New recycling machinery makes it easier for residents to be green 

When it comes to saving the planet, convenience is everything.

Rethink Waste’s recycling plant in San Carlos, which reopened in January, now uses high-tech machinery to separate paper, glass and metal so customers can toss materials into a single bin.

Since reopening, there has been a 34 percent increase in glass, metal, paper and plastic recycled from the 92,000 households in Rethink Waste’s service area, said operations manager Hilary Gans. That increase coincides with the switch from customers using two 18-gallon cartons — one for glass, plastic and metal containers, and one for paper — to a single 64-gallon blue bin for all recyclables.

Pat Gray, a resident of Burlingame, said the new system makes recycling easier.

“We used to have separate bins, but we just have one great big bucket and all the stuff goes in it,” she said.

The amount of trash diverted from the landfill also is up, from 50 percent in 2010 to 66 percent since January, said Mario Puccinelli, general manager of Recology San Mateo County, which Rethink Waste hires to transport garbage on its new fleet of 200 trucks. “Without the new sorting machinery, none of this would be economically possible,” said Gans.

Rethink Waste — a joint-powers authority serving 12 San Mateo County cities, including Burlingame, Redwood City and San Mateo — spent $16 million on the new sorting machines at its revamped Shoreway Environmental Center.

The 70,000-square-foot sorting station is packed with a pin-ball-machinelike network of humming conveyor belts, multicolored chutes and workers who sort recyclables into neatly packaged bales destined to become new products.

The machines, custom designed for Rethink Waste by Bulk Handling Systems, do 90 percent of the sorting, while some 50 workers — many of them hired through the county’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services — do the rest.

There are numerous skylights throughout the new building that save on lighting and shine a hazy glow on the plant’s prize machine: a $250,000 bright-red device larger than a pickup truck that does the work of 20 men.

The machine uses infrared scanners to identify and separate each different type of plastic. As containers speed toward the machine’s gaping mouth along a black, tonguelike conveyor belt, a video camera analyzes them before blasting air that pushes plastic bottles into separate chutes.

Elsewhere, a massive magnet draws up cans and other metal, and a series of whirring disks fling paper upward, allowing only heavier containers to slip through narrow openings below.

Rethink Waste began the $46 million renovation of its 16-acre complex three years ago with the aim of capturing more recyclables, said outreach manager Monica Devincenzi. The sorting station was rebuilt for seismic safety while the old traffic-ridden public drop-off center has been expanded to make visiting the facility to dispose of recyclables, batteries or paint more convenient.

Some 50 trucks take trash that accumulates from sorting to the landfill in Half Moon Bay, and yard trimmings are brought to composting plants.

The environmental center’s new structures will soon be topped with solar panels capable of generating 45 percent of the complex’s energy needs and saving $2.1 million in energy costs over the next 20 years, said Devincenzi.

Late last year, Rethink Waste also started accepting food waste along with yard waste in its green composting bins. That has helped increase the amount of organic material recycled by 30 percent since January. Businesses need to be more careful not to put plastic bags in the bins, however, and should use bioplastics available at Costco or Safeway, Devincenzi said.

Rethink Waste, which is also called the South Bayside Waste Management Authority, will hold a grand reopening of its plant and recycling education center in September.

Plastic bags the bane of recycling sorters

Rethink Waste’s state-of-the-art facility can work wonders when it comes to sorting recyclables — but even the primo machines need a human touch.

Workers who pick nonrecyclables off the machines’ conveyer belts say they’ve found basketballs, sex toys, pillows, furniture — even a hog’s head.

Yet the worst thing for the machines is film plastic — especially plastic bags, which wrap around the rotating gears and cause the machines to shut down at least once a day, said plant operations manager Hilary Gans.

Other no-nos include ceramic cups, shards of which can jam machines, and items made from various types of plastic such as toys or remote controls.

Although the machines won’t choke on food-soiled paper, it can't be used to make new paper products because recyclables must be reasonably pure before incineration lest structural weaknesses occur in remade products, said Rethink outreach manager Monica Devincenzi.

Once sorted, the plant compresses recyclable materials into aluminum, tin, clear plastic, colored plastic and various paper cubes that weigh about 1,200 pounds each. These are then sold to be used to make new products.

The metal is mostly sold to domestic markets while the paper is shipped out of Oakland’s port, primarily to China, where it sells for around $200 a ton, said Gans. Such paper bales are the largest export from many U.S. ports, Gans said.

Rethink Waste makes about $10 million a year selling recycled materials. That money goes to reducing the cost of trash handling and disposal.

Trash talk

Money in, money out
$10 million: What Rethink Waste makes in a year selling recycled material
$46 million: Cost of renovations and machines (funded with a $56 million bond issued by Rethink Waste)
$16 million: Cost of machines
45 percent: Energy needs supplied by solar panels planned for Shoreway rooftops
$2.1 million: Energy cost savings from solar panels over the next 20 years

Recent improvements
30 percent: Household recycling increase since January
16 percent: Increase from last year in trash diversion from landfills
93 percent: Recyclable materials captured after coming into plant

Rethink Waste’s Shoreway Environmental Center
- Serves 92,000 residences and 10,000 businesses in the cities of Belmont, Burlingame, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Menlo Park, Redwood City, San Carlos and San Mateo; the towns of Atherton and Hillsborough; and the West Bay Sanitary District
- Six days a week the public can drop off garbage, compost, recyclables, waste oil, oil filters, electronics, batteries, paint, scrap metal and syringes, among other items, at 225-333 Shoreway Road in San Carlos.

Don't put these items in the blue recycle bins
Film plastics such as plastic bags, porcelain, food-soiled paper, items constructed with multiple materials

Sources: Rethink Waste, Recology of San Mateo County

nkyriakou@sfexaminer.com

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