Flint — Line workers at Averill Recycling work furiously at the end of the conveyor belt, picking out the aluminum and clear plastic containers amongst the garbage that drops into a large dumpster below.
The pieces they pick out fall through the floor into more bins, 15 feet down. The front part of the conveyor is where good “recovered fiber” or cardboard is removed.
The ground below is muddy and strewn with post-consumer debris, and flanked by tall piles of loose plastic and paper. Tall 30-yard dumpsters form a maze around the facility. Small Bobcat fork trucks push bales into piles to be shipped later.
“We’re cleaning up the city,” said Dion Telorick, of Grand Blanc, while on morning break. Workers start every day at 5 a.m.
The balmy climate is better this time of year for yard and line workers. The winter is “cold and slippery,” said yard worker Michelle Smetana.
This is where curbside consumer recyclables end up. Once a bin is picked up by the recycling truck, the materials are eventually moved onto a conveyor belt, and hand sorted by the 15 or so people. Averill Recycling also sorts 15 to 18 trucks per day, processing around 100,000 pounds, said Boyt Johnson, president.
Different paper types are sorted into their specific bins and are eventually crammed into 1,200-pound bales.
The material ends up being sent to the corresponding mill for the specific material. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), the recovery rate for paper was nearly 65 percent in 2010, valued at $8.9 billion. These recovered fibers end up being new newspaper and packaging and 77 percent of materials come from recycled sources. The going rate for newspaper and cardboard is $1 per 100 pounds.
No matter the material, it is sorted into its type, and baled together.
Johnson ships the materials once they reach 40,000 pounds. He sends them to wherever he can get the most money. This could be the Midwest or around the world. “If it’s $10 more a ton, I’m going to sell it for $10 more, it doesn’t matter the location,” he said. Some prices, like paper, are better in China than the U.S.
According to the ISRI, plastics recycling grew 9 percent steadily from 1950 to 2009. Plastics made from recycled material are far more energy efficient than producing “virgin” plastic. Recycled plastics end up being used for imitation wood, the sprocket of a wheel, or in various appliances around the home.
Johnson recycles many things, but not glass. “It’s a hazardous thing,” he said. “We have people sorting on a conveyor. With glass you get cut very often.” Not only can people get cut, they also may not know what they can be infected with. After all the sorting, packaging and shipping, he would only get around $8 a ton.
His favorite part of business is 4:30 p.m. With a laugh he said quickly, “No, I enjoy this business, it’s a daily challenge. It’s much harder to make a dollar than it ever has been.”
His costs are higher, while the profits are slimming, a common problem today. His business is easy to explain, but tough to stay in.
Recyclers are licensed through the U.S. Department of Environmental Quality annually.
Johnson said the business changes with the economy and with the ups and downs of production. “I think we lost 80,000 families from this county in the last 10 years,” he said. This means fewer people recycling and less volume.
The business must sort and package to the specifications of the “end user,” the person buying the materials in bulk, said Boyt Johnson Jr, vice president and son of Boyt Johnson. Some buyers might allow 5 percent contaminants or other materials amongst their cardboard, while others may be more flexible.
“It’s not a perfect science,” he said. As the industry fluctuates, the end user may tighten their standards or lower prices to the point where there is no profit in sending the materials. “It’s poker game,” he said. “It’s very interesting, you don’t go to college and get a degree in recycling.” It’s an expensive business to be in, with labor and equipment. Environmentally, it may be a wash with heavy equipment running to move materials.
“It’s very questionable where the industry is going to go,” he said, adding that a mandatory recycling law could be in the future. “Our landfills can only handle so much material.”