Single-Stream Recycling: A Tour

Last week I had an amazing opportunity to tour the Balcones Recycling Facility as part of Austin Resource Recovery’s Zero Waste Blockleader program. For those of us north of the river, this facility is where all of our single-stream recycling goes for sorting. This facility is full of both advanced machinery and probably a couple of dozen human sorters at any time to get everything sorted.

Huge pile of residential recycling ready to be processed

After loading everying onto a conveyer belt that feeds into the system, the first step in the process requires human sorters. They stand on both sides of the belt picking out plastic bags or utensils or other things that would interfere with the facility’s machinery. They also pick out some of the larger pieces of trash and things such as wood, which they actually support recycling for also.

The turnoff for broken glass

After this, the machinery starts separating different types of materials. Any glass gets broken early in the process and falls through to its own turnoff.

Looks like trash, doesn’t it?

The machines are able to separate large cardboard from smaller papers. Plastic containers and metal cans head down their own route for processing.

Sorted cardboard heading over to be bundled

So much of the material was cardboard!

Cardboard, cardboard everywhere

Sadly, anything containing multiple materials (such as packaging for a doll that I pointed out with both paper and plastic) gets sent to the trash. Economically, they just can’t support separating out the materials that are attached together. So please do this before tossing things in the bin. It’s easy enough when you don’t have a full conveyor belt of materials coming at ya.

Picking rogue items from the newspaper belt

Similar to Lay’s potato chip machines that can detect burnt chips and blow them out of the main processing, there are electronic sorter machines that quickly detect the composition of materials coming down the belt and use blasts of air to sort them to the correct place.

I think that was actually a soda can. It wasn’t really glowing, it was just moving very quickly.

The output of these machines goes through a human sorter also to handle anything that was misplaced, but the amount would be too insane for a single human to get through.

We got a strong whiff of laundry detergent walking past this section

At the opposite end of the facility were bales of paper, cardboard, cans, plastic, and a huge pile of glass, all ready to go on to their next destination.

Tons of paper and cardboard baled up
Cans and plastic bales outside

Some would be taken in semis, but some would be transported by train.

Train behind the facility, ready to cart some of it away

It was awesome seeing so much material converted to a format that could be reused rather than sent to a landfill. The only sad part was this pile at the end. The facility has to pay to send to the landfill everything that didn’t get filtered out into one of its recycling streams.

Behind this worker and boxes, you can see the trash pile growing


But, well, that pile is an awful lot smaller than the everything else that does get recycled so it’s not so bad. I know that not everyone is going to want to embrace a true zero waste lifestyle which would prevent much of this refuse in the first place, so I’m enormously grateful that this facility exists and that it’s easy for folks to just toss recyclable items in their blue bin instead of contributing to our landfills. 🙂

Zero Waste Week – Day 5 – Goodwill Tour

Woohoo! It’s the last day of Zero Waste Week and I’ve made it through with, well, minimal waste. Today the Austin Zero Waste Lifecycle Meetup group went on a tour of the Goodwill Resource Center in south-east Austin. If you give something to Goodwill instead of throwing it in the trash, that’s no guarantee that it won’t end up in the landfill but they definitely do a lot working towards zero waste.

It started out with what definitely wasn’t a Zero Waste lunch, but I was prepared for this and had already eaten before arriving.

Now I really want a Cheeto 😦

A few of the nice folks from this Resource Center and from Goodwill Central Texas shared some more information as other folks finished eating. The mission of Goodwill Central Texas is to empower people through work. That’s not just temporarily working at Goodwill but building the skills and experience to continue on to other opportunities. They’ve even done a ton of advocacy, going so far as to get laws changed, so they can offer the training and GED programs necessary for people to be successful in the workforce. Finding a job isn’t always easy for folks who are trying to make a life for themselves after getting out of prison, who have a disability, and other groups of people, so I’m glad that when I shop at Goodwill any profits are going to a good cause.

