I recently toured a materials recovery facility in South Los Angeles that processes residual materials from materials recovery facilities. Now, before I get too far into the weeds, I should explain what a materials recovery facility is.

Bales of materials waiting to be sorted.
Bales of materials waiting to be sorted

Many of us who live in single-family homes, and increasingly those like me who live in multi-family dwellings, are accustomed to having a bin for solid waste, recycling and yard waste. Once materials placed in the recycle bin are collected, they are typically brought to a materials recovery facility for processing.

Materials recovery facilities, or “MRFs,” as they are known, do not actually recycle materials. Instead, they utilize a combination of equipment and humans to sort through and recover as much valuable material as possible.

The human capital is pretty straightforward, where different roles are responsible for different aspects of the process. In some facilities, employees look to remove contamination and in others, they look to remove the materials of value.

An employee makes a last-ditch effort to grab a certain type of plastic from the line before the remaining materials get sent for disposal

The technology, on the other hand, can vary drastically from facility to facility. Some facilities rely mostly on their human capital to sort and isolate materials, whereas facilities are increasingly relying on technology to do the majority of the work. Lasers are used to identify plastics by type. Magnets isolate metals. Air and oscillating pieces of equipment separate paper. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what is happening at any given moment!

A man uses a tractor to push material into the hopper

What I do know is that these facilities are setup to move materials through quickly, which means a lot of the material literally falls through the cracks due to their sizes. From what I have been told, just about anything that is less than four inches long will not be processes, but instead falls through the facility to bins that are then considered residual material. These residuals are typically taken to a landfill or incinerated in a process that is known as waste-to-energy.

Most people I speak with consider materials to be recycled as soon as they place them in their blue recycle bin. Those same people tend to be someone along of spectrum of denial and shock when they come to realize that just because an item has a recycle logo and/or is placed inside a recycle bin, doesn’t guarantee its recovery nor its recyclability.

The tractor-trailer in the distance should give some perspective of the amount of material on site at any give moment

Residual MRFs, as you see pictured in this post, process the small, “fall through the cracks,” type items, like bottle caps, lighters and plastic packaging, like expanded polystyrene (aka Styrofoam).

This particular facility also takes bales of plastics three through seven from those same primary MRFs. Many of the MRFs that don’t have a lot of technology will sort for the highest value items, like water bottles and other beverage containers that include a deposit like the California Redemption Value, and commingle bales of the lower value materials. Prior to the Fall of 2017, most facilities send these mixed bales to China for processing. After China implemented its National Sword policy, where they banned the import of 24 different commodities, large quantities of plastics that used to have markets were now without them.

Before I say how I really feel, I first want to acknowledge how grateful I was to have been able to visit this facility. The owner offered to take industry professionals on a tour to tout the effectiveness of his facility—the self-stated effectiveness of his facility.

There were a few takeaways I noted:

First: This facility only took in bales of plastic, yet there were quite a bit of metals and papers recovered.

Second: In addition to these lower value residuals, much of the metal and many of the plastic containers were beverage containers that participated in the California Redemption Value deposit program. These higher value items should have been recovered at the primary MRFs.

Third: Just because the materials were recovered does not mean they were going to good use. Note the picture of me with hard hat and safety vest with my hands outstretched with a, “what the f#ck? Look on my face. I am standing in front of bales of polystyrene and expanded polystyrene. These low value resins don’t really get recycled, but sometimes get reformed into something different. Once this facility gets a whole truckload worth of these plastics, they sell them to a vendor in Indiana. What that vendor does with the material, he didn’t know.

This low-value plastic will be turned into pellets which will be used as Refuse-derived Fuel to power cement kilns in Mexico

There was something else I learned that day too: Large cement kilns, which are used to heat raw materials up for manufacturing, are typically heated with coal. As it turns out, upwards of half of all material that is recovered at this facility is pelletized then sold as Refuse-derived Fuels to be used to heat cement kilns. In this instance, his market for this material is in Mexico but could just have easily been in the US.

I have a feeling that if people knew what was really happening to their materials after being through away, they might use less of it and also advocate for policies that make systems in general less wasteful.

“What’s happening?” you ask. I’m not quite sure!

The last thing I will say is that, if I’m being honest, the material that was input into the facility looked exactly the same as the outputs. I saw recovered paper and beverage containers that were going to be trashed and polystyrene that allegedly had a market.

I saw air blowing, magnets attracting and humans picking across hundreds of feet of conveyors, and yet, it was unclear to me what was actually happening.

When I used to supervise people who loaded trailers in a UPS warehouse we would call it “package massaging.” It was this idea that employees would look busy but in reality, were just moving things around but not really getting work done.

I could go on about the ethical questions related to people working inside MRFs, but I will have to leave that for another day. What I hope you gain from reading this and looking at the pictures is that when it comes to recycling, we have a long way to go. And remember, just because you sort something into a recycle bin means it is actually going to be recycled.

I’d like to hear from you

Have you been inside a materials recovery facility, transfer station, compost facility or landfill? What did you think? I would like to hear about it. Share your experience in the comments below, or by sending me an email!

About the author

Jonathan Levy is an environmental consultant focused in solid waste and zero waste lifestyle enthusiast. When he isn’t knee-deep in a dumpster, you can find him entrenched in a book, hiking the San Gabriel mountains, or tending to his composting worms.

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