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Where does everything end up?

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By Katy Korkos

The new blue recycling roll-carts have been delivered to every home in the county that requested them, and more people than ever are taking advantage of the convenient curbside recycling program through the county’s solid waste division. People who have been recycling for decades remember a day when everything had to be sorted, labels removed, glass was accepted and plastic was not, newspapers were bundled and tied with string, they had to keep track of paper day, glass day, and aluminum day, or trundle it all down to the nearest health food store.It seems just too simple to put everything in one cart, and the only guideline for recyclers now is to put heavier stuff in the bottom so the cart won’t blow over. “We’ve been getting lots of calls from people who can’t believe how convenient it is, and want to know how it’s possible to recycle when they put everything in together,” said Solid Waste Manager Regina Wheeler.Until Santa Fe opened a new sorting facility in February, Los Alamos’ recycling was hauled to Denver or Phoenix for sorting and marketing, Wheeler said, adding that the new Materials Recovery Facility on Buckman Road makes the Los Alamos curbside-recycling program far more economical by saving on hauling costs. Recycling education outreach coordinator for the facility is Chandra Weaver, who has a degree in environmental science. Members of the Solid Waste Advisory Board, Wheeler and operator Alvin Trujillo were given a guided tour of the premises Friday, narrated by Weaver, who is creating a virtual tour to be posted on www.swsfma.org. Weaver described the multi-step process to the group, as trucks tipped out their loads and front-loaders pushed piles of trash on to the conveyors.Trucks from Los Alamos and elsewhere drive to the facility, are weighed on the 40-foot long in-ground scale in order to track incoming recyclables and proceed to the tipping floor of a gigantic warehouse-like structure. The sorting process begins with a front loader pushing the material on to an in-floor conveyor, which takes the still-mixed material on to a second inclined conveyor. Human sorters inspect the passing materials and remove oversized and non-recyclable items, then, on an upper floor within the building, sorting machinery takes over to skim off corrugated cardboard and paper (fiber) and to pick up metal with a giant magnet. The sorting staff gets back to work in a climate-controlled sorting house, where staff manually remove specific items and drop the sorted items down hoppers into bins on the floor. From the bins, the individual categories go to a gigantic baling machine, to be crushed, compacted and wrapped with wire to prepare them for shipping.Weaver said that all of the material goes through the process three times to remove every bit of recyclable material possible.“We have a 97-percent recovery rate,” Weaver said, referring to the fact that only three percent of the material delivered to the facility has to be taken to the landfill. Tin and steel is shipped back east for reprocessing, paper is shipped to a plant in Arizona, and cardboard is recycled at a New Mexico plant. Number Two plastic bottles are processed in Georgia and California. “We’re looking for closer markets,” Weaver said.Santa Fe accepts glass in their recycling program, but has not yet developed markets for the glass, and has an accumulated “glass mountain” nearby, on the site of an old landfill. “We’re still trying to develop a market for glass,” Weaver said. “It’s just stored and stockpiled now.” Los Alamos curbside recycling does not accept glass, plastic tubs like margarine containers or six-pack containers. “The collection costs are about $100 per ton,” Wheeler said, “and it’s only worth $5-10 per ton.”If you really want to make an impact and help the environment, Wheeler said, you can complete the “cycle” in recycle by buying post-consumer products, like paper with a percentage of post-consumer paper, fleece made from discarded soda bottles or lumber-like products made from plastic grocery bags, reclaimed pallet wrap and waste wood.There is more information about exactly what can be recycled on the county’s website, www.losalamosnm.us, under “Services,” “Waste and Recycling” and “Recycling.” Call the solid waste division at 662-8163.