Next up, time for the tour! We all put on some orange vests and unfortunately for those of us who weren’t wearing glasses, we had to use some packaged glasses. (They were returned at the end of the tour.)

I have a pair of lab goggles/glasses. If only I had known I’d need them!

The tour was worth it though. First up we passed through the Goodwill Outlet Store where as much as possible of the goods are sold. And then we passed along through the curtained doorways to where the real magic happens. Here a bin of unsold clothes gets loaded into the baler and ready to ship out to whomever is willing to pay for it.

Next up, we saw the sorting area where tons of hanging signs showed where to put almost every conceivable type of item. Depending on the type of commodity, these boxes and bales can then be sold for anywhere from $0.03 to $0.55 per pound.

The sorting area has boxes and bins for small toys, luggage, paper, sports balls, vacuums, and so much more

Beyond that there are just boxes and boxes of stuff. All tagged and organized with what they have in them. Some are things that are ready to be sold either at this Outlet Store or shipped to one of the local Goodwill stores to be sold there. But it must be that that type gets disbursed fairly quickly because the majority of labels I saw was stuff that didn’t sell in the stores and is waiting to be sold on the commodity market.


Computers are a special item because if they’re in working condition, they go to the MacFarlane store to be refurbished and resold. The machines and parts that are hopelessly broken just go to the recyclers.

But wait, that doesn’t look like a computer…

A bale of stuffed animals hanging out among the electronics

Towards the back there are just stacks and stacks of bales of different materials, but definitely more clothing than anything else.

Just a few of the clothes bales
Oh hey, there’s some bales of plastic at the end of a clothing row.

And then of course, there’s the eCommerce department. Jewelry, books, expensive stuff. That all gets sold online so Goodwill can get the most possible value from it to put towards their mission.

This could be a beautiful library, but they’re all being listed online
Small items being packed up to ship
And larger boxes for larger items

It’s not perfect, but Goodwill Central Texas is able to divert about 80% of the resources that come its way away from landfill, which is pretty amazing considering all the crap that people send to Goodwill constantly.

So that’s it, Zero Waste Week is over. I failed a bit at the end just because I missed eating out. Our final meal of ZWW was some fried rice from a chain not far from home. They still have real plates and real silverware, but at some point since my last visit they switched over to disposable cups. I survived without a cup of my own, but my husband’s cup of water tonight knocks off a few points for me. (And probably also his fortune and cookie wrapper, since he wouldn’t have gotten those had I not suggested eating out.) Oh yeah, and the receipt. At least I was prepared with my own containers for the leftovers and those will disappear tomorrow for sure.

Don’t worry about the chopsticks. They’re from a previous meal that I’ve been reusing.

Free Paint, Recycled Paint

In Austin, anyone can stop off at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off center to pick up some totally free ReBlend paint. Paint isn’t supposed to be thrown out in the trash, so people who have left over paint take it down to the Drop-off center, where it’s blended into one of three color combinations and repackaged for anyone in town to pick up. The blending process releases any VOCs in the paint, so while it may have had VOCs originally at least they won’t be released in your home. And did I mention that this paint is free?


In April I made my way out there to pick up paint for some ugly walls in our new house. Taking the bus was a bad idea because it was a lot further to the bus stop carrying a few gallons of paint, and my carrying bags weren’t quite right for the job. Fortunately, by walking I had the opportunity to enjoy this railroad to nowhere.

Nature victorious!

When I visited only the dark beige color was available, but any paint would have suited my needs. While there, I checked out the Reuse Store (free stuff that other people dropped off but still has a lot of use in it) and got a hammer, screws, a nice Italian planter, and possibly other things that I don’t quite remember.

Recycled paint!

My mom had given me a few paint roller supplies, but I made a trip to the hardware store and picked out a couple of quality brushes that should last the rest of my life–a 1.5″ angled brush for detail work and a 3″ paint-all-the-things brush. (I had been hoping the Habitat ReStore would have some used paintbrushes, but sadly it only sells them brand new.)  Plus, I picked up a short ladder at a yard sale in my neighborhood because I had no other good way to reach near the ceiling. Holding the small amount of paint for each day was simple with a reused plastic container. I’ll probably give away the paint roller supplies on Freecycle in the near future.

(Note: If I had decent carpeting I would probably need to invent a dropcloth also but fortunately, or unfortunately, the carpet that came with the house is permanently stained and at some point in the non-distant future should be removed.)

This is the closet in our guest bedroom before it got its new paint job. It was off-white and doesn’t look too bad there, but the other walls had many spackle spots and smudges which didn’t make it look very friendly. I couldn’t bear to take a picture of them.


And here’s our happily repainted guest bedroom.

After. Non-nasty walls!
With contrasting white trim

My husband was so happy at the improvement. At some point I’ll probably be making another trip to the Reuse Store to pick up a small jar of white paint to touch up the trim. (They have so much free stuff!) But in the meantime I have a half a bucket of paint left and will be working on the hallway and bathroom cabinets, which are the two things that most need it.

At this point, even though I have several other rooms that could benefit from it, I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be getting another large bucket of paint anytime soon. While working with this stuff I’ve realized that I’m pretty much just putting a layer of plastic on my walls. Not sure how I feel about that. The greenest solution is obviously to live with smudgy walls, but nope. This warrants further investigation. Do you know of any good alternatives?

The Reused Water Bottle

You hear a lot about using reusable water bottles instead of disposables, but most of the time it’s quickly followed up with an evaluation of the best reusable water bottle to buy. Creating new reusables tends to use more resources than single disposables, so there’s a break-even point at which your investment becomes better for the environment than continuing to use disposables.

Want to get to the break-even point instantly? The greenest water bottle that you can buy is the one you already own. Maybe it’s sitting in your recycling bin at this moment. Maybe it’s at the thrift shop. Or maybe it’s a kombucha bottle that someone else drank from and struck your fancy (as mine is). In the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle priority list, reuse comes before recycling every time. You save one container from disposal or recycling costs and another one from the expense of being created.

My beautiful water bottle

I’ve been using this bottle for the past year. It’s enhanced by a coozie from my college days that was just sitting around and doing nothing. Sure, I browsed Etsy looking at the billions of lovely creations that could have graced my bottle to provide the much needed grip, but I had to be honest with myself and admit they weren’t needed with this alternative.

Some zero waste advocates are just following the trends and using the movement as an excuse to buy new stuff, but don’t be fooled. Many zero waste swaps are super frugal or even free. The next time you’re tempted by some zero waste instagram pics, look around at what you already have and hang onto your money for the things that are really important to you. For most people, that isn’t a super fancy water bottle, or a particular kind of jar just to store trash in.

P.S. – If you’re still buying disposable water bottles, take a moment to calculate how much money you spend in a year on just water. Once you do that, the switch should be obvious.

Book Review: Junkyard Planet

I love reading books about waste, so it should come as no surprise that I recently picked up a copy of Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade at the library.


In my head, when I saw the word “junkyard” I was thinking “landfill” but it’s not about that at all. This is about junkyards in the old fashioned sense of the word–junk to someone but valuable resources to someone else–and would be more appropriately named Scrapyard Planet.

The book begins with a bold statement:

[I]f what you toss into your recycling bin can be used in some way, the international scrap recycling business will manage to deliver it to the person or company who can do so most profitably.

The author Minter was raised with a junkyard as the family business and for many years afterwards reported on the scrap business in China, so he may be a bit biased. But he knows his stuff and elaborates on how even something like a broken strand of Christmas lights, which no one here would think of as more than trash, really does have value. In Shinjiao, a.k.a. the Christmas Tree Light Recycling Capital of the World, the copper is extracted from the strands for reuse and even the plastic can be salvaged when it is worth enough. So much depends on the current market.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what happens to your recycling, read this book. It explains why it’s usually cheaper (and possibly greener) to ship recycling to China rather than doing so locally, and also why many Chinese villages are eager for this kind of business despite the inherent health and environmental problems. Plus, there are several happy highlights where what could be recycled is actually salvaged and reused instead, saving the costs of remanufacturing something into the same exact thing.

