Look inside a recycling factory
I’ve recently taken two groups of North Melbourne residents, including some of our Recycle Now Recycle Champions, to SKM Recycling in Coolaroo to learn more about what happens after we put our household recycling products into the recycling bin.
These field trips, as always, have been really worthwhile and interesting. I’ve been taking people to SKM for years now because they kindly offer Environment Victoria free tours and this particular recycling factory allows the visitor to witness the entire fascinating process. It’s not actually recycling they do at SKM. It is a Materials Recovery Facility or MRF, meaning they sort through all the mixed materials we put into our recycling bins and separate them into carefully baled squares of one product – paper, one type of plastic, aluminium – or into landscaped hills of crushed glass, ready to be sent elsewhere for recycling.
What these two groups of North Melbourne residents tended to come away with after their hour in the noisy, dusty, dirty, dangerous factory (grinding machines, whirring wheels, broken glass underfoot) is the new realisation that all those things we just throw into our recycling bins don’t just go away and get dealt with simply, but that it is a complicated, expensive, energy-intensive and human-powered process.
Different materials are sorted by a huge factory-full of machines, some which sort by weight – blowing lighter materials like paper off in one direction – or by optic sensors, or by shaking the materials so that small heavy items like glass fall in another direction. Materials are moved around and stored in different areas by different type. All this takes energy, lots of it.
Another massive energy consuming (and greenhouse polluting) aspect of our recycling system is the transportation. Every day, we’re told, around 180 trucks full of materials arrive at SKM from all around metro Melbourne. We watched several in our short time in the viewing room: big, full Council trucks entering and slowly dumping a mini mountain of colourful products which are quickly pushed into the factory room by little loader trucks. The Council truck leaves to go pick up another load from households, while another, followed by another, enter. SKM sorts through about 1,000 tonnes of materials every single day. About 10% of this is not recyclable and has to be driven to landfill sites: this is about 80 tonnes of rejected material going to landfill every day.
Think of all the petrol used to transport these materials: from your house through your neighbourhood to SKM, driving back to the Council depot, driving the leftover rubbish from SKM to the landfill site, day after day.
Most people come away from the excursion talking animatedly about learning that real people work in the factory, and that their job is very challenging. SKM has 100, 50 people per shift, who operate the machines and also perform the very vital first task of hand-picking non-recyclable materials off a fast-moving conveyor belt carrying an endless stream of items. Moving non-stop they quickly pick off plastic bags mostly, the number one thing that people wrongly put in their recycling bins. Also they have to pick off buckets, car batteries, polystyrene, long ropes of video cassette tape, all sorts of products that people either unknowingly or thoughtlessly put out for recycling.
At today’s visit, several people said that despite the harsh conditions they’d like to work at the factory. They also said that they think that now they’ve seen how recycling works, they can trust the process, but that the more contaminants involved, the harder the workers’ jobs and so they want to tell everyone how important it is to get recycling right.
“It is very good, and also very important. We know now that people work in these conditions. Their job is hard, they have to be strong. It makes me think that we should not just throw things in the recycling bin without thinking if they should really go in there or not.”
– Rawhia (Recycle Champion)
“You should put something on Channel 7 or Channel 9, about half an hour or ten minutes. Or even on 60 Minutes. About the people working, how they people work [in the factory] and how the recycling works. Show what is the story. Because not everyone can come here to see it.”
– Lisa (Recycle Champion)
“This is more based on technology. A higher way of recycling materials. In our country of origin we do it differently. They bury it in a hole and put it inside. Here it is different. But the smell [in the factory], a little bit hard for us. The people who are [working in the factory], they are strong people. They are doing very hard work. We should appreciate their work. We should learn from that. We should do the right things. We should not put the plastic bags [in the recycling bin]. We should not give them more [work to do]. We should separate the things: the material that should be in the yellow bin; the material that should be in the red bin. We should not mix these things. We should tell our community that people should be recycling the right things. We have seen this kind of work, it is very hard. It is noisy, it is hard, it is smelly. We should respect them, we should do the right thing. We should cooperate with the people and protect the environment also.”
– Sultan (Recycle Champion)