February 19, 2016

Industrial Tourism

Last Friday, my son's First Lego League coaches organized a field trip to The City of London's Material Recovery Centre.

know... so cool!

I'm currently reading the last book in Margaret Atwood's Maddaddam trilogy, and so this trip comes at an opportune time (building on themes of recycling and post-industrial waste).

Here's the facility, located on Manning Drive in London, ON:

With this winter's minuscule amount of precipitation you can almost believe that I took this picture myself
I was super excited to learn what happens to the boxes, bottles, cardboard and cans that I toss into my blue box, but my children were less than enthused: 

Me:  Kids, it is going to be so interesting; I have always wanted to tour a recycling facility! 

Nath:  Mum, it's recycling; it's not Disney.

Gwen:  Mum, it's a PD day! I can't believe you're wasting our day like this...

Nath:  Oh yeah, pop cans are SO awesome (can you hear the sarcasm dripping from the 12-year-old?)

Okay, so the kids weren't thrilled about our little trip.  To muster up some interest, I dug out my scrapbook and showed them a recycling project that I did in Grade Five:
 Blue, Colt 45, O.V. and Michelob?  
"How can you not be excited by this?" I asked, thrusting the red poster board in their incredulous faces.

Admittedly, this project is pretty lame, but it's also hilarious.  I am imagining myself reaching for a pencil out of my handcrafted pop can pencil holder and slicing my finger off on the sharp, ragged aluminum rim.  I do recall making the beer cap brooches (!) but I was at a loss as to how I would have produced the fender cutlery.  That would be one giant fork...  

Still, the kids were all eye rolls and snark.  Please remind me why we feel the need to reproduce?

And so I found myself bribing the children with a Mickey D's breakfast, and being thoroughly disgusted with myself for 
  • inhaling grease 
  • bribing the brats 
  • eating at the world's greatest waste producer in the fast food industry 
I'm hanging my head in shame here.  

But let me get to the trip.

I did a bit of reading beforehand and learned that the recycling facility, first and foremost, is a big business.  The contract is handled by Miller Waste Systems.  The only green driving that company is the green of filthy lucre. And here I thought that the city's recycling initiatives were spearheaded by powerful ecowarriors who want to save the planet.

image from:  http://archive.feedblitz.com/746187/~4244546
It really is all about the cash, peeps.  I wasn't going to let that colour my fun, and so I donned my thick plastic hardhat, safety glasses and ear protection.  It was initially difficult to experience such sensory deprivation but I acclimatized quickly enough, recognizing that beauty is indeed pain:  

industrial chic
Hard-hatted up, we are ready for the entertainment to begin:

happy robokids

The tour proper began with a hello to this fine fellow: 

What a cutie! And so industrious too
The kids met Maiike, our patient and knowledgeable tour guide, who spoke a bit about safety and explained that we'd be playing a sorting game before visiting the production floor.  The kids were presented with various items that typically appear in the blue bins:  glass jars, lightbulbs, half full paint cans, cardboard coffee cups, milk cartