Inside American Waste
By Beth Milligan | Oct. 21, 2019
A failed 2012 experiment bore nearly 50-year-old waste hauler — and environmentally conscious northerners — American Waste some unexpected fruit: a series of massive machines that can take in and tackle more recyclable materials than most any system in the nation. In this week's Northern Express, sister publication of The Ticker, writer Patrick Sullivan follows the waste stream to uncover the truth about greasy pizza boxes, propane tank bombs, Up North’s voracious appetite for paper, and that longtime nemesis of the Great Lakes: plastic bags.
What American Waste has built in a giant building just south of Traverse City is a behemoth, a factory in reverse, one that takes finished, discarded products, and turns them into imperfect raw materials that’s packed tightly into cubes to be delivered elsewhere and transformed into new items. What happens there is important for a lot of reasons, but foremost for people who live in northern Lower Michigan because it informs how residents recycle. American Waste’s recycling machines take some items and not others; many items need to be discarded in a specific way, or they could contaminate an entire load of recycling — or worse, shut down the entire operation.
That’s why American Waste hired Deb Lake, who oversaw the transformation of the Traverse City Film Festival from its beginnings as a rag-tag lark into an international mainstay of filmdom, to explain it.
“I talk about how a lot of people don’t know that 80 percent of items that are buried in landfills could have been recycled, and then I make my big confession — which is true, but it’s a good hook for the thing — which is: Before American Waste hired me to do this, I didn’t recycle,” Lake says. Lake has since found Jesus when it comes to recycling, and she composts, too. She said there’s almost nothing she tosses into the trash these days.
In recycling centers, glass and hazardous items are removed early on in the process from other items, which is when the real sorting begins — yet another process that can be complicated by what people put in their recycling bin, even if those items are recyclable. It’s not their fault; many people don’t know. But there are tons of recyclable material rendered useless simply because they're attached to some other kind of recyclable material. For example, take a glass juice bottle with a metal cap screwed on to it. Each item is fine to put into the recycling bin individually, but not screwed together; somewhere in the stream, they have to be separated, and there’s a good chance that’s not going to happen on the line at the plant. The material moves too fast for a worker to pick up a bottle, uncap it, and let it go on its way. Both piece should be separated before they go into the bin, Lake says.
Cardboard is another interesting challenge. It might seem that years of seeing recycling centers signs warning people that pizza boxes can’t be recycled have inured people to the idea, but Lake says that’s not true. If a pizza box is relatively clean, free of chunks of cheese, and not too greasy, it can be recycled. “It’s the grease. So, if this is a huge greasy mess, and it’s really soaked through, and there’s cheese, then, yeah, that’s food — we don’t want that. That has to be thrown away,” Lake says. But if it’s just a light stain on a box? Recycle it.
The fact that American Waste takes almost all consumer recyclables happened by accident. An experiment the company launched in 2012 to sort through all incoming garbage in search of anything worth saving proved unworkable after less than a year. But the complex system and machinery they designed and built for that experiment meant they were capable of sorting through many materials few other recyclers allow. Unlike in most recycling regions, people in northern Michigan can recycle plastic grocery bags, plastic packaging wrap, and even plastic film, albeit with an important caveat: the bags and all other plastic materials are themselves bagged, so that none of it can become a “tangler.”
Read more about the complex behind-the-scenes world of recycling — and insights on how to guarantee your used products actually stay out of landfills — in this week's Northern Express story, "Inside American Waste." The Northern Express is available to read online and on newsstands at nearly 700 spots in 14 counties across northern Michigan.