Inside American Waste
The truth about greasy pizza boxes, plastic bags, propane-tank bombs, and Up North’s voracious appetite for paper.
By Patrick Sullivan | Oct. 19, 2019
A failed 2012 experiment bore the nearly 50-year-old waste hauler — and environmentally conscious northerners — some unexpected fruit: a series of massive machines that can take in and tackle more recyclable materials than most any system in the nation. Northern Express follows the waste stream to uncover the truth about greasy pizza boxes, propane tank bombs, Up North’s voracious appetite for paper, and that longtime nemesis of the Great Lakes: plastic bags.
The kerosene scent of diesel fuel, tinged with the rotten egg-and-ammonia odor of landfill gas, hangs in a cloud. It’s put out of mind only by the deafening hum of machines and the whirring stampede of forklifts, both punctuated by the grinding of debris crushed between steel teeth. A haze fills the air as a spray of mist descends from above, dampening and capturing the particles of one-time consumer products that have been smashed into pieces too tiny for capture into bales. That detritus will be mopped up later. When you leave the building, you wipe that waste from your shoes.
What American Waste has built in a giant building just south of Traverse City is a behemoth, a factory in reverse, one that takes finished, discarded products, and turns them into imperfect raw materials that’s packed tightly into cubes to be delivered elsewhere and transformed into new items.
What happens here is important for a lot of reasons, but foremost for people who live in northern Lower Michigan because it informs how we recycle. American Waste’s recycling machines take some items and not others; many items need to be discarded in a specific way, or they could contaminate an entire load of recycling — or worse, shut down the entire operation.
That’s why American Waste hired Deb Lake, who oversaw the transformation of the Traverse City Film Festival from its beginnings as a rag-tag lark into an international mainstay of filmdom, to explain it. This October, Lake led Northern Expresson a tour.
“I DIDN’T RECYCLE”
Most of the people who take the tour are fourth graders from northern Michigan schools. There’s also a lot of church groups, book clubs, and individuals who call to see what’s happening and get put into a group.
“I talk about how a lot of people don’t know that 80 percent of items that are buried in landfills could have been recycled, and then I make my big confession — which is true, but it’s a good hook for the thing — which is: Before American Waste hired me to do this, I didn’t recycle,” Lake said.
Lake has since found Jesus when it comes to recycling, and she composts, too. She said there’s almost nothing she tosses into the trash these days.
“Where I start with people is, look, you asked me what’s recyclable and what’s not, but that’s not the right question. … there are tons of things that are recyclable,” Lake said.
“What I’m here to tell you about in this room is what you can put in your bin— that means what can be processed at the American Waste plant south of Traverse City, so it is specific to the particular design of their series of machines. If it can’t go in this bin, there’s tons of other places. So, batteries? They can be recycled, but just not in your bin.”
Recycling is daunting. To decide what and how to put things into your recycling container versus your trash can doesn’t come naturally. Here then, a tour of the Traverse City facility that’ll make some of those decisions easier.
WELCOME TO THE LINE
The waste stream enters the facility by trucks, which dump the material onto the tipping floor. A front-end loader scoops up the piles and puts them into something called the metering bin, which begins to process the debris into the maw of the first of a massive series of machines that will sort each piece.
The metering bin is where the first problems can arise, owing to well-intentioned people who’ve thrown into their American Waste recycling bins items that don’t belong there together, or at all.
Called “tanglers” by people in the biz, the culprits are any item with enough length and tork to gum up the operation — anything from a plastic six-pack holder, to clothing, to Christmas lights, to clothes hangers, to a piece of metal chain, or a random length of hose. While plastic and metal (but not fiber or rubber) are welcome at the facility, plastic and metal in these forms are not allowed, because it can twist into the bin’s gears, get stuck, and grind the gears to a halt, bringing the whole operation to a standstill until it’s repaired.
“Anything like this is just going to get tangled up in the machines, so we need to pull this off. Tanglers are the biggest, deadliest thing for us — it shuts down the whole plant,” Lake said.
You wouldn’t think many people nowadays would put batteries into recycling, but they do, and batteries cause big problems — especially lithium ones, Lake said.
“Even if there’s even just one of those tiny little lithium batteries, sometimes when [the teeth of the machine are] scooping it up, it hits one of those [teeth], nicks it, and a fire starts,” she said. “And look at all the cardboard. It’s dangerous. And people put lithium batteries in every single day. There’s tons of them, and they are really, really dangerous.”
BEWARE EXPLODING TANKS
After being fed into the metering bin, the material is run down the pre-sort line, where a whirring belt zooms past workers who frantically yank out items that aren’t supposed to be there: hazardous stuff that made it past the first hurdle, like batteries, gas tanks, clothing, light bulbs, oil cans — and countless items you’d think people would know to scrap.
“Propane tanks come through every day,” Lake said, “like people think that can be recycled.”
It’s difficult to understand how anyone could believe it’d be OK to put a steel or aluminum propane tank into a home recycling bin, but many do. And while propane tanks are never allowed, the smaller, one-use tanks don’t cause as much trouble as the large, refillable ones.
“Actually, those [single-use tanks] you can shred, and they won’t blow up … but the other ones will blow up,” Lake said. “They’re bombs, basically.”
Next in the flow of material that gets sorted out is glass, a product that should be perfectly recyclable but isn’t because we’ve got so many different kinds of it, and machines can’t tell the difference.
Glass gets recycled by being smashed to bits.
The problem is, though, that different kinds of glass — brown, green, clear, and more — melt at different temperatures and so must be separated prior to recycling. That poses an obstacle that ruins the economics of recycling the glass. Once you pay to separate the kinds of glass so that it can be recycled, the value of the recycled material doesn’t come close to covering the cost of its creation.
“Right now, you have to pay somebody to take your glass,” Lake said. “There’s nobody buying it.”
American Waste, nonetheless, has developed a small solution. They accept the three primary kinds of glass (green, brown, and clear only; no clear window glass or mirrors allowed) but don’t separate the kinds of glass. They simply removed the mixed glass from the rest of the material stream and smash it up to make a cost-effective road base for infrastructure at the American Waste-owned Wexford County Landfill.
“It’s a re-use. It’s not a great re-use, but it’s better than taking those glass containers and throwing them in the landfill,” she said.
Once most hazardous items and glass are removed, the real sorting begins — yet another process that can be complicated by what people put in their recycling bin, even if those items are recyclable. It’s not their fault; many people don’t know. But there are tons of recyclable material rendered useless simply because it’s attached to some other kind of recyclable material.
“You want to separate materials that are not the same. It’s just a good recycling rule to remember,” Lake said, referring to paper and plastic and metal. “You don’t want to mix materials. You can see, there’s nobody there [on the line] to separate them.”
For example, take a glass juice bottle with a metal cap screwed on to it. Each item is fine to put into the recycling bin individually, but not screwed together; somewhere in the stream, they have to be separated, and there’s a good chance that’s not going to happen on the line at the plant. The material moves too fast for a worker to pick up a bottle, uncap it, and let it go on its way. Both piece should be separated before they go into the bin, Lake said.
PAPER ADDICTS LIVE UP NORTH
After glass is taken out of the stream, the line pickers focus on cardboard next. There’s a lot of cardboard. And there’s a lotof paper.
“Ninety percent of what we process is either cardboard or paper,” Lake said. “In Grand Rapids, it’s only 50 percent of what they process. What accounts for that difference? I have no idea.”
Paper and cardboard are separated from plastics and metals based on their flatness — there’s a point at the next bend of the machinery where flat items get shunted off to their own pile.
Polymer discs sense the flatness and relative weight of the cardboard and pull it out of the stream onto another line, where a sorter paws through the results with something that looks like a hockey stick, yanking out anything that shouldn’t have made it through. The rest goes into the cardboard bunker to await getting packed into cubes.
It might seem that years of seeing recycling centers signs warning people that pizza boxes can’t be recycled have inured people to the idea, but Lake said that’s not true.
“Pizza boxes are a huge question. People want to know: Can they? Can they not? A lot of places just say, ‘No pizza boxes,’ just to make it simple,” Lake said.
But Lake said that’s not the whole truth: If a pizza box is relatively clean, free of chunks of cheese, and not too greasy, it can be recycled.
“It’s the grease. So, if this is a huge greasy mess, and it’s really soaked through, and there’s cheese, then, yeah, that’s food — we don’t want that. That has to be thrown away,” Lake said.
But if it’s just a light stain on a box? Recycle it.
Just like pizza boxes caked with food cannot be recycled, there are other items that come designed as two materials and therefore cannot be recycled — like paper shipping envelopes lined with bubble wrap (bubble wrap on its own, by the way, is OK). Amazon often uses a plastic envelope lined with bubble wrap; because both parts are made of plastic, that kind of envelope is recyclable.
One exception to the rule of “keeping materials separate” is mailing labels, Lake said. Those are OK, too; no peeling off necessary.
Finally, for a very practical reason that has to do with physics and wind, very small items should go into the trash, not recycling.
A good rule of thumb: “Anything smaller than a credit card is going to fall through that debris screen,” Lake said. “Anything two inches or smaller is going to fall through.”
Not only is small stuff a problem because it can’t stand up to the recycling sorting machinery, but more concerning, it’s likely not going to even make it to the plant — on a windy day, as bins are transferred to the truck or traveling to the recycling center, small items, usually lightweight, tend to get picked up by the wind, blow away, and become litter.
