the sloppy contributions of wishful recyclers, including her own family members.

"I actually went to all of my families' houses, saying 'No that does not go there' in the recycling bin. . . "I said, when you throw away trash, think about me because I have to deal with it," she said.

I get that. Because, for half a day, I dealt with it — an endless stream of recycling stuff mixed with way too many recycling mistakes. Not to mention, the outright garbage that had no business being in a bin. Most sorters make about $11 an hour and work hard for it. As waste raced past me on the conveyors, labor boss Doug Birch trained me. Or tried to, shouting over the noise.

"Aim your body up the line! Anticipate what you're gonna grab!" Birch yelled, as I tried to spot and yank out plastic bags, auto parts, a long plastic-and-metal handle from whatever, and numerous other unwieldy items that are a cinch to recycle at SOCRRA's drop-off center, in the parking lot beside the plant, but which don't work in the plant's processing. 

Losing your lunch

Later, in his office, Birch told me: "You can't follow stuff as it passes you because you'll get dizzy — real dizzy, believe me." Some new hires get so dizzy, they go to a rest room, lose their lunch and then quit, he said.

a man smiling for the camera: Onsite Manager Doug Birch, who supervises labor at a recycling plant in Oakland County, stands before a team of sorters removing contamination on Sept. 19, 2019. © Bill Laitner Onsite Manager Doug Birch, who supervises labor at a recycling plant in Oakland County, stands before a team of sorters removing contamination on Sept. 19, 2019.

"It's not easy work. My folks are working every minute. Everybody is committed to reducing the contamination," he said.

I saw clunky metal auto parts almost break machinery. I watched workers rush to grab mounds of plastic bags before they clogged equipment. I saw oversize plastic junk threaten still more damage, except that my new coworkers yelled at me, in friendly tones, “Get that!” over the machinery's nonstop noise.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd with Bubblegum Alley in the background: Recyclables are baled at the SOCRRA material recovery facility in Troy, on Aug. 14, 2019, prior to shipment to re-users. SOCRRA serves 13 municipalities in Oakland County. © Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press Recyclables are baled at the SOCRRA material recovery facility in Troy, on Aug. 14, 2019, prior to shipment to re-users. SOCRRA serves 13 municipalities in Oakland County.

Early on, we had a flashlight battery burst into flame and cause a small fire, stopping production and giving us a scare.

"Batteries in general are not good," said Lucas Dean, operations supervisor at the plant, as he handed me the scorched and split battery casing. 

"We have a big front-end loader shoveling everything into our feed hopper, and if he just happens to scrape a battery on the concrete, now you have a flame with all that paper and cardboard there."  

Batteries are like so many items in the hands of wishful recyclers — everything from metal auto parts to plastic bags to the foam packaging, developed by Dow in Midland, Michigan, that comes with new TVs and microwave ovens. All can be recycled, but not with the masses of stuff going into curbside bins, because the machinery can't handle them.

"Those are things we take at our drop-off area," where residents of SOCRRA's 13 cities — from Ferndale in the south to Rochester Hills in the north — can drive in with items that shouldn't go into their curbside bins.

Another big problem? Do-gooders who put everything in a paper or plastic bag and drop the full bag into their bins.

"You see a bag coming, you gotta empty it, see what's there!" Birch shouted, adding: "Right there, get that!" as paper and plastic bags of waste rolled past my pre-sort station. Coworkers up the line shouted, "I got it!" whenever I missed my targets.

One coworker was Wayne Easley Sr. of Detroit. On a break, he told me he was so tired of yanking plastic bags out of the waste stream that, "I don't allow them in my house because, think about it, they mess up our equipment."

Stinky mistakes

Despite the eroding demand and falling prices for some recycling materials, one kind of plastic remains a cash cow — the plastic gallon and half-gallon milk jugs. It was my job at another station to grab each one and pitch it into a chute. Trust me, I appreciated those of you who rinse. Those who didn't? You stunk up the joint. 

But apart from making my coworkers' lives unpleasant, food waste left in plastic containers adds to contamination. And that drives down prices that recycling plants get for their bales of processed waste. Result? Less money going back to the cities that collected the waste and, ultimately, higher trash fees for their residents.

a group of people walking down the street: Recycling is big news, after China refused U.S. materials, costs went up, and we hear more on plastic in ocean and Great Lakes. Key problem? People put the wrong stuff in their bins. That clogs machinery, drives up labor costs and causes contaminated output. The challenge is educating households about how to recycle correctly. © Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press Recycling is big news, after China refused U.S. materials, costs went up, and we hear more on plastic in ocean and Great Lakes. Key problem? People put the wrong stuff in their bins. That clogs machinery, drives up labor costs and causes contaminated output. The challenge is educating households about how to recycle correctly.

Hate to be preachy. Like I used to be, if you're a wishful recycler, you're trying to do good. And granted: Recycling, instead of getting easier, is more complicated than before. That's why cities, counties, waste handlers and state governments are beating their drums, trying for less contamination.

In June, Michigan's environmental officials launched a recycling campaign called, "Know it Before You Throw It." Is it working? Too soon to tell, said Kerrin O'Brien, executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Recycling Coalition.

"It's the hardest thing about recycling — to help people understand what they need to do," O'Brien said.

At SOCRRA, hardworking sorters remove 18 bales of garbage a day from the waste stream. Some plants have even more contamination. I did the job just long enough to learn: It's hard work to fix mistakes by wishful recyclers.

Contact Bill Laitner: blaitner@freepress.com

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: SOCRRA recycling center has to fix your mistakes: Poop, plastic bags

AdChoices

More from Detroit Free Press

Detroit Free Press
Detroit Free Press
AdChoices
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon