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Burb's Eye View: The separation of paper and plastic

August 02, 2011|By Bryan Mahoney

I was suspended about 10 feet above your trash on a platform 3 feet wide when I realized that as much as I knew about recycling, I knew nothing at all.

Take Styrofoam. All I’ve ever heard about Styrofoam is how it won’t decompose for 1 million years. What I didn’t realize was recycling it is almost as bad — only a small percentage actually gets recycled, according to Ferris Kawar, Burbank’s recycling specialist.

The rest breaks down too easily and gets lost on its way to China or India, where the true recycling takes place.

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As he guides me along the catwalk, he shouts almost gleefully above the din of the Burbank Recycling Center’s “reverse waterfall,” explaining how a series of rotating cylinders moves piles of recyclable materials up to a conveyor belt.

Gravity drags the heavier items like glass to the bottom; lighter paper materials then float to a sorting area above. Every couple hours this massive machine has to be shut down and cleaned out because plastic shopping bags get tangled in its rollers. If people stopped throwing the bags in with the recycling, this bi-hourly ritual wouldn’t be needed.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the massive gears crunching and grinding materials so they may be shipped, but make no mistake: The Recycling Center is a filthy, dangerous place. We wear masks and helmets as we move along the catwalks above the sorting belts. A hard piece of refuse jumps off the conveyor and hits my arm; I now realize why everyone is in long sleeves and pants despite the oppressive, machine-driven heat.

The place is packed with waste, and yet the giant pile represents only three or four days of accumulation from Burbank and surrounding areas. Four times this amount ends up in a landfill, Ferris says.

His main job as Burbank’s recycling specialist is one of education. If we could all be better about all three R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), he tells me we’d be a lot better off.

I thought I was a decent recycler. I visit the center a couple of times a month to take back cans and bottles — including my paper half-and-half cartons with the little plastic nozzles. I’ve always thought I’ve done well to aid the effort of keeping the landfills at reasonable levels while putting materials back into the manufacturing process, to gain a net zero of the product I use.

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