If you live in Louisville, those bright orange plastic recycling tubs are probably a familiar sight. They’re in almost every house in town, and lots of us set them out one night a week so the city can gather up the contents - but where does it all go once it leaves your curb? It’s something that has always fascinated me, so I reached out to the city to find out more about our recycling process.
For starters, all of Louisville’s residential recycling is done by a company called QRS, who has had a contract with Louisville for several years. Often times the same trucks that pick up the garbage will come by for recyclables since the city does all the pick up and delivers the materials directly to QRS’ sorting facility in New Albany. Once it’s there, it gets dumped off and starts its path toward sorting and re-use on their single-stream system, meaning that everything starts on the same belt and is separated off as it goes.
The photo above is the beginning of the line for all the materials. At this point, nothing is sorted and everything is thrown into the drum on the left side of the picture. It’s dumped from there to the conveyor on the right.
After everything passes along the conveyor, the cardboard is sorted out. The large teeth in the above picture keep the cardboard from dropping down with the rest of the items, and they float above to a separate conveyor.
This smaller set of teeth sorts out all the paper that doesn’t get plucked with the cardboard. All the paper is pulled out and ejected from the line on one last conveyor (below)
Both the cardboard and paper are then moved to baling machines so they can be compacted and tied into a more shippable form.
So now all of your newspaper, junk mail, and boxes are taken care of, leaving metals and plastics. Those are a bit trickier to sort, requiring more innovative uses of technology to separate the different kinds of plastics and metals from each other. All those numbers on your milk jugs and other plastics can’t be recycled together.
This, like the paper, is where the drum feeder dumps the metal and plastics. It goes up a similar conveyor belt, but that’s where the sorting method similarities end. The first item removed is tin (soup cans, bottle tops, etc), which is pulled out with a massive magnet.
Like the other items removed from the line, it goes onto a separate conveyor towards its destination. These systems aren’t foolproof, of course - technology makes the process simpler, but there is still a need for humans to intervene. After all, if a flattened soup can is stuck to a empty can of beer, they might both get pulled off with the tin, and that aluminum has to be removed - that’s where people on the line come in, of which QRS employs roughly 200.
After each sort, the new conveyor with the sorted materials passes by a station manned by one or two people. They are responsible for finding the materials that shouldn’t be there and pulling them out. There are chutes that they toss them down depending on what they are, and those materials are sent back through to be re-sorted.
After tin removal there is a massive conveyor that shakes everything, causing all the heavier materials left - basically anything non-paper or cardboard - to fall down to a belt which continues on. This is so that anything lighter is given one last chance to get off the line, and it also removes plastic bags - one of the biggest culprits of jammed up machines.
Next up is the aluminum sorter, which is pretty amazing. It uses an electrical charge called an “eddy current” to remove non-ferrous metals like soda and beer cans from the rest of the plastics that are left on the line. All of the metals are charged so that they pop off the line and fly forward, then down another chute.
Now that all of the metals are removed, the only thing that should be left are recyclable plastics. Of course, with the sheer number of numbered plastics that can be recycled, sorting those manually would be expensive and time consuming. This part of the process is the one that I find most amazing - a series of five optical scanners reads the plastics for different resin levels, which determines the number. That enables the system to separate the plastics by number, then separate again and again to reach their individual storage bunkers.
After everything is sorted, its baled just like papers and cardboards. Once that happens, the plant ships the materials off to the companies that reprocess it - none of that is done at their facility.
By the amazing volume of material present at the site, I assumed that Louisville is doing a great job recycling. What amount of recyclable materials do you think make it to QRS’ facility in New Albany? 15-20 percent was my guess. Unfortunately, QRS’ Kim Martinez, who showed me around, informed me of the actual amount: 6 percent. That means that 94 percent of all recyclable material used in Louisville never makes it back into the system. That’s a lot of trash that just takes up space in our landfills and, sadly, often our streets.
If you don’t have a recycling bin, you can get one by calling Metrocall 311 or checking out the residential recycling page at the City of Louisville’s website. If you weren’t involved before, grab a container and start setting it out once a week. With the new technology used at QRS, you don’t even have to clean or separate your containers - just flatten them, break them down and drop them in your bin. It’s simple, and it will make our city that much prettier.
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