published Monday, May 9th, 2011

Technology eases recyclers’ workload

Rosemary Varner pulls a cart into the Signal Mountain recycling center Wednesday afternoon. The center recently switched to single-stream recycling, which means not having to separate recyclables into paper, glass, plastic and metal.
Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Rosemary Varner pulls a cart into the Signal Mountain recycling center Wednesday afternoon. The center recently switched to single-stream recycling, which means not having to separate recyclables into paper, glass, plastic and metal. Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press

A mountain of dirty tin cans, old newspapers and sticky soda bottles is piled nearly to the ceiling of RockTenn’s two-story recycling facility on Main Street.

About 7,000 tons of unsorted recyclable material — stored in 5-by-2-by-3-foot cubes — fill an adjoining warehouse.

The mountain of trash will be slowly, steadily pulled onto a brand-new $3 million machine that sorts the junk into neat piles of papers, plastics and metals.

More recyclables will come in, though, and the process will start over again.

“It’s the future of recycling. It’s where everybody’s going,” plant general manager Jeff Snyder said. “It’s huge. Your kids won’t have to worry about where they put their trash 20 years from now.”

But it’s not the advanced technology that makes this machine futuristic; it’s the convenience it provides recyclers.

Signal Mountain’s recycling center on Taft Highway once required recyclers to sort their plastic, metal and paper into various containers, but it switched to unsorted “single stream” when RockTenn got its new machine. Recyclers now just drop off whole bags — quick and easy.

“I think it’s jim dandy,” Signal Mountain resident John Garrett said as he dropped off his recycling. “Now there’s no excuse for people not to recycle.”

In the month since the switch, the town has seen about the same 1,000 to 1,300 weekly recyclers, but center supervisor Jimmy Burgess said they drop off significantly more volume.

Though data wasn’t available for this year’s recycling, in the last three months of 2010, Signal Mountain residents recycled more than 240 tons of materials. But even with a volume increase, Burgess said residents should do more.

“There’s still too much going down to the landfill. The town has to pay to get rid of that, and they’re paid for this,” he said, looking out from his office to the center’s large green bins filled with recyclables.

Signal Mountain contracts with RockTenn, a paper and packaging company that also operates recycling facilities, to repackage, market and sell the material it recycles. Several production companies such as paper mills then buy the materials and use them to make new plastic, paper, aluminum and steel products.

The program’s cost fluctuates regularly as material prices rise and fall. Recycling cost Signal Mountain about $1,500 in October and $780 in November, but it brought in more than $4,000 in December.

Burgess said the program typically costs the town money, but with the changes he thinks recycling will regularly earn money.

“It’s getting close to operating in the black. I want to see this place operating in the black within a year,” he said.

Snyder wouldn’t give any revenue numbers for the facility, but with the majority of Hamilton County’s recycling untapped, he said the company “knew it was the right thing to do.”

The Main Street plant doesn’t get Chattanooga’s curbside recycling — that goes to the Orange Grove Center, where it’s hand sorted — but it does take refuse from several businesses, collection bins across the Chattanooga area and towns such as Chickamauga, Ga., and Signal Mountain.

Once the materials are brought to RockTenn, they’re run across a conveyer belt where workers pick out cardboard, loose plastic bags and unrecyclable trash. The remainder is dropped onto rapidly rotating metal poles with black rubber studs, which push everything but paper up and into the machine’s glass crusher.

A steady stream of flashing broken glass rains from the crusher into a bin while the remaining plastics and metals are scanned by a computer that activates air jets, shooting specific plastics into a pile of their own.

After three workers sort the remaining plastic, magnets pull up steel cans, and an eddy current — sort of a reverse magnet — shoots the aluminum into its own pile and the process is finished.

“If I was an aluminum can,” Snyder said, “it would take me about two minutes to do the whole process.”

And that kind of speed — both at the plant and at the dropoff site — is what officials hope will make recycling a success in Signal Mountain.

Walking around the dropoff center in Signal Mountain, Burgess said he hopes people enjoy their brief time there.

“You try to make it a pleasant experience to come here,” Burgess said, “not a chore.”

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