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Cullet what you want, but sloppy home recycling can be dangerous to downstream workers

Even at a high-tech, megaton glass-sorting plant in Seattle, workers must dig in by hand to clean up what we leave on the curbside.
Mixed cullet...

Mixed cullet... Eric Scigliano

...and green, waiting to become bottles again.

...and green, waiting to become bottles again.

Ever wonder what that 2-Buck Upchuck bottle you toss in the recycle bin undergoes on the way to being remelted into a vessel fit for more rarefied vintage? Answer: the closest thing to a grinding-jaws-and-burning-pitch hell you’ll likely find on earth. Glass recycling is a rough, dirty, dangerous job, for the glass and for the people who handle. Last month a worker at eCullet Inc.’s Camden, N.J. recycling plant was killed when he got caught in the moving machinery 20 feet above the ground.

No such horrors have occurred at the same firm’s Seattle plant, which each day processes 500 to 600 tons of jars and bottles from Portland, British Columbia, and all around Washington, including Seattle’s curbsides. Its operation, on East Marginal Way, is ordinarily a model of industrial efficiency and slick proprietary technology. It receives jumbled, smashed-up scrap glass from the various municipal recycling facilities (MRFs), which sort the mixed waste collected from curbs and dumpsters. The technology then shakes, cleans, screens and scans it on a vibrating conveyor line, supplying color-sorted cullet (broken or refuse glass that is crushed for remelting) ready for melting to the Verralia glass factory next door.

According to the eCullet plant’s general manager, John Davenport, its optical scanners can sort out the green, brown and clear shards with 98 percent accuracy. An eddy current separator extracts scraps of aluminum, tin and other nonferrous metals — in particular, bottle caps and rings — from the glass stream. (Ferrous metals have already been removed with magnets back in the MRF.) Otherwise these would mess up the remelted glass. Shards of porcelain or Pyrex, which masquerade as glass but don’t melt with it, are even worse; one can break the “knife” used to cut the molten globules that go into the molds at the next plant, shutting everything down at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Labels aren’t a problem, save for the carbon they release when they burn up in the 1,400-degree heat.

The eddy current separator is likewise “highly effective,” says Davenport. Or is when it’s working. Earlier this month this $55,000 rig died, and the plant’s crew were obliged to don heavy gloves, reach into the passing tons of shattered glass and pick out the bottlecaps — a whole new order of rough and dirty. (The device has since been replaced.)

So there’s the takeaway for the rest of us. Unscrew and throw away those bottlecaps yourself and you might spare some long-suffering, low-paid worker the trouble under much worse circumstances. Trouble is, our tidy instincts make us go to the trouble of screwing the caps back on before tossing out bottles (including plastic ones, whose tops should also be trashed). “It would be nice if they were removed,” says Davenport. “It would make our job easier. But it isn’t going to happen.”

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget Sound; Love, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics. Scigliano also works as a science writer at Washington Sea Grant, a marine science and environmental program based at the University of Washington. He can be reached at eric.scigliano@crosscut.com.


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