THE FINAL SEPARATION
At the next point along this complicated contraption — with hazardous items removed, cardboard separated, and glass long gone — what’s left are containers and paper.
The machine at this point tries to identify differences between the two.
“We want to separate the containers from the paper, and we do that with a polishing screen,” Lake said. “What’s happening is anything flat is getting carried up and over, and all the containers, because they’re 3D, are bouncing back.”
That means people shouldn’t flatten plastics like they flatten cardboard boxes, because they don’t want the machines to think plastic containers are paper.
After that sort, containers move on down another line, where another worker looks over the stream for quality control, again checking for items that shouldn’t be in there, that have somehow gotten through. There are a lot of them. The worker’s hands dart continuously into the passing stream, snatching out items and tossing them into bins, limbs constantly on the move.
Next, that stream passes under a giant overheard magnet, which pulls out the metal and lets the plastic continue on.
“Metal is actually valuable. Like, most of this stuff isn’t worth anything; scrap metal is,” Lake said. “Nails are going to fall through, and anything sharp and poky is going to hurt the worker, so people need to be thinking about what’s going to hurt the people on the line.”
Also, lids from tuna cans (or cans of soup or cans of beans) are recyclable, but because of their sharp, circular edges, they are a hazard to workers, like a piece of shrapnel floating among the mass of material.
“This is dangerous. This can hurt a worker on the line. I always wondered about this, you know, what can I do? I know it can be recycled. So, what you do, you’ve got to rinse it — no food — put the lid in, and then just squeeze it, and it’s not going to fall out,” Lake said, showing a razor-sharp lid trapped in a slightly flattened can.
A magnet puts the ferrous metal items — the heavier stuff — into its own stream; non-ferrous metal, like tinfoil, is separated using an eddy current.
“Aluminum is one of the most precious materials we have, one of the easiest to recycle,” Lake said.
MAKING PLASTIC SORTING SIMPLE
By now, what should be left running along the belts is only plastic. All kinds of plastic — some more recyclable than others.
At this point along American Waste’s line, there used to be an optical sorter. The device used infrared scanners to identify and sort containers. It could sort the higher quality plastics from the more troublesome plastics. This was a critical point in the sorting out of the material stream — the make or break point — where plastic that has value and could be made into something else was isolated from the waste plastic that would likely have been shipped to China. (Today, at American Waste anyway, it’s ground up and used as fuel.)
The optical machine, however, broke and won’t be replaced until 2020, so in the meantime, this arduous, dirty, and difficult work is done by hand.
Because of that difficult work, consumers can recycle all kinds of consumer plastic at American Waste.
Lake pointed to a table covered in odd plastic items — a Tic Tac container, a yogurt cup, a carryout plate from a restaurant.
“All of these are different plastics, and it doesn’t matter to the person who is recycling. If it’s plastic, you can put it in. It used to be you had to look for the little numbers. You don’t have to do that anymore,” Lake said.
The fact that American Waste takes almost all consumer recyclables happened by accident. An experiment the company launched in 2012 to sort through all incoming garbage in search of anything worth saving proved unworkable after less than a year. But the complex system and machinery they designed and built for that experiment meant they were capable of sorting through many materials few other recyclers allow.
Unlike in most recycling regions, people in northern Michigan can recycle plastic grocery bags, plastic packaging wrap, and even plastic film, albeit with an important caveat: the bags and all other plastic materials are themselves bagged, so that none of it can become a “tangler.”
THE END OF THE PAPER TRAIL
Finally, after the good plastics have been removed from the stream and then the inferior plastics have been set on a course to be shredded and burned as a coal additive, all that should be left is paper.
Once again, another round of quality control. More workers man the line, yanking out anything that slipped through.
“I get a lot of questions about wrapping paper. Basically, if you can rip it, it’s recyclable. But if you have something that’s really metallic or glittery, that’s going to mess everything up, so [metallic and glittery wrapping paper] isn’t recyclable,” Lake said.
At the end of the line, finally, the paper gets put into bales. Those bales are stacked up next to each other near other groups of bales that contain different material: cardboard, PET plastic, natural plastic, colored plastic, steel, and aluminum.
The bales get loaded into containers and then shipped away to their next use. Five semi-loads of material a day are shipped out.
SIX EYES ON PLASTIC
American Waste’s broken optical machine will be replaced in 2020. Thanks in part to a $474,000 grant received from Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy, the company purchased six new optical sorting machines for plastic and paper. American Waste will spend approximately $1.5 million on the project, Lake said.
“I love it that they are working with private companies instead of just nonprofits because really, if you’re going to improve recycling, you’re going to have to do that, right?” Lake said.
The new sorters are targeted to start running March 1.