The greedy machinery thumps, clanks, whirs and growls.
Conveyor belts whisk along plastic bottles. Massive disks lift slabs of cardboard. A magnet plucks out metal cans.
Every day, 150 trucks pull up to the rear of the cavernous Blue Mountain facility in Grays Ferry and disgorge mountains of recyclables from the city and portions of the suburbs. Last year, it totaled 120,000 tons - enough to fill Lincoln Financial Field from the turf to the top row seven times over.
The place is about to get more.
Today, Philadelphia begins its latest experiment in trying to goose the household recycling rate toward 25 percent.
An awards-based program run by RecycleBank, a national company started by Germantown Academy graduate Ron Gonen, is debuting in North Philadelphia. It will expand to the rest of the city month by month.
Its proponents say recycling is not only good for the environment by conserving resources and saving landfill space, it's also economical. Currently, the city pays $64 a ton to landfill material, but Blue Mountain pays the city $5.03 a ton for recyclables - a $69.03 differential.
"A year ago at this time, we were paying $32 a ton" to Blue Mountain, says Scott McGrath, the city's acting recycling coordinator. "It's a huge improvement. Some of the commodity markets have improved as much as 30 to 40 percent over the past year."
In the early days of recycling, people had to sort everything into different bins, even to the point of separating glass by color.
Now, the technology has progressed so that "single-stream recycling" is possible.
The thinking is that people will recycle more stuff if it's more convenient. If they don't have to sort it.
Indeed, ever since the city instituted single-stream recycling and weekly pickup on the same day that trash is collected, the recycling rate has steadily risen. In December, the city set another new record, collecting 9,442 tons of recyclables for a diversion rate of 18 percent, up from 7 percent at the start of 2008.
However, given the hash of materials all in one bucket, many still wonder how it gets processed. Here is the itinerary:
At Blue Mountain, front-end loaders shove the recyclables into huge mountains, a rattling, colorful mosaic of containers and papers.
Blue Mountain, which is considered a typical single-stream facility, was constructed in 2000 and in 2005 was sold for an undisclosed sum to Casella Waste Systems, based in Vermont. It would cost nearly $20 million to build a similar facility today, says Shannon Detweiler, head of business development for Blue Mountain.
The stuff makes its entrance at the top of the 1,600-square-foot building, where workers correct the first mistake many recyclers make: putting things into plastic bags.
The workers have to break apart the bags and dump the contents.
But from here, gravity, geometry and physics take over.
"Think of it as a factory in reverse," says Detweiler, shouting over the din as she walks past a giant baler that compresses the end products and wires them into blocks roughly as big as two refrigerators.
"Rather than assembling items, we're actually disassembling them into their basic component parts."
Others have said the process is like unscrambling an egg.
The cardboard comes out of the stream first. Because of its large, flat surfaces, it floats atop large rollers, while everything else falls through.
Next out is the paper. Because it is two-dimensional, it rides up the spinning discs that line the side of a V-shaped trough.
The cans, bottles and other containers wind up in a large agitator that shakes everything so that the glass breaks and falls out the bottom.
Then everything passes under a large magnet, which pulls out the tin cans.
A conveyor belt whisks the remaining plastic and aluminum past three optical sorters - installed as part of a $4 million upgrade to the plant a year ago.
Infrared light hits the plastic and a computer records which wavelengths the material absorbs, identifying the differing fingerprints of the PET plastic in soda and water bottles, the colored HDPE plastic in detergent bottles and the whitish HDPE plastic in milk jugs.
A fourth optical sorter has been installed in anticipation of the day when the facility can accept additional plastic material - 3 through 7, according to the numeric markings in the small recycling triangle on the package.
Blue Mountain doesn't accept them now, Detweiler said, because there are no reliable markets for the material.
Finally, the last remnants of the stream head down a conveyor belt where, at the end, the residue falls off and the aluminum cans, repelled by a powerful "rare earth magnet" underneath, are flicked away.
On a day with no rain, which means the recyclables are mostly dry, the equipment can sort it with up to 95 percent accuracy, Detweiler says. And on a rainy day? She shrugs sadly and notes, "Less."
If all this is refuse coming in, it becomes resource going out.
Bales of newspaper, plastic bottles and smashed aluminum cans - yes, the area smells like beer - await a truck or train trip to other processing facilities.
Aluminum cans - roughly 80 tons a month - end up at Anheuser-Busch. In about 45 days, they're back on the shelf as new cans.
Bob Anderson, business development director for Casella's FCR Recycling, which owns Blue Mountain, is fond of saying that this means you could wind up drinking a Budweiser out of a Heineken can.
Some 2,000 tons of glass a month wind up at Strategic Materials Inc. in Swedesboro, Gloucester County. There, it's cleaned of trash and organics (take note, those who use a beer bottle as an ashtray), sorted by color, and sent to glass manufacturers to become new bottles, says operating manager Dan White.
No. 1 plastics - 225 tons a month of PET soda and water bottles - head to Mohawk Industries Inc. to be processed into fibers for carpet and fleece fabric.
No. 2 plastics - 200 tons a month of HDPE detergent bottles, milk jugs, and the like - go to Envision Plastics Industries in Reidsville, N.C.
There, the bottles are ground into flakes, washed, sorted according to color, and reconstituted into pellets, says Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of sales and purchasing.
Some of the pellets wind up at Graham Packaging in York County, which among other things makes the blue Downy and green Gain fabric softener bottles.
Among a network of other destinations, darker colored pellets are sent to Nursery Supplies in Chambersburg, southwest of Harrisburg, to become plastic flower pots.
Lighter pellets go to Novelty Products in Lancaster, where they reemerge as flower watering cans.
As for the rest of the recycled materials, the newspaper (3,500 tons a month), once again becomes raw newsprint.
The cardboard (2,000 tons a month) goes back into other cardboard.
Tin food cans (250 tons a month) become rebar.
Detweiler says FCR prefers to support domestic markets, but because of Blue Mountains' proximity to such a major port, much is exported. A major buyer for the newspaper and cardboard is American Chung Nam Inc., which exports mainly to China.
Sheila Belo, a block captain for the 2400 block of Sharswood Street in North Philadelphia, said the neighborhood was primed to do its part in sending Blue Mountain even more material.
Neighborhood residents were slow to warm to the idea of recycling years ago. But now, "on trash day, you'll see the blue buckets everywhere," said her husband, Talmadge.
Now, the RecycleBank program "adds a little more zing."
Recycling: Do's and Don'ts
Most people know they can recycle newspapers, food and drink cans, soda and water bottles, detergent bottles, milk jugs, and jars. But there's more.
Less well-known items that can be recycled
Empty aerosol cans
Paint cans (make sure any paint inside is dry)
Junk mail, including envelopes with plastic windows
Phone books and magazines
Wrapping paper (none with foil, however)
Pizza boxes (if relatively clean; no pizza, please)
Cereal, cracker, and other boxes. Soda cartons. If you can tear the package, it's likely recyclable.
Other #1 and #2 plastics: Remove bottle caps, which aren't the same kind of plastic and can prevent the bottle from being compressed. Put caps in the trash.
Common items that Blue Mountain can't recycle
Wax-coated milk and juice cartons.
#3 through #7 plastics. (They're working on it.)
How city residents can participate in RecycleBank
The program involves giving people discount coupons to area and national businesses. In Philadelphia, the entire amount a neighborhood recycles will be totaled, and each member household will be given the same "points" to use toward redeeming the coupons.
For information or to register, visit www.PhillyRecyclingPays.com, or www.RecycleBank.com/philly or call 888-769-7960.
Link this story to your website:
Copy the above code and paste it into your webpage, blog or forum