A day in the life of recyclables

Kirkwood-Webster Journal

A day in the life of recyclables

By Shawn Clubb

John Howard collects it.

QRS sorts it.

Strategic Materials processes it.

And Saint-Gobain Containers turns it into bottles.

But this glass starts its journey when Craig Williams and countless people like him put it in a recycling bin.

People in St. Louis city, county and municipalities throughout the area recycle goods including glass bottles, aluminum and steel cans, cardboard, paper and plastics.

To see video of where recyclables go click here.

The recycle, reuse and remanufacture industry in the St. Louis metropolitan area employees 15,776 people and has annual receipts of $4.9 billion, according to a study conducted by the University of Missouri for the St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District.

The industry includes recycling collection, textile recycling, salvage and resale shops, computer and electronics recovery, paper recyclers, used tire processors, scrap metal dealers and aluminum recyclers.

But did you ever wonder what happens to the material after someone puts it into one of the big recycling bins?

The drop-off

Pick-up or drop-off for residents is handled differently in the region depending on which municipality someone lives in and whether it is a service performed by the city or contracted out to the waste hauler.

In the city of St. Louis, there are seven zip codes where curb-side pickup of recyclables is available. Most people use the 27 drop-off locations.

One location is the Wherry Wedge, where Macklind, Wherry and Lansdowne avenues form a triangle in the Southampton neighborhood.

Craig Williams, who moved to the city from Las Cruces, N.M., said he and his wife recycled when they lived in New Mexico. He now makes a trip about every two weeks in his pickup truck to drop off materials at the Wherry Wedge.

He pulled out a bag filled with amber-colored beer bottles and plastic containers and dumped it in one of the 800-gallon recycling bins. The bed of his truck also contained plastic kitty litter bins in which he stores recyclables until he is ready for another trip.

"I'm amazed at how much stuff we have at home that we can recycle," Williams said. "We hardly put any trash at the curb."

The pick-up

A battered, orange city of St. Louis refuse truck pulled up on Partridge Avenue off Riverview Boulevard in North St. Louis. Driver John Howard tipped one of the blue recycling dumpsters to collect its contents.

The refuse division truck looks exactly like the 90 trucks that prowl neighborhoods to collect garbage, except for a blue placard behind the windshield that reads "recycling."

Howard's truck is one of the few that collect recyclables. Cardboard, paper and containers are all collected separately. The containers include glass bottles, steel cans, aluminum cans and plastics.

Jill Hamilton, the city's recycling program manager, said the city accepts recyclables in three streams to make it convenient for residents. The separate streams also could mean the need for less sorting before materials can be sold off.

The city used to run trucks three days a week to pick up recyclables, but changed it to seven days and added more and bigger recycling Dumpsters to meet demand.

"It's catching on, man. It's catching on like wildfire," Howard said. "I've got some places it's overflowing."

Howard makes his way from station to station to tip Dumpsters. He takes the contents to Smurfit-Stone Recycling in North St. Louis or QRS Recycling in South County or Hazelwood.

Michelle Merriweather drives another type of truck, which picks up whole roll-off recycling Dumpsters. She visits locations including the recycling station at Carondelet Park and hauls the dumpsters to QRS at 4076 Bayless Ave.

The sort

Bales of cardboard, bales of newspaper, bales of aluminum cans and mounds of cans, bottles and papers of all types greet Merriweather as she pulls up to the QRS facility.

She dumps the load and the contents roar as they fall to the concrete. The bottles clink together and against the floor of the massive QRS shed. The material travels along a series of belts where workers and mechanisms sort it.

Part of the process involves sorting out plastics that don't fit the definition of what QRS takes. This could include plastic swimming pools.

"Just because it's plastic doesn't mean it goes in the bin," said Greg Janson, CEO of QRS. "We're looking for containers."

Small pieces of glass that can't be easily picked out drop through screens to be sifted.

Other container material falls out and gets bundled to be shipped to the QRS facility in Louisville, Ky., for further separation. Paper is walked up the mechanism and travels via another conveyor to a part of the building where it gets bundled.

The two QRS facilities in St. Louis sort a combined 12,000 to 13,000 tons of recyclables each month, Janson said. Some of it gets condensed into 2,000-pound cubes and loaded onto over-the-road trucks, overseas shipping containers or rail cars to be taken to other locations for processing. Other materials stay in the St. Louis area.


