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How do you sort 20,000 tons of junk? It isn't easy.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

CLACKAMAS - The garbage flashes by on a conveyor belt moving so quickly that if you looked directly down at it for more than just a few minutes, you'd get motion sickness. Technically speaking, of course, it's not garbage, it's recycling.

SP Recycling, with sorting facilities in Clackamas and Tacoma, processes about 20,000 tons of it a month, 2,000 tons from the Eugene area alone. The company's two-story, $6 million sorting machine - all conveyor belts and rotating drums - sifts the cardboard from the paper from the plastics from the metals. But it takes humans, four on the front end of the conveyor working as fast as they can and another 18 on the back end of the equipment, to pull out the stuff that has no business being there in the first place.

Plastic bags.

Wood scraps.

Electrical cords.



Laundry baskets.

Water hoses.


Car parts.



These are all things workers have pulled off the line at SP Recycling.

"Last week we got a de-armed rocket-propelled grenade at the Tacoma plant," said Chris Thomas, SP Recycling marketing manager.

Commingling - the convenient practice of throwing all our recycling into one big container - has great benefits on the front end, but the industries on the receiving end of these recyclables pay a price for our residential convenience - a more contaminated product that results in higher costs and more garbage headed to the landfill.

Eugene and Springfield got in on the commingling act four years ago when garbage haulers swapped out the hand-carry bins for the big rolling carts.

Suddenly, we had a 90-gallon container to fill. The only thing kept separate was glass. Recycling jumped in the first few months of commingling, Thomas said, and that volume was what SP Recycling was after. A subsidiary of SP Newsprint, which manufactures newspaper at several mills around the country, including one in Newberg, the company believed that if it took all our recycling off our hands, it would get more of the paper it needed for its mills, Thomas said.

The company was right about that in spades, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality, which monitors solid waste. In Lane County, curbside recycling jumped 40 percent between 2003 and 2004, according to DEQ figures.

"The sheer increase in volume was tremendous," Thomas said.

The majority of the volume comes in the form of paper, 57 percent of the total by weight that passes through the facility is paper, followed by cardboard, mixed paper, plastics, glass, aluminum and tin cans.

The paper feeds the newsprint mill; SP Recycling bundles up the rest and sells it todomestic and internationalindustries that use it to remanufacture everything from sleeping bags to soda cans.

Commingling - also known as single-stream recycling - solved some other problems as well. Because the carts had lids, the paper came in dry and therefore more valuable. Garbage haulers also needed fewer people and fewer trucks to lift and dump recycling bins, which saved them money.

But there is a downside to commingling. In the old days, garbage haulers doing a quick hand sort would leave the inappropriate stuff on the curb. Today it all goes into the truck and heads up the highway to Clackamas.

The DEQ has done occasional spot checks of the recycling trucks in Lane County and concluded that about 10 percent of the content isn't recyclable at all.

It's the job of the people on the sort line to pull out the contaminants, but they can't get everything. The machinery sorts by shape in ever-finer screenings that allow the small stuff to drop away from the bigger stuff. In the first sort, the big boxes separate out from the paper, plastic and cans. Passing over other rolling drums, the cans and plastics sift out into separate streams.

In principle, that's how it works. But in fact, the process is as messy as you might expect recycling to be. Bits of shredded paper float like a halo and sift down around the machinery. Extension cords and garden hoses wrap around the big sorting drum churning things down onto the first conveyer belt. Plastic bags jam up the screening system, making it less effective. Abrasive bits of glass damage the equipment and can harm workers, Thomas said.

Those contaminants follow the paper to the mills, he said.

"Before commingled recycling, everything we got at the mills was clean newsprint and paper," he said. "Now there's inherently more contaminants that the mills are having to deal with."

That makes newsprint more expensive, he said. "One ton of newsprint isn't the same as one ton of newsprint 10 years ago. Now it costs more to get less."

Despite the kinks in parts of the system, the overall process remains financially viable. "The large gains in volume far outweigh the increase in contamination," Thomas said.

If he could convince people to be more careful about what they put into the recycling carts, he'd target plastic bags and glass.

"Those two things detract the most," he said.
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Title Annotation:Environmenet; At SP Recycling, it's a messy, high-speed affair being on the receiving end of commingling
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 20, 2008
Previous Article:Readings, gala mark 100th birthday.
Next Article:Answers to your questions about commingling.

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