Green Guide

Lincoln sorting machine helps speed recycling process

Posted 11:38 a.m. Sunday

— Every week residents drag recycling containers to the street with a mix of trash — from flattened cardboard to beer bottles and laundry detergent jugs.

And every week one of the city's three recycling companies sort that trash into what can be sold and then toss the rest.

Most of Lincoln's household recycling haulers offer single-stream recycling, which has gained popularity in the last decade as a way to make recycling easy for ordinary people.

But all this stuff has to be sorted eventually.

The most modern single-stream sorting machine in the city — a $700,000 royal blue and bright yellow machine that is more than two stories tall, 75 feet long and takes up 10,000 square feet, enough space for five to six houses — is found at Mid America Recycling in the south Haymarket area.

The Lincoln Journal Star (http://bit.ly/2gdXmDu ) reports a $200,000 grant from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality helped pay for the machine that sends cardboard flying out one side and paper shooting out another and plastic and cans dropping out yet another.

Every weekday 22 to 25 tons of trash is fed into the giant sorting machine. On the first leg of its journey three to five employees, in lime-green vests and protective gloves, sift through the trash as it heads down a conveyor belt — removing glass bottles, metal objects like pots and pans, Styrofoam and those ubiquitous flimsy plastic bags.

Much of the glass and metal can be recycled, though it doesn't sell for much. But the plastic bags — which can mess up the equipment — and Styrofoam will end up in the city landfill.

Plastic bags filled with items that probably could be recycled often end up in the landfill because employees don't generally have time to pour out the contents and sort through these bags. So the filled bags are pulled off the line.

The conveyor belt carries the trash into a cardboard screener where the biggest pieces, mostly flattened cardboard, go over the top and out an opening, creating a pile of cardboard on the floor to one side of the machine.

The remaining trash moves on the conveyor belt to the third distinct area of the machine — a ballistic separator — where it is sorted again. Here the lightweight, two-dimensional items like paper move forward and onto the floor. The rest which are considered 3-D, primarily plastic bottles and unflatten cardboard, moves downward and out of the machine.

In a month one shift can sort and separate around 600 tons of single-stream trash. But the company can expand the machine's capacity by adding additional shifts or additional equipment, said Kelley McReynolds, Mid America Recycling general manager.

Across the room is a second sorting conveyor belt, an older machine where magnets pick out the metal cans and humans pick out the aluminum and sort the plastic by grade.

Staff quickly learn the grades — grade one is pop and water bottles in one container, grade two is milk jugs, shampoo bottles and detergent jugs in another container, and all the rest in a third container.

Before installing the single-stream sorting machine in late May, Mid America shipped about half its single-source recycled material to a sister plant in Des Moines and hand-sorted the rest.

The new machine created five new positions at the Lincoln plant, said McReynolds.

McReynolds showed off the company's Lincoln plant and new equipment last week as part of city efforts to celebrate America Recycles Day.

The city estimates about 80,000 tons of trash is recycled annually, which is about 21 percent of the trash and garbage homes and businesses throw away, according to Gene Hanlon, city recycling coordinator. And most of the curbside residential recycling services are single-stream.

Single-stream recycling has mushroomed in the last decade because it is so much easier for the consumer, who puts everything in one cart that can be rolled to the curb.

Single-stream recycling means a higher percentage of the trash ends up in the landfill than when people sort their recycling at home. But it also means many more people recycle and the result is a boost in the total amount of material that is recycled.

In addition to single-stream recycling material, Mid America also handles already sorted recycling material, cardboard and paper from local businesses.

Mid America bales the sorted material and ships it in rail cars or trucks to companies across the Midwest, where it is turned into new products, from Mohawk carpeting to paper towels.

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