The Hunt for Green

Sorting out the payday in Denver's new recycling plan.

The trucks rumble through the gates of Waste Management Recycle America's plant in north Denver, lining up for their turn at the scales. A driver for the City of Thornton tailgates one from the City of Denver. Dump trucks from commercial and residential collection routes across the metro area squeeze past semis from Greeley and Vail.

One by one, they hit the scales, then jettison their cargo at the maw of the cavernous plant: an avalanche of paper and glass, plastic and metal. Each load adds to an already humongous heap of trash in the hangar-like entryway -- a hulking, jagged Mount Massive of trash, a multi-storied monument to a disposable culture.

Phone books. Busted-up cardboard boxes and packing materials. Pop cans, milk jugs, water bottles, beer bottles. Itsy-bitsy cat food tins, licked clean. Sludge-crusted five-gallon cans of industrial-strength beans. Flattened cereal boxes and swollen, well-thumbed skin mags, Cap'n Crunch shipping out with the swabbies of porn. Urgent but never opened notifications from mortgage companies, credit-card hawkers, the Publisher's Clearing House. Catalogues from L.L. Bean and JC Whitney. And everywhere you turn, piles of newspapers -- an endless ripple of yesterday's headlines and grocery coupons, auto sales and cut-rate editorials. Acres of words and pictures, no longer needed even for puppy training, just tossed, forgotten, like the stumps and scraps of a leveled forest.

High on fiber: Waste Management operations manager Jose Herrera (above) says the move to single stream quadrupled his workforce; Denver's recycling czar, Charlotte Pitt (right, flanked by city employees), found that automated trucks reduced injuries.
Anthony Camera
High on fiber: Waste Management operations manager Jose Herrera (above) says the move to single stream quadrupled his workforce; Denver's recycling czar, Charlotte Pitt (right, flanked by city employees), found that automated trucks reduced injuries.
The junk stops here: Trucks from across the Front Range unload at Denver's single-stream recycling plant (above); inside, workers sort through thirty tons of recyclables an hour.
Anthony Camera
The junk stops here: Trucks from across the Front Range unload at Denver's single-stream recycling plant (above); inside, workers sort through thirty tons of recyclables an hour.

"We see more newspaper than anything else," says Jose Herrera, the plant's manager. "Right now it's about 60 percent of our volume."

A shift change is under way inside the plant, which means Herrera's voice is actually audible for the moment, while the maze of conveyor belts and sorting screens behind him stand idle and the mountain of trash spreads. In a few minutes the contraption will jump to life, bells ringing and buzzers bleating, and dozens of men and women will begin picking through the recyclable materials being shoveled toward them -- a process that is highly automated and incredibly labor-intensive at the same time.

After pulling out the junk the machines can't handle -- plastic bags, wooden palettes, coffeemakers, paint cans and other unsanctioned jetsam, all headed for the landfill -- the sorters send the rest on in increasingly homogenous currents of fiber, metal, plastic and glass. Much of it will emerge from the back end of the plant in neatly compacted bales, suitable for shipping by rail or truck.

Blocks of crushed aluminum, the most prized of all recyclables, headed to Anheuser-Busch. Bales of newspapers, bound for paper mills in the Southwest and Northwest, to be churned into more newsprint or paper towels or toilet paper. Tin cans to Utah, to a company that makes rebar. Depending on quality, cardboard can get turned into more corrugated boxes or increasingly cheaper grades of chipboard. Bundles of what's known as mixed paper, made up of junk mail, phone books and other low-fiber materials, might get chopped into insulation or processed into a material used to cover Sheetrock or drywall; most likely, the low-grade stuff is headed for China or some other not-too-picky overseas market.

"There are few mills that are willing to take a mix like this," Herrera says, nodding at a freakish cube of phone books, catalogues and chipboard. "There's very little fiber content there."

Opened two years ago at a cost of close to $5 million, the Denver plant is one of a few dozen Waste Management single-stream material-recovery facilities, or MRFs, around the country. The local operation now handles 10,000 tons of recyclables a month, from commercial as well as residential customers. Twenty percent of that total comes from the City of Denver itself. Essentially, Waste Management buys Denver's recyclable trash for a modest price, then sorts it and resells it as raw materials to manufacturers at a higher price.

Like many cities, Denver has embraced the single-stream system as a way to promote recycling and cut landfill costs. The idea is that if residents are no longer required to sort the stuff they recycle -- newspapers in one bin, plastics in another, and so on -- the volume of materials collected goes up dramatically. The move required rolling out thousands of 65-gallon purple carts to residents and acquiring a fleet of automated trucks to empty the carts, but city officials expect the investment to pay off handsomely.

"We're moving up the curve," says Charlotte Pitt, recycling-program manager for Denver's Department of Public Works. "It costs less to pick up recycling than to pick up trash. We're looking at $25 a ton to pick up recyclables, while going from curb to landfill costs us $50 per ton. We pick it up whether it's in the garbage can or the recycling cart, so this is reducing the use of the landfill and offering other environmental benefits."

There are strong economic arguments for going single stream, and hundreds of cities have embraced the concept in recent years. But among some manufacturers and recycling advocates, the move has been viewed with skepticism and even alarm. As the volume of trash headed for the MRFs shoots up, so do issues about the quality of the materials, the degree of contamination and the difficulties involved in sorting the mess.

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