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Central Coast Curious: How SLO County's recycling transforms into plastic lumber and wine bottles

Greta Mart/KCBX
The Cold Canyon Processing Facility, located southeast of San Luis Obispo. The company bans photography inside.

Recently you’ve been hearing about a new initiative we’ve launched called Central Coast Curious. It’s a way KCBX listeners can pose questions and vote on the ones they are most curious about. The KCBX Newsroom will then investigate and produce a story; the winning question from our first voting round focuses on recycling. 

*Transcript of segment that aired on May 18 and 21, 2018*

PRATT: Listener Wendy Brown asked, in San Luis Obispo County, how is the recycling separated at the landfill, and who does it? KCBX’s Greta Mart set out to find the answer. What did you learn, Greta?

MART: First and foremost, I learned that people really need to educate themselves on what can go in the recycling bin, and what can’t. If you’re not taking the time to do it correctly, really don’t even bother! It will probably just end up in the landfill. For example, say you have a bunch of empty beer cans. Great, totally recyclable and are processed right here in California. But if you are trying to be tidy and toss all those cans into a plastic trash bag, then put that in the blue bin, all those cans won’t be recycled unless the trash bag somehow breaks. That’s because once the all the blue bins are emptied at the facility onto what’s called the tipping floor, the recycling goes on a largely mechanized trip. There are workers there, sorting as the conveyor belt goes by, but the facility just doesn’t have the capacity to open up and sort items in plastic trash bags.

John Ryan: Who knows what’s in there. Greta Mart: So totally pointless to wrap your recycling in a plastic bag? John Ryan: The system was never designed ever to do that, it was always designed to put loose into the blue bin from day one.

That’s John Ryan, manager of the Cold Canyon Processing Facility, operated by a company called Waste Connections, Inc. That’s where most of San Luis Obispo County’s recycling goes, and the place processes about 170 tons a day. This week, Ryan gave me guided tour of the facility, starting with the tipping floor and following the various items as they go through processing on different conveyor belts. Some snake high up in the air to platforms where a team of eight people stood on either side of the belts, pulling items off that didn’t belong.

Greta Mart: And what’s your job today, what are you doing right now? Worker: I’m sorting the trash and the bottles and cardboard… John Ryan: And these guys are the A-team, these guys really know what they're doing. They're very good, they're very quick. Not everybody can do this job.

We met one of the line leaders, Miguel.

John Ryan: His job is to manage all the people up here. Miguel: Trying to learn more and more and more...John Ryan: How long have you been with me here? Miguel: Almost years 21 years.

Then we got to some of the mechanized processing….

Montage of processing sounds: John Ryan: Watch that can….it picks it up and kicks it off here; these are examples of plastics that’s going to go to Epic and be turned into lumber; there shouldn’t be any oil cans in there, but there they are; these are tin can bales, so those will go to a furnace, be melted down and be turned into steel, actually roll stock.

Sometimes a pile of recycling will go through the sorting gauntlet twice, to ensure everything gets grouped in the right place. And after all that mechanical and manual sorting is completed, the various materials are put in a big machine that squishes ‘em down to bales, the bales are put on trucks headed for different destinations.

John Ryan: All of our cardboard goes to Port Hueneme, there’s a big mill there. The aluminum can goes up to, and is either used by Budweiser or Coors. All of the 2-liter soda bottles go to Peninsula Plastic and they actually, they grind them up and wash them and then repelletize them into pellets that anybody could use to make whatever.

Where San Luis Obispo County’s recycling actually ends up is a whole other fascinating aspect of the story, so I’m going to continue our reporting with a part two. We’ll hear about some current seismic shifts within the global recycling marketplace.

John Ryan: There’s a huge crisis going on right now, China just announced two or three days ago that they’re taking nothing for the next month, from a recycling standpoint.

Stay tuned. With KCBX News, I’m Greta Mart.

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