One of the most shocking parts for me, though, was how cell phones don’t get reused if they’re more than a few years old, even if they’re in good condition. In many cases the chips and other parts can still be salvaged, but no one wants a dated phone these days. It must have been just my wishful thinking that assumed only Americans were like that.

Minter himself realizes that reuse is superior to recycling and not just because you can make more money off of it (although that helps). In the closing section he even goes so far as to promote reducing, the first of the 3 R’s:

Above all, though, I encourage people to think about what it means to recycle, and make smart choices as a consumer before you buy that thing you’ll eventually toss out. Recycling is a morally complicated act.

After reading this, I’m glad I skipped this Christmas lights this year. It would be nice to do something to decorate, but it’ll have to be with materials that are easily reusable or recyclable. Things that I can fix myself if they break. Using your creativity grows your creativity. Although if I come across a soda can laying on the ground, that’s definitely going straight in the bin. Recycled beats new any day.

Reduce, Reuse, and THEN Recycle

The city of Austin has introduced the Austin Recycles Games as a way to promote recycling.


The Austin Recycles Games are a recycling competition among the 10 city council districts. The goal of the competition is to increase residential recycling and create awareness of barriers residents face.
The Austin Recycles Games will calculate pounds of recyclables collected per household in each district for the months of December 2015 through March 2016.

While the overall concept is a good idea, the goal is a bit suspect:

The goal is for every curbside customer to recycle at least 60 pounds every month.

As a zero waste advocate, I’m here to tell you that if you use fewer recyclables than that in a month, that’s fantastic! It may not count towards this contest, but I will happily give you bonus points for:

  • refusing single-use plastic beverage containers when eating out
  • making your own salsa instead of buying it in a glass jar
  • signing up for “do not mail” lists
  • eating more fresh local veggies instead of buying tinned
  • avoiding bottled water like the plague
  • not buying goods online, packed and delivered in cardboard boxes
  • not buying cheapo plastic laundry baskets that quickly fall apart

That last one I mention only because that’s one of the illustrated examples of recyclable hard plastic in the informational graphic below.

So there is a plus side to this contest at least in that they’re using it as an educational opportunity for teaching people what is and isn’t recyclable in our area. This is great because I have seen plastifoil chip bags, banana peels, used napkins, and even wooden jewelry boxes in various recycling bins and am sometimes too overwhelmed to deal with it. So for those of you in Austin, take a good look below or visit What Do I Do when you have any recycling questions like whether or not plastic straws are recyclable here. (Hint: They’re not.)


And if you did have any of those items in the trash bin instead of the recycling, as the promotion says…

Stop trashing so many recyclables; let’s toss them all “IN THE BIN FOR THE WIN!”

Transforming Clutter into Desirable Goods

Egg cartons, music posters, comics, magazines, and socks. What all of these things have in common is that I don’t want or need any of them and yet they’re taking up space in my home.

I used to think recycling was the epitome of greenness, and I would have been happy to put all the paper items in my recycling bin. However, the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” motto isn’t just a set of three possible options. It’s a hierarchy:

  1. Reduce – Minimize new resources from being used up
  2. Reuse – Use an item again making use of both the material it’s made of and the form in which it was constructed
  3. Recycle – Destroy the existing form and recreate it as something else, using up energy and other materials in the process

Since these items already exist, it may be a bit late to reduce, but reusing is definitely still in the picture. Rather than bin all of these items, I posted them all on Craigslist in the free stuff category to find people who need and will make use of them. Almost instantly I had takers for the socks and comics and am hoping to find good homes for everything this weekend. They’re not at their end of life just yet!

Looking for places to rehome your pre-loved items? Here are just a few options.

Of course, you can always sell items for some extra $$$ if you have good stuff and in that case it’s more likely that they’ll be well loved. But I opt for the easier route of free. 🙂