How Do Recycling Companies Sort Your Trash and What Do They Do with It?

The U.S. currently generates a total of 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) every day. Of that, just 69 million tons were recycled and 25 million tons were composted, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, resulting in a recycling and composting rate of approximately 32.1 percent. Corporations and warehouses have a responsibility to limit the amount of waste they put into landfills that release methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Even if your facility recycles, it’s hard to know how much of these materials actually end up being recycled.

Many items meant for recycling wind up in the landfill for all sorts of reasons. Some facilities can’t process certain types of materials so they will usually just incinerate or throw them away instead. Food particles and other types of waste can also contaminate your recyclables, which can prevent large batches of items from being recycled.

Learn more about the recycling process to make sure your materials don’t wind up in the trash by mistake.

How the Recycling Industry Has Changed

The U.S. recycling industry was upended in 2018 when China implemented its “National Sword” policy, effectively banning the imports of many recycled materials. China once processed half of the world’s MSW, using these materials as fodder for the country’s emerging manufacturing industry. But many of these materials weren’t recycled, as the U.S. and other countries were led to believe, due to contamination. China ended up having to dispose of these materials, polluting its oceans and natural resources.

Now that the China ban is in effect, the U.S. has had to find other ways to get rid of its plastic waste. The United States started shipping waste to other countries looking for raw industrial materials, including Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, but these nations don’t have the resources to properly recycle these items.

The recent ban isn’t all bad news. It has spurred innovation in the domestic recycling industry, but the U.S. is still lacking much of the infrastructure needed to properly recycle these materials. Companies, residents and municipalities once made money off their recycling by selling it to other companies, but it is now usually more expensive to recycle materials than it is to just throw them away.

What Happens to Your Recycling?

When your company recycles plastic, paper and glass, it is picked up by a local recycling company. The company will haul away your items in a large truck. It then drops off these items at a local material processing facility. Before the truck unloads these materials, the company will weigh the contents to see how much they are collecting. This will typically affect the company’s bottom line, especially if they are selling the waste to another company.

Workers will usually inspect the load to make sure it is clean enough to be processed. Assuming it isn’t filled with trash or food waste, the heap gets loaded onto a conveyor belt for automatic sorting. The materials are usually mixed together in the same machine to save time. Automated sorting systems will then divide the materials into three categories: plastic, paper and glass. Paper items usually slide over openings or holes where other materials would fall through. Glass is the heaviest, so it usually falls into a bin and breaks before moving onto the processing stage. Metal items may be collected using a magnet.

The materials are also rinsed to rid them of any contaminants. Workers will also do a final pass and remove any items unfit for recycling. Items are finally sorted according to size. Most items get broken down into small pieces. The materials are then packaged and grouped for delivery.

Recycling companies treat recycling as a commodity. They will sell the waste to manufacturers that use these items as raw materials. Market prices vary based on economic conditions and demand for recycled materials. If the company can’t find a seller, it may have to pay to dispose of the materials. When demand for recycled materials is low, many recycling companies and municipalities scale back their recycling programs or raise their standards in terms of what items they will accept.

Source: Vitpho/

How to Improve the Recycling Process

You can increase the chances of your recycling being accepted by making sure these items are clean before placing them in a bin. Keep trash, dirt and food waste away from the recycling container. Consider storing your recycling in a metal bin with a lid to prevent pedestrians from using your recycling bin as a trash can. Always separate your materials according to the recycling company’s specifications. Don’t assume the company will sort it for you. They may throw the entire load in the trash unless it meets their requirements.

The best way to limit your company’s municipal solid waste is to reduce the number of items you put in the trash or recycling bin in the first place. Utilize reusable storage and shipping containers that will last for years on end before eventually being recycled. For example, you can ship consumer goods and raw industrial materials in drum barrels instead of cardboard boxes or disposable plastic bags. Use these items to reduce your dependence on the local recycling system and save your business money by reusing shipping containers. Some companies may not be able to recycle your waste if there isn’t a market for recyclable materials.

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