Glass recycling often happens completely in this region. A beer bottle could go from a local brewery to a store shelf to a home where someone drinks it. If someone recycles it, the glass from the bottle would go to a recycling Dumpster, a facility such as QRS and then to a processor before going to a glass bottle factory. It would then go to a brewery again and make its way back through the system.

Glass sorted at QRS goes to be processed at Strategic Materials at 24 Branch St., in the city just south of the McKinley Bridge. The facility takes various types of glass including clear, amber and green bottles. It comes from QRS but also from breweries and other municipal haulers. Some even comes from as far west as Nebraska and as far north as Minnesota.

The glass often arrives mixed with other materials. Bottles in a pile of glass at the site mingled with plastic bottle caps, aluminum, steel, cardboard and shredded paper. This contamination complicates the process.

Carrie Ray, regional supply manager for Strategic Materials, said a street sign and bricks have been recent items found within loads of glass. Pyrex cookware also can contaminate the glass. It withstands heat and doesn't melt properly in a furnace.

Equipment at Strategic blows the plastic and paper off the glass into a Dumpster. Other equipment cleans the glass and detects ceramic and stone so they can be removed.

Workers sort some of the glass by color. Clear glass must be used to make clear glass, while amber and green glass manufacturing is less restrictive. The equipment then processes the glass into a finer material called cullet, a term for recycled glass.

Of the cullet Strategic produces, 80 percent is sent on to become container glass, Ray said.

Strategic has to compete with the raw material market, because the ingredients for glass - sand, limestone and soda ash - are relatively easy to obtain in the Midwest.

Strategic sends some of its cullet to Texas and Oklahoma by rail, but the majority of it goes to Saint-Gobain Containers in Pevely.

The glass plant

Trucks pull up and empty cullet onto the ground at Saint-Gobain containers. Bins full of the material line the back lot at the plant.

The cullet and raw materials go to a furnace that operates at temperatures exceeding 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

"The glass in here is about the consistency of water - it's that fluid," said Mike Carroll, the batch and furnace manager at the plant.

The molten glass becomes more solid as it travels through the system. Streams of glowing orange, molten glass get sheared by machinery into a properly sized "gob" - a piece of hot, malleable glass. It then goes into machines that form the glass into bottles by blowing air at high pressure into the molten glass.

Mechanized arms grab the glowing bottles and put them on a conveyor belt to cool, receive special coatings and be inspected for defects.

Using cullet keeps costs down, Carroll said. The material requires less processing than raw materials and requires less energy to use. Carroll said it takes 650 kilowatt hours to process a ton of raw batch material, but takes 450 kilowatt hours to process a ton a cullet.

Saint-Gobain uses at least 10 percent cullet in its mixtures, but Carroll said the amount is often much higher. The amount could be close to 100 percent, if enough cullet were available, he said.

"We're now pulling it in from Chicago, because we can't get enough here," he said. "It's not being processed. People are throwing it into dumps."

The amber-colored bottles Saint-Gobain makes go to Anheuser-Busch in Soulard where they are filled with beer. Then the bottles start their journey again.

You can contact Shawn Clubb at sclubb@yourjournal.com.

How far do recyclable materials travel?

Depending on the type of material, items put in recycling containers in St. Louis could end up being processed locally or sent across the nation by truck or rail.

Here are some of the destinations and later use for recyclable materials from St. Louis, courtesy of the City of St. Louis Refuse Division.

-  Aluminum cans go to Kentucky and Tennessee to be recycled into aluminum cans.

-  Corrugated cardboard goes to mills throughout the U.S., Mexico and China to be recycled into medium board.

-  Brown, clear and green glass bottles and jars go to Pevely to be made into bottles for Anheuser-Busch.

-  Junk mail goes to Ohio and Oklahoma to be recycled into tissue paper.

-  Magazines go to Arizona to be recycled into newspaper.

-  Mixed office paper goes to Arizona or Mexico to be recycled into newspaper and to Kentucky or Mexico to be recycled into medium board for boxes.

-  Newspaper goes to East St. Louis to be recycled into cellulose insulation, mills throughout the U.S. to be recycled into newspaper, and Ohio to be recycled into paperboard.

-  Paperboard/chipboard goes to Joplin to be recycled into roofing materials and Ohio to be made into new paperboard.

- Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 plastic containers go to Georgia, Alabama, Michigan and Iowa to be recycled into carpeting, clothing, containers, lumber, drain pipes and trash bags.

- Steel cans go to Illinois and Indiana to be recycled into automotive parts, appliances and various other products.

Link to original article
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