Growing up I was one those kids who I liked to describe as ‘delightfully nerdy,’ but some teachers might describe as exasperating, who loved to learn. I devoured books even outside of the classroom, I did things on the weekend like taking beekeeping classes, and I made the decision to leave my D1 college track team so I would have more time for a life outside of double majoring and minoring- communications and English with a minor in philosophy if you were curious. That love for learning has never left me; I still get that frisson of excitement when I stumble across something new, especially when that something new is an exploration of a subject that I thought I knew inside and out. That spark ignited earlier this week when I was invited to delve into a subject that I’d considered relatively banal, recycling. I thought I knew it all, and boy was I incorrect.
I was invited to tour the Alpine (Altogether) Recycling center as a celebration for Earth Day by the Carton Council, an industry organization committed to growing carton recycling in the US. While I knew the event was going to be interesting, I hadn’t expected to be blown away by the advancements in technology in the recycling industry- we’ve come a long way since little elementary school Kait got a kick out of sorting recycling into three bins.
Recycling: The Basics
According to a survey done by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, 94% of the United States’ population has access to some type of recycling program, whether it be curbside or drop-off. Of those curbside programs about 90% are now single stream- meaning that all recyclables can be placed in the same recycling container. This is where Alpine comes in.
Alpine Recycling, while local to Colorado, is one of the companies across the country that collect single stream recycling goods and sort the collections at their facilities to be processed and sold. This is the first new tidbit of information I learned- for some reason it never occurred to me that recycling was a non-governmental business and it was a highly profitable one at that. At Alpine the recycling is sorted, baled, and then shipped off via train or truck to places both in the US and internationally to be created into new consumer products. Fun fact: a recycled aluminum can be reclaimed, reused, and make it back onto the shelf in as few as 18 days once it leaves Alpine’s facilities.
Why Recycling (Correctly) Is Important
If you’re part of the 94% of the US population that has access to recycling, you probably know a few reasons why recycling is important. It helps to preserve our natural resources, keep content out of landfills, and plastics out of the ocean (if you haven’t taken a look at the Sailing Seas of Plastic Map, it is eye opening.) But on top of that recycling correctly is incredibly important as well. First and foremost check out your local trash and recycling company’s list of what they do and do not accept and follow their guidelines. Don’t place food scraps, shredded paper, or plastic bags in your recycling bin. These recycling contaminates, especially plastic bags, can clog up a recycling plant’s incredibly complex sorting systems and real human employees need to climb into the (shut down) system to unclog it! The facilitator of our tour from Alpine likened a plastic bag clogging up the system to ‘vacuuming a shoelace’ and we ALL know how much of a pain that can be!
I knew I wasn’t supposed to recycle shredded paper (I use it for kindling in my fireplace instead) but never really knew why. It turns out that because of how small it is (this goes for things like bottle caps and juice box straws as well) it just doesn’t get sorted. We saw this in action while on tour- looking out over the ‘refuse’ conveyer that at the time was dotted with watermelon rinds (85% percent of everything that arrives at Alpine is recycled 15% isn’t recyclable) there was shredded paper stuck to sorting equipment, and piles of it on the floor. There are an array of sorting methods from ballistic and reverse polarization to human-led hand sorting, but when it comes to tiny particles on a large scale, high-tech sorting methods just can’t handle the pieces.
Recycling: Cartons are Recyclable Too!
While things like glass, some plastic, and aluminum are well known for being recyclable, many people don’t know that you can recycle your cartons too! Things like glass and aluminum look to be of one material, whereas cartons with their lids, waxy-looking coating (it is actually polyethylene), and lining look to be made from many. However, cartons are recyclable and actually have some very cool and sustainable end products! Before you throw your cartons into your single stream bin, make sure that your local company accepts them (you can easily check by entering your zip code on the Carton Council’s website) if they are accepted near you all you need to do is rinse them, put the lid back on or push the straw inside, and pop them intact -no smashing here- into your bin! Simple as that. Now if your area unfortunately doesn’t currently accept cartons for recycling you have options as well, you can mail them in or drop them off!
What’s Different About Recycling Cartons
I was one of those people who recycled their cartons but removed what I thought was debris, like lids and straws, from the cartons before they made their way, smushed, into my bin. I thought I was making the recycling facility’s life easier by ‘doing the work for them’ but I was actually thoroughly incorrect. Like I mentioned before, caps and straws will get lost if they are not attached to the container they were purchased with, but there’s another reason as well. The end product for some cartons in the US actually uses the entirety of the carton, caps and straws as well, to create sustainable building products!
We learned two end products for cartons. The first is that the paper that goes into making cartons is top quality, so it is perfect for making fiber to create new paper products like paper towels and the like, and the second end product is a sustainable building product called ReWall. Now, you all know how much I love innovative, sustainable products, and ReWall is no exception. It is both beautiful and functional, and because the building industry is not one that will fade away, there will always be a need for new building materials! ReWall uses the entirety of the carton, polyethylene included, to create upcycled drywall, exterior sheathing, roof cover boards, flooring underlayment, and ceiling tiles that are mold and water resistant. And for a cherry on top, according to ReWall’s website, each truckload of ReWall products prevents about 300,000 cartons from hitting landfills.
Carton Recycling Goes High Tech
Earlier I mentioned that the recycling industry was evolving with the help of technology, but I would never have guessed how incredible that technology might be. During this tour with the Carton Council we were introduced to Matanya Horowitz, the founder of Amp Robotics, and his trusty robotic sidekick, Clark. While Clark doesn’t resemble C-3PO in an android-sense, he still is impressive in his own right! Clark uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology to learn, and share what he learns through a Cloud-based infrastructure, with his brother robot, Hot Dog, who currently resides in Michigan. Personally, I think Hot Dog got the short end of the stick when it comes to names, but both robots are bringing recycling into the future.
Clark uses an imaging system paired with a robotic arm fitted with a suction cup to efficiently sort cartons out of the recycling stream. Amp Robotics boasts a 95% success rate with crushed and uncrushed cartons with the remainder being hand sorted by staff at the recycling facility. However, that percentage rises when all the cartons remain uncrushed. Remember why I said to keep your cartons intact? Because Clark uses a suction cup to grip the cartons, a flat surface is preferred. And on a cooler note, flat surfaces make it easier for the imaging system to pick up brand names- information that both Clark and Hot Dog can use to make their sorting more efficient as well! Talk about learning.
Recycling into the Future
Overall, my entire experience with the Carton Council opened my eyes to the intelligence, innovative technology, and mindfulness that is required for both individuals and companies to thrive in the recycling industry. Without this experience I would have never given a second thought to my recycling after it made its way onto the truck each Wednesday at my home.
While the colloquial phrasing’s origin isn’t known, I like to paraphrase the words of American poet, philosopher, and social activist Wendell Berry, “We don’t inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children.” I wholeheartedly believe this, and hope that you take his words to heart as well. Recycling is one way we can fight to preserve this world for the generations that will come after us, and is our responsibly to the earth that sustains us. Make sure you pop over to the Carton Council website to learn more information on how you can affect change in your daily life and your community!
This post was sponsored by the Carton Council. All opinions are my own.