I’ve always been extremely curious of how single stream recycling is processed after it’s been collected and hauled away. It turns out that Casella Waste manages the majority of Boston-area recycling at their plant in Charlestown, alongside other smaller MURFS (Material’s Recovery Facilities). These are facilities where recyclables are pulled out of the single stream and separated. Unfortunately, Casella doesn’t give tours to individuals, or just anyone, so it seemed to me that I was out of luck.
I showed up this morning to volunteer at Watertown Recycle Center. Sitting in the shade, I found my main-man, Shane Reed, a supervisor with Republic Waste. He was already there with a team of his guys preparing to take away our full dumpster of single stream recycling. He asked me if I wanted to go along with the driver, Mike, to Casella’s recycling plant and unload the material. Before he could change his mind, I was in the cab of the truck.
“I haven’t known any other business really,” Mike said as we were driving along the Mass Pike towards Charlestown. He got his CDL class B license in order to drive heavy vehicles at the age of 18, 16 years ago, and never looked back. Many who work in waste management start young, and never change careers. It makes sense, since there’s lots of money to be made in the industry, and the demand to dispose of waste hardly ever lets up in our consumer-driven society. After I told Mike about my dream of one day living in a zero-waste world, he recounted his first experience at the landfill. “I was blown away by the sheer amount of trash that had been produced by people. Mountains” he yelled over the truck’s diesel engine.
Once we arrived to Casella, I felt like I had finally breached the fortress walls. It wasn’t as grandiose as I expected, and smelled of garbage despite being a destination for “recycling.” Mike dropped me off near the entrance, and took his trailer to the weighing station to be weighed before emptying it into the massive pile. I nearly fell from the truck’s cab, as I asked him where I should meet him after I had snooped around a bit.
Upon appearance, the piles of “recycling” weren’t in good shape. Most of the paper and newspaper (some of the most valuable materials on the recycling commodity markets) were brown and covered with food residue. There was a perpetual coat of thick dust over everything, and a rat scurried under my feet as I walked up a metal staircase. This got my blood boiling. I thought to myself “no wonder rats enjoyed single stream recycling so much, people nonchalantly throw whatever into their blue bins at home, and this is the result.” Sadly, when people neglect to be mindful of their recycling habits, it counters the real effort made by those who try to recycle the “right” way, and intermingles. It’s a huge black-eye to single stream recycling, which is suppose to produce better results than mixed waste processing.
I didn’t get very far into the plant, partly because there was a wall of waste blocking my path, and partly because I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble for being too nosy. Although, I could see ten yellow-vested employees positioned at the end of a conveyor belt up on a catwalk, sorting out cardboard and plastic bags. These materials were then dropped down a shoot forming two large piles on the ground beneath them. I assume that the cardboard was bailed for further sale, and the plastic bags were sent to the wheelabrator in either North Andover or Sauguas, where they were burned for electricity.
I owe Shane and Republic a lot for allowing me to ride along to visit Casella, although I hope to go on a legitimate tour of the facility one day and have an employee explain to me the details of the process. I would especially love to know what happens next in the recycling process? Do they hold onto the bailed material until the market prices go up? Who are their buyers? (That question will take some prodding to get an answer).
Below I embedded a video that gives a short tour of the plant and explains single stream recycling better.