I was suspended about 10 feet above your trash on a platform 3 feet wide when I realized that as much as I knew about recycling, I knew nothing at all.
Take Styrofoam. All I’ve ever heard about Styrofoam is how it won’t decompose for 1 million years. What I didn’t realize was recycling it is almost as bad — only a small percentage actually gets recycled, according to Ferris Kawar, Burbank’s recycling specialist.
The rest breaks down too easily and gets lost on its way to China or India, where the true recycling takes place.
As he guides me along the catwalk, he shouts almost gleefully above the din of the Burbank Recycling Center’s “reverse waterfall,” explaining how a series of rotating cylinders moves piles of recyclable materials up to a conveyor belt.
Gravity drags the heavier items like glass to the bottom; lighter paper materials then float to a sorting area above. Every couple hours this massive machine has to be shut down and cleaned out because plastic shopping bags get tangled in its rollers. If people stopped throwing the bags in with the recycling, this bi-hourly ritual wouldn’t be needed.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the massive gears crunching and grinding materials so they may be shipped, but make no mistake: The Recycling Center is a filthy, dangerous place. We wear masks and helmets as we move along the catwalks above the sorting belts. A hard piece of refuse jumps off the conveyor and hits my arm; I now realize why everyone is in long sleeves and pants despite the oppressive, machine-driven heat.
The place is packed with waste, and yet the giant pile represents only three or four days of accumulation from Burbank and surrounding areas. Four times this amount ends up in a landfill, Ferris says.
His main job as Burbank’s recycling specialist is one of education. If we could all be better about all three R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), he tells me we’d be a lot better off.
I thought I was a decent recycler. I visit the center a couple of times a month to take back cans and bottles — including my paper half-and-half cartons with the little plastic nozzles. I’ve always thought I’ve done well to aid the effort of keeping the landfills at reasonable levels while putting materials back into the manufacturing process, to gain a net zero of the product I use.
But manufacturing is a big problem. That paper half-and-half carton with the plastic nozzle is nearly worthless in terms of recycling: either its plastic contaminates paper recycling, or vice versa. That’s not my fault; it’s the way the milk industry has chosen to package its products.
Walking by the recycling pile, we see an orange juice carton with the same problem. In his office, Ferris shows me a plastic soda can that has an aluminum top — another unrecyclable package, and this one was found in the Recycling Center’s own vending machine.
“People have an idea that it’s magic over here,” Ferris says. “’I’m going to put everything in the recycle bin and they’ll sort it out.’”
One of the worst things to do is throw water-bottle cases into the recycling. These packages usually consist of a cardboard tray and a plastic shrink-wrap around it. We see many examples of these in the pile, but unless the paper is separated from the plastic, they’re unusable.
“We would love people to take the next step and uncouple these two things,” Ferris says as we walk around the pile that spills out from underneath the center’s roof. “We don’t have the manpower to do every little piece of uncoupling.”
The final products of the center’s recycling process are giant blocks of aluminum or plastic or paper. They are stacked 30 feet high or higher, like the giant warehouse at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
While no ancient artifacts are stored there (to my knowledge), employees did see a World War II grenade come through the line once. The charge was removed, so it was harmless. But it still is an unnecessary hazard — if you wanted to recycle your munitions, I’d think you’d want to call the center first to give them a heads up.
“They see a hand grenade, they’re going to shut down the line and get out,” Ferris said.
If my tour of the center taught me anything, it’s that there are small things we all can do to help make the whole process run more smoothly. And maybe, by the time my recyclables reach Asia, they actually do get recycled and not burned for energy.
I learned many ways to change my thinking on recycling for the better, and you can too at https://bit.ly/BurbankRecyclingCenter. I am now aware that if I do recycle plastic bags, I should make sure they’re clean and separated from other items. This separation is especially true of paper products and Styrofoam — even Los Angeles with its dedicated polystyrene recycling program won’t take anything that had food touch it.
Just one afternoon confronting the mountain of three days’ worth of waste made me rethink how much junk I’m hauling out to the curb each week. If we can do better with the “reducing,” we might shrink that mountain to a molehill.
BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he’s not separating his paper from his glass, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.