Great Adventures to the Recycling Plant

Spring 2013

Ever wondered what happens to your recycling once it leaves the blue bin? We did, so we toured Waste Management's recycling plant, where UChicago's recycling ends up.

We came, we saw, we recycled

A group of 12 students and staff met at the Young Building on a Tuesday morning. We headed south on I-94 and arrived in about 20 minutes. It's a gargantuan building nestled among the rolling hills of a former soil landfill. There, representatives from Waste Management ushered us inside and to a conference room.

We viewed live video feeds of different areas of the plant. We watched how recycling passes through a series of automatic and manual filters that separate the different types of waste such as plastic bottles and paper. The scale of the operation is stunning -- you can get a sense from this video of a similar plant in Philadelphia

What can I recycle in the bins on campus?

We also had many of our toughest recycling questions answered. Single-stream recycling, the all-encompassing kind we have at UChicago, can be boiled down to a few principles:

1) No need to stress! You can recycle paper, plastic, metal, and glass of all types in the same bin. (Yes, even 6 & 7.)
2) Items should be pretty much emptied of food and reasonably clean.
3) Plastic bags and plastic film like Saran Wrap are definitely Don'ts. The film gums up the cogs of the sorting machinery. Try to use reusable bags instead of plastic bags, and recycle plastic bags in the bins at grocery stores.
4) Caps should be left attached to bottles—otherwise, they fall through recycling filters at the plant to the floor and end up getting thrown away.

When faced with the scale of such a system, a little peanut butter on the side of the jar is not a problem. Same with a few grease stains in the pizza box. "If in doubt, recycle it" is the main message.

And we toured...

After our meeting we put on hard hats, safety vests, and earplugs, and had a chance to tour the plant. It was deafeningly loud, and the machines were three stories high. The raw power was incredible.

After our tour, we took some photos in front of the piles of sorted recyclables. (One such picture is above.) It was a great experience, and we're planning to return next year. Interested in joining us for our Waste Management recycling facility tour in 2014? Just email Sony to reserve your spot.