And yes, they recycle plastic.
By Juliet Martinez
Since 2014, every time Dianne Shenk looked behind her store on Second Avenue in Hazelwood, she saw an enormous pile of trash at the recycling facility less than 200 yards away. But one day last year, something was different.
“I looked down there one day and I was like, ‘Wait, where’s the pile of trash?’” Ms. Shenk said. “There was no pile of trash.”
The 8.5-acre Recycle Source facility in Hazelwood processes all the residential recycling the City of Pittsburgh collects. Good things are happening there, and the neighbors can tell.
GGMJS Properties LLC bought the site in 2014 after the previous owner, Pittsburgh Recycling Services, declared bankruptcy. At that time, the site had been abandoned for several months and become so badly infested with rats that neighbors held a protest.
The protests died down, but the rat problem did not go away.
“Everybody knows that there are lots of rats, and everybody knows that the rats, in part, are from the recycling center,” Ms. Shenk said.
But that has recently changed, too.
Last April, Will Hancock started working at Recycle Source as the vice president of business development after a career selling recycling equipment. He knew the facility needed to upgrade and also become a better neighbor.
On the grounds of Recycle Source, large dirt piles provided an ideal habitat for rats. Those are now paved over and regularly cleaned. Black, hard plastic rat traps sit every 50 feet around the perimeter of the property. Mr. Hancock said the exterminator comes every two weeks. Next, Mr. Hancock will remove concrete blocks inside the plant that have gaps where rats can make nests.
“There was a ton of trash and a ton of rats,” Marcy Lydon of Greenfield remembers. She feeds a cat colony near the recycling facility. “It was so bad. They were just running around. But then that guy came in and it seemed like it’s not as many rats or [as much] trash.”
Mr. Hancock focuses on containing and managing the rat problem so they do not venture out into the neighborhood, though he said the problem will never go away because rats come in with the commercial recycling drop-offs.
Pittsburgh residents can help by washing containers before putting them in the recycling. Taking a minute to clean the peanut butter or marinara out of a jar not only keeps the facility cleaner, it keeps bins at home cleaner too.
“You can rinse out a beer can and your garbage won’t smell like beer,” he said. Clean recycling also eliminates the need for a bag. Garbage bags are not recyclable, so workers must pick them out and rip them open or they gum up the system.
From a jalopy to a racecar
On January 10, Mr. Hancock started up the new material recovery facility or MRF (pronounced "murf")system for the first time. It replaces the antiquated one workers struggled with for years. The old system was a source of constant stress, like driving an old car that broke down all the time, Mr. Hancock said. It spilled waste off the sides, relied on outdated technology and was easily clogged by wet paper or cardboard, a perennial problem in this climate.
Compared to that, the new MRF is a race car. It stretches about half the length of the roughly 600-foot facility and roars steadily when running. The dark seafoam green sides contrast with bright yellow safety railings and wide black conveyor belts and chutes. To one side, a slowly rotating Trommel drum, a large tube with small holes in the sides, catches broken glass, raining small pieces onto a pile destined for another life as marinara jars and beer bottles.
“This new system handles the wet material much, much better. It’s just higher torque, it’s better movement, the wet dampness of the material doesn’t bog down and trip out motors,” Mr. Hancock said. He was confident the system would plow through the usual post-holiday recycling backlog.
He explained how a system of rotating discs break down glass while lighter containers bounce forward and paper and cardboard surf over the top. The lighter containers and fibers then go up angled conveyor belts that carry paper and cardboard up while containers fall back down. The cardboard then gets separated from the mixed paper. When those fibrous materials are wet, the new system’s conveyor belts can be raised to a steeper angle because the wet material sticks to them. The containers fall back to be separated into tin, aluminum and plastics.
Plastic recycling is real
The new system has high-definition cameras that can tell the difference between milk jugs, water bottles, detergent bottles, clamshell to-go containers and other types of plastic. Plastics with numbers 1, 2 or 5 on them are all recyclable. When the cameras “see” these plastics, they push them onto a different track with a targeted burst of air.
The different kinds of plastic - and all the paper, cans and cardboard - get separated and sold to places that turn them into new products. Mr. Hancock knows people have doubts about plastic recycling. He has seen the billboards saying only 3% of plastic is recycled.
“It’s not a hoax,” he said. “I do this every day. I can guarantee that more than 3% gets recycled. I would say 95% of what comes in here is able to be recycled.”
The rest, he said, are things like toys and buckets made from hard plastic. Right now, he does not have a buyer for that, but he is looking for one. And he is looking for other ways to do more at the facility.
We’re doing something to change the world
Once the old system has been removed, he wants to see about accepting food waste for an anaerobic digester that could produce natural gas to power the facility. After that, he wants to start accepting construction and demolition waste that can be funneled into alternative fuel uses and more.
He already partially enclosed the area where the pile of trash had been, giving workers more protection from the elements.
The new MRF now stands under that roof. And he plans to renovate the offices, breakroom and bathrooms. He said the employees deserve to be treated like what they are doing is important.
“This isn’t a very pretty job and it’s not an easy job,” he said, but, “we’re doing something to change the world and we need to think about it that way.”
A Recycle Source employee who asked not to be named said he and the other employees are much happier these days.
Ms. Shenk said the facility’s employees have been coming into her store since it opened seven years ago. She described them as a ragtag group who told her about fights breaking out in the break room and not having hot water to wash up with. But she has noticed a change in them, too.
“Within the last year since this new manager started, they come in as a group, they chat with each other, they’re joking around,” she said. “They look cleaner. They definitely look happier.”
Juliet Martinez is the managing editor of The Homepage.