Cycling Through “Chutes and Ladders”

By:  Priscilla Hayes

Okay, I will confess that my favorite of all the field trips I recommended on the “Democracy Bucket List” is a trip to a materials recovery facility, or a MRF for short.  If you are a conscientious home, business or school recycler, you are setting out just the right mix of bottles, cans, jars, other containers, paper and cardboard.  You are making sure you aren’t sending anything your town or county doesn’t accept.  But what you send out is still very much a mix, which, if left as is, is of no use to anyone who is actually trying to make something new out of them.  This becomes obvious when you consider what is in there.  Someone trying to make new aluminum cans or mold aluminum or steel parts for cars or planes couldn’t use a raw material that includes plastic, glass, maybe paper, and cardboard—not to mention lots of labels and glues and other things that are on the outside of things that get recycled.  There is a long process to sort all collected mixed recyclables into pure material streams.   This process starts at a facility called a Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF.

I always describe a MRF as a kind of giant “chutes and ladders” game, since it involves materials going up and down all sorts of conveyor belts, past blowers and magnets.  I have included a MRF on my “bucket list” of places all thoughtful citizens should visit, not least because it is so entertaining.  What you want at the end of the MRF process is a mostly a set of bales.

Bales of #1 Plastic
Bales of #1 Plastic

Each bale should be composed of castoffs which are uniformly of one material, such as number one plastic, polyethylene terapthalate or PET.  Or, you want uniform piles of things like glass, which tend to break rather than bale.

The sorting at a MRF gets more sophisticated all the time, but it isn’t idiot proof.  If someone puts a plastic bag in, that bag will surely get tangled up around the sorting machinery, and the whole sorting line will have to stop long enough to have the bag removed.  Since lots of “someones” put plastic bags in all the time, MRFs have to hire people to stand, all day, at the beginning of the first conveyor belt to do nothing but remove bags.  NO MRF I HAVE EVER HEARD OF ACCEPTS PLASTIC BAGS.  PLEASE TAKE THEM TO YOUR LOCAL SUPERMARKET, AND NEVER, NEVER PUT THEM IN YOUR RECYCLING BIN!

Beyond plastic bags, there are lots of things MRFs don’t accept.  Again, no MRF I ever heard of accepts window glass, broken dishes or even broken drinking glasses.  The glass in these items is incompatible with the “recyclable” glass found in bottles and jars; in particular, it has different levels of lead in it.  In my town, we are allowed to include clean aluminum foil in the mix of things we put out in our bins, and I really don’t remember ever seeing that before anywhere else, so I am still getting used to it.  SO DON’T PUT IT IN WITHOUT EXPLICIT INSTRUCTIONS!  It is important that you find out what is recyclable where you are, because when you add things to the mix that aren’t accepted, they can cause no end of problems, as plastic bags do.

All recycling instructions include a direction to remove all caps from bottles or jars, but this is something hardly anyone seems to pay attention to.  Let’s take soda bottles as an example:  lots of people drink part of a soda, carefully screw the top back on, and drop it into a recycling bin, thinking they have done their part.  But the MRF is designed for empty soda bottles, which are light, and can be moved by blowers onto the proper sorting line.

Capped Bottles Popping Out of a Bale
Capped Bottles Popping Out of a Bale

Those with liquid still trapped inside physically don’t act like bottles, and often end up simply getting discarded, because the sorting process just cannot handle them and will just kick them out.

It is important to remove the cap even from EMPTY BOTTLES, because as the capped bottle gets crushed during the baling process, the trapped air inside will make the bottle hard to flatten, and often such bottles start popping out the sides of bales, taking their neighbors with them.

Okay, maybe you can’t visit a MRF in person, so I have a couple of links for virtual tours.  For adults, try:

  • Good little short YouTube video on MRF (remember to check what your recycling program accepts—some of the materials you see here may not be acceptable locally):
  • Longer YouTube video, with more detail on the sorting features in a MRF (including the optical sorting that more and more MRFs have), and the problems of sending the wrong materials or not preparing materials right:

Kids could check out the following:

  • I love this one because it talks about the crazy big items people put in their bins, and how those have to be sorted out at the start. Also, check out that plastic bag of recyclables being put into the bin at the start—it just flashes on the screen for a second.

And maybe soon, I’ll invent a MRF chutes and ladders game.


2 thoughts on “Cycling Through “Chutes and Ladders””

  1. I’ve wondered if I should recycle the output of a paper shredder. I guess the answer is No. There’s no way that confetti would make it through those conveyor belts.


  2. I think that is correct. Maybe that is a good reason to use those public events where they do shredding, because they are generally sponsored by recycling companies, and generate amounts of shredded papers that don’t “fall through the cracks,” as it were.


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