A Day in the Life at a Recycling Facility

Meet Moe.
Okay, his real name is Ed but “Ed Says No” just didn’t have the same ring to it. You may recognize Ed (er, Moe) from the Recycle Smart social channels reminding you what wacky items shouldn’t go in your recycling bin.
Ed is the plant manager at one of our Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) here in Massachusetts. We asked him to share what a typical day looks like for him at the MRF (pronounced “murf”) to help us better understand what happens to our recyclables after we place them in the bin.
Here’s what we learned:
4:30 AM
Operations at the recycling facility are up and running. Ed checks his cameras at home and has his cell phone on to make sure the first shift of the day is off to a good start. The first shift staff, which includes loader operators, forklift operators, baler operators, sorters, a technician, and a shift supervisor, have already clocked-in, geared up, and are starting to process any materials on the “tip floor” from the day before.
5:30 AM
Ed heads into the facility. He’s ready to deal with any issues as they arise. This is his primary role – to help solve problems and keep the facility running.
6:00 AM
Trucks filled with recyclable materials start arriving. After picking up the recyclables from your neighborhood or business, they head to the recycling facility and unload the recyclable material onto the tip floor. The loader operators then scoop up these recyclables and “feed” the sorting system.

The recyclables are funneled onto a conveyor belt and run through a series of manual and machine-based sorts to separate recyclables by the different material types – aluminum, steel, paper, cardboard, glass, and various plastics. The employees on the sorting line have to work quickly to catch any items that will shut down the machines – like plastic bags, plastic cling wrap, case wrap, wires, chains, or garden hoses.

As materials continue through the sorting process, the baler operators oversee the process of tightly compressing and securing the sorted recyclable items for shipping.
Forklift operators then move the bales of recyclables and load them onto outbound trucks that will take the materials to a secondary processor. Once the bales reach the secondary processor, they will be cleaned, processed, and converted into a feedstock for manufacturing new products.
2:00 PM
The first shift is done for the day and staff head home for a well-earned nap. It’s time for the team of technicians to make any machinery repairs needed to keep things running for the second shift.

The second shift begins and a new team of loader operators, forklift operators, baler operators, sorters, shift supervisor, and technician continue processing the ever-growing pile of recyclables coming in.
The shift technician monitors operations, reports any problems, schedules repairs, and ensures all the necessary parts are on hand for repairs.
4:00 PM
Trucks have finally stopped arriving to unload recyclables but there is still a large pile of material to process on the tip floor. Sorting, baling, and loading operations continue.
12:30 AM
Depending on the amount of inbound material to process and how smoothly machines were running throughout the day – operations wrap up anytime between 10:30 PM and 12:30 AM. The second shift team then heads out and a team of technicians start machinery repairs that couldn’t be addressed during operational hours.
The next day – the cycle repeats again.
What’s one item you wish everyone knew not to put in the recycling bin?
Propane tanks and lithium batteries. If you run over one of these with a loader or it gets crushed in a baler – these items will catch on fire.
Ed, understandably, had a hard time narrowing it down to just one item. He mentioned all the top five “not in the bin” items on the Smart Recycling Guide (bagged recyclables, plastic bags, food and liquids, clothing and linens, and tanglers), but given that it’s his job to handle problems like fires at the facility and he’d like to keep everyone at the facility safe – propane tanks and batteries were top of mind.
What is one valuable material that you wish you got more of?
Aluminum. Aluminum can be recycled an unlimited number of times and those metal food and beverage cans are the most valuable materials in your recycling bin. While many people know beverage cans are recyclable (and often redeemable), clean aluminum baking trays, pet food cans, aluminum foil, and pie pans are also recyclable.
DYK? According to the Aluminum Association, during WWII, aluminum was so critical for defense efforts that in many towns, balls of aluminum foil could be exchanged for a free entry to a movie theater.
Our takeaway?
Recycling takes a village! There are many essential workers behind-the-scenes making recycling happen. It’s also clear just how important it is that we recycle the right things. Your “wish-cycling” can really put a wrench in recycling operations – that garden hose or chain could shut down the sorting lines for up to 6 hours while machines are untangled and repaired (assuming any replacement parts needed are on hand). That battery pack – if run over by a forklift could lead to even more serious setbacks and even injure workers.

Are you a master recycler? Now you can see how your recycling knowledge stacks up with the new Recycle Smart quiz. This two-minute crash course is guaranteed to make you a smarter recycler.  Don’t forget to share your results & challenge your friends and family!

Rowdy the Riverhawk joins sustainability ambassadors at UMass Lowell who are assisting students and staff with properly sorting their waste on campus.

The Riverhawks are taking smart recycling seriously. This past year, students at UMass Lowell audited recycling bins across several buildings on campus, “right-sized” the recycling system in University Crossing (the 230,000-square foot complex that is the main hub of student activity), ensured strategic placement of new ergonomically and environmentally friendly recycling containers with clear signage, and launched an educational campaign to help students, staff, and faculty learn about what does (and doesn’t) belong in the recycling bin.
From table cards throughout campus, stickers on all the recycling bins, posters, tabling in the atrium, displays on Hawkii (the universities’ large screen monitors), and even signs in the restroom stalls throughout University Crossing – the Office of Sustainability made sure every Riverhawk got the message – what you put in your bin matters.
To date, hundreds of students, staff, and faculty have attended in-person trainings focused on proper waste disposal on campus. These trainings prominently feature Recycle Smart MA and encourage attendees to use the Recyclopedia in order to figure out if an item is recyclable or not.
Recycling on a college or university campus is challenging. The University of Massachusetts Lowell, led by Environmental & Sustainability Waste Management Coordinator, Pamela Beckvagni and a team of dedicated students, is rising to this challenge and is a true “binspiration” to all of us.

What We're Reading:

The Recycle Smart team would like to express our deep gratitude to the thousands of workers who collect and sort our recyclables each day across the Commonwealth.


Keep Safe & Recycle Smart,

The Recycle Smart Team at MassDEP