A Visit to Rocky Mountain Recycling
Written by Lancee Whetman
Soda bottles, boxes, and aluminum cans…oh my! What you throw in your blue bin actually matters and will likely end up at facilities like Rocky Mountain Recycling (RMR) to be processed, sorted, and sent to companies for reuse.
With locations spanning across 11 states, RMR has a reputation for excellence in their field, as they recycle tens of thousands of tons each month and have continually achieved awards for Best of State in Utah. They provide innovative recycling services to commercial and industrial companies all over the United States as well as curbside recycling for Salt Lake City Residents.
As an intern with Salt Lake’s Department of Sustainability, I had the opportunity to visit and tour RMR’s facility in Salt Lake and inquire about what occurs behind the scenes in our city’s day-to-day recycling operations. RMR does not usually give tours due to safety concerns, so with my closed-toed shoes, neon colored vest, and protective eyewear, I was ready to get my sneak peak of where the city’s recycling goes.
Led by Larry Gibbons, the Business Development Manager with RMR, I experienced the recycling process from the bin to the bale. Before entering, trucks were continually pulling in to be weighed before they dropped their cargo that would soon enter the sorting process. Inside, enormous bundles of compiled mixed paper, plastic, and aluminum were stacked all around as hefty conveyor belts hauled material to be sorted either manually by masked employees or with the assistance of an optical sorter–a fancy and expensive piece of equipment that automatically sorts solid products using light for the identification of particular products. Gibbons stressed that the machinery comes with an expensive price tag, and with the continual demand placed upon it, RMR routinely checks and monitors that the system functions optimally.
At such a large facility, what exactly does RMR accept in terms of acceptable recyclable material?
Following specific container criteria, RMR accepts commingled containers including: aluminum cans, trays and foil, milk and juice cartons, steel cans and tin, and most plastics and paper.
The biggest task at RMR is taking all of that material that’s thrown together, and separating it out so that, say, cardboard and paper can be sent to companies that use it to make new packaging, while, say #2 plastic can go into making new bottles of laundry detergent, and aluminum is packed into massive bales to be used for more bottles of soda. (Fun fact: aluminum is the most lucrative recyclable material and can be turned from waste to a new can in just a few weeks).
Ultimately, the purpose and aim of recycling is to delay the rate of disposal of our residuals…our “leftover” waste that ends up in mounting landfills. That is chiefly why companies like RMR exist, as their services are able to turn recyclable material into a workable and marketable product for the production of future recycled goods, something that is absolutely necessary in this day and age regarding the preservation of resources.
Going from discarded packaging in your blue bin to new life as another product takes a lot of specialized equipment and a top-notch operation. A big part of the job just comes in removing “contamination” — i.e. things that can’t be recycled and can even break the expensive machines.
On our tour, we saw “contamination” in the form of scrap metal, stuffed animals, shoes, bicycle tires, Christmas lights and more pulled out. Another contaminant is glass– which breaks and degrades the quality of the cardboard, aluminum, or plastic products destined for a new life.
Surprisingly, plastic bags are also a big problem. While they’re technically recyclable, they get caught in the machines, gumming up the process, and reducing efficiency. The best choice is not to use them. (And recycle the plastic bags you do have at grocery stores, most of which have a special repository at their entrance for a recycling service that only processes plastic bags).
Rain and snow can also be a problem.
Luckily, I showed up on a clear and sunny day. With part of the facility being exposed to the elements, rainy days can be a detriment to the mixed paper product as wet paper breaks down quickly. Gibbons understands that changes in the weather and seasons impact what he will have to work with. So keep in mind to shut your lid to your recycling bin when the weather is looking grim.
If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that recycling is an intensive process. Although it can never be entirely perfect in terms of diverting 100% of material, recycling offers a great opportunity to reduce our city’s waste flows to the landfill.
Success depends on all of us chipping in and doing our part:
- Only put accepted recyclable materials in your blue bin.
- Take glass to Momentum bins around SLC or sign up for curbside service.
- Use your brown bin for yard waste and fruit and vegetable scraps.
- Take your household hazardous waste to a proper location.
- And don’t miss September’s CHaRM event for some of those miscellaneous things (like bike tires and scrap metal) that we don’t want to end up at Rocky Mountain Recycling OR at the landfill.