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What’s up with Austin’s recycling?

Thursday, May 26, 2016 by Mose Buchele, KUT

“Would you like to have a little Coke?” asks Kathy Bell Hargrave, cracking open a can of soda in her daughter’s kitchen.

Some things we do in life without giving them a second thought, but when we stop to think about them we realize they raise a lot of questions. This is one of those things.

“Every can that I open, every piece of paper, everything, I want to recycle it,” says Bell Hargrave. “I put it all in a giant blue bin, but what happens to it? I don’t know.”

She is not alone in her quest for answers. Judging from listener questions, many people think of recycling as somehow both mundane and mysterious. So, in this edition of ATXplained, we will reply to as many of your questions about recycling in Austin as we can. We will do it by following that 12-ounce can of Coke.

First stop. The blue bin.

Imagine you’re a humble 12-ounce aluminum can. You sit in the bin, surrounded by paper, plastic, probably spiders. You might be here for up to two weeks. That’s how often the city picks up residential recycling. Ryan Hawkins wants to know why.

As part of KUT’s series, ATXplained, he asked, “Why do they pick up trash every week and recycling every two weeks? Shouldn’t it be the opposite? It seems like a disincentive.”

The answer is basically yes.

“The goal is to eventually go composting organic citywide (and have) weekly recycling pick up,” says Memi Cardenas, a spokesperson for Austin Resource Recovery.

But it probably won’t happen soon. While Hawkins views the current system as “a disincentive,” Cardenas says people will likely need to recycle more before the city will invest in once-a-week pickup.

“We just really need to see that citizen participation to get everything in the right bins, so that we can flip that structure,” she says.

Instead, Cardenas says the department will likely introduce curbside compost pickup before it switches to weekly recycling. That could take years to roll out across the city. One other reason to stick to biweekly recycling: the cost. People debate about whether recycling or landfilling is more expensive, but adding recycling pickups without cutting elsewhere would cost more.

After our can is picked up from the bin, it’s dumped in one of Austin’s recycling trucks and compacted with recycling from thousands of other people. Truck operator Jacob Cervantes explains his route.

“If you ain’t listening to the radio, you’re listening to people talk on the (CB) mic,” he laughs as he maneuvers his recycling truck through crowded residential streets. It’s the kind with the big claw on the side to pick up the bins. He likes the job, but it can get repetitive.

“You get a little groundhog action going on. You know that movie ‘Groundhog (Day)’? Where he repeats the day over and over.” He laughs again.

Austin Resource Recovery drivers like Cervantes can make up to a 1,000 stops in a day. So, he’s the perfect person to pick up our next question:

“What are the most common items inappropriately placed in recycling bins?” asks James Mclane.

“You want to keep out water hoses, plastic bags. Sometimes you’ll get construction debris in there, which is not recyclable,” says Cervantes without missing a beat.

The reason: Hoses and thin plastic bags gum up the gears in the trucks and later in the process. So, when Austin banned plastic shopping bags, that decision helped keep Cervantes on schedule, driving his haul all the way to one of two recycling facilities that have contracts with the city to receive the recycling.

“It’s very much like an aircraft hanger — 100,000-foot facility,” says Bob McGivney, director of small-business sustainability at Balcones Resources, describing the company’s East Austin center.

It’s also where our can (along with most of Austin’s residential recycling) is dumped into a huge pile on what’s called the “tip floor.” The area has that name because it’s where the trucks “tip” out their contents.


McGivney points out that the floor is full of “everyday household things,” but it is also where those “things” cease to be “things.” They stop being boxes or bottles and they become commodities. McGivney likened the operation at Balcones to mining: The trick is to separate out the commodities and sell them to the highest bidder. Balcones accomplishes that by running the materials through an elevated conveyor belt. This system is what a lot of people have questions about.

“How high-tech is it?” asks Bell Hargrave.

Some of it is very high-tech. There are spots that use infrared lights to test the density of plastics before jets of air blow them to different piles. But other parts on the line are more old-fashioned, like where lines of women hand-sort items and discard unusable things like pizza boxes.

“How clean do our peanut butter jars really have to be?” asks Glenna Soirez.

Not spotless. According to Austin Resource Recovery, a quick rinse should do the trick.

And, a question from KUT: What is the craziest thing they’ve seen on the line?

“One time we had a raccoon pass through the entire system alive,” says McGivney. “He was just trotting on the conveyor belt.”

McGivney says they stopped the belt and the raccoon eventually jumped off and went “back about his business.” It’s a good thing he got off before the baler. That’s where our can ends up, crushed with all the other cans into huge, colorful 3-by-4-foot cubes of aluminum.

That brings us to our last question, also from Soirez. “Where does it all go?”

About 15 percent of the things tossed in blue bins ends up in a landfill. The rest is sold, and then sometimes resold. It can end up down the road or overseas. As for our can, it has one more stop here in Austin: Austin Metal and Iron Co.

“(In) the town that we live in, there’s not a lot of industry, but if there’s one thing this town is good at, it’s drinking a lot of cans,” says Ike Shapiro, co-owner of Austin Metal and Iron Co. “You know? Sodas and beer and everything.”

Cans from the Balcones facility are sent here, where they join other cans and are shipped out of state. Where? Shapiro says Kentucky. That’s where they are melted down and turned back into aluminum cans.

So next time you open a can, you know it will likely pass through these doors. In fact, it may already have.

This story is a result of a partnership between the Austin Monitor and KUT. Photos by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News.

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