After your hauler picks up your trash and recycling, or you deposit it at a transfer station, what happens to it? This question has taken on more importance as landfill space in the northeast dwindles, and China restricts recycling imports.
Trash from western Massachusetts primarily goes to landfills, with some also going to waste to energy facilities (incinerators that generate power). The only operating landfill in western Massachusetts in Chicopee is closing this year, which means that our trash increasingly goes to other states. Currently most of it goes to New York State — to three different landfills and one waste to energy plant. Trash from Massachusetts also goes to New Hampshire, Maine, and even as far as Ohio.
Once collected, your recycling goes to the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility (MRF), where it is sorted and baled. That’s if you have dual stream recycling (paper and containers collected separately). Single stream (all-in-one) recycling goes to a separate facility in Springfield, where it is transferred to a MRF in eastern Massachusetts to be sorted and baled. Employees at the MRF comb through the recycling as it moves along a conveyer belt, pulling out any trash or items that shouldn’t be there, and then various mechanisms separate the items by materials type: Mixed paper, cardboard, aluminum, steel, glass, cartons, and different kinds of plastic.
The Springfield MRF is owned by the Commonwealth and is currently operated by Waste Management Recycles America. As recyclable material is sorted and baled, marketing and sales specialists at Waste Management contract with buyers for the material.
Most of the paper and cardboard from the MRF regularly goes to a buyer in eastern Massachusetts, where it is either processed into new material or sold again to be processed elsewhere. It is fortunate that there is a dependable market, since in some areas bales of recyclable paper are sitting in storage, with China no longer taking them and no new buyers lined up. It helps that dual stream collection tends to produce a high quality paper product, due to the paper and cardboard staying separate from containers and residual food.
Other materials go to different buyers depending on the price they offer at the time, so it is difficult to track where they go. Generally, this is the process they go through and the materials they become:
■Aluminum and steel are sold to processors where they are shredded, melted, and cooled into ingots that are then flattened into sheets or rolls to be used again as new cans or for vehicles.
■Glass is separated by color and sold to processors who crush it, and sell the crushed glass to be made into new containers or used for materials such as tile or cement.
■Plastic is separated by type, such as PET or HDPE, and sold to processors where it is shredded into flakes or pellets to be made into materials such as fabric, carpeting, plastic pipes, or new containers.
As long as you are recycling correctly, the items from your bin ARE being recycled and used again, saving money, energy, and natural resources, and reducing your carbon footprint. Visit the Springfield MRF’s webpage (springfieldmrf.org) or Facebook page to learn more about which materials are collected for recycling.
Mimi Kaplan is the waste reduction coordinator for the Town of Amherst Department of Public Works.