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Recycling Effort Increased By Letting Trash Comingle

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FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) -  This whole story started with an investigation of recycling in the airline industry. Last week CBS 11 Storm Team Meteorologist Jeff Ray did a story showing that the industry as a whole does a rather poor job recycling passenger trash (20-percent of the waste stream is diverted into the recycle bins, the rest goes to the landfill). Of course the big tragedy of this particular waste stream is that the 800,000,000 pounds a year of passenger trash is almost all recyclable. In other words, with a concentrated effort that trash could be turned into 700,000,000 pounds of reuse (my estimate).

The recycling effort would take cooperation between the following people: passengers, flight attendants, airline managers, airport officials, trash contractors and catering companies. Just to give you an idea of the unique problems commercial airplanes present to large-scale recycling, airlines own/lease a plane that passengers buy space on and then leave, using food and beverages distributed and collected by a third-party caterer, all while parking at a rented facility they don’t manage. All this repeated in 50 different cities.

This all makes it very difficult to orchestrate a concentrated and efficient recycling program. Last week I showed an effort by American Airlines flight attendants that gather at least the low hanging fruit — the very valuable aluminum cans. But it turns out one of the highest rates of recycling of any airline is being done at Southwest Airlines.

If you have flown Southwest you might have noticed flight attendants gather refuse just like you recycle (I hope) at home. They put all the recyclables in one bag and all landfill trash in another. Those bags are gathered at each airport and a contractor handles it from there. They “co-mingle” their trash.

I tracked down the company handling Southwest’s trash. Its Republic Services, their parent company Allied Waste operates most of the landfills in North Texas. They have a contract with Southwest and many area cities to process recyclables at one of their two “MURFS” (as in rhymes with “Smurfs”), or Material Recovery Facility. CBS 11 went to the facility that handles the Southwest waste stream and indeed, we saw a mountain of passenger plane trash being processed.

We were guided through the process and oddly enough, it is rather interesting. The facility costs about $25 million to build, with most of the money going to purchase line equipment. The first step is to separate the paper from the “3D” – all the plastic, glass and cans.

Manual labor is used to clean out the wet paper and clean up the bottle/can stream. A magnet line then pulls out all the tin. Another hand sort gets the plastic and glass. The cans are picked over one more time and then run into a bin.

In the old days the consumer at home did this kind of product separation. This meant on pick-up days trucks had to keep cans, glass and paper all separate. I did this at my home in Nashville until the last year when the city went with co-mingle stream (also called “single stream” in the industry). This is easier for the consumers.

When the City of Fort Worth went with the improved co-mingle system, recycling jumped from 6-percent landfill reduction to 20-percent. Making the recycling process easy for consumers (just throwing all the recyclables in one big bin and putting it out with the landfill garbage) can really start diminishing the garbage stream. San Francisco has a very aggressive mandated program and routinely hits a 70-percent waste reduction mark, the highest in the United States.

Next week I’m going to do a story on Devon Industries recycling fracking water. This is a hot-button issue with the use of chemicals in the water. They contract a company called Fountain Quail to handle all the water in an area where they are doing a lot of gas drilling.

I think my next story might be back on the co-mingle issue. One of the products we pull from the waste stream is glass. There is a problem with glass — it doesn’t have a value above the cost of shipping it anywhere. There’ll be more on that in the upcoming EcoWatch.

If you have a great story on companies working to protect the environment with energy conservation or water/waste reclamation please email me at: jaray@cbs.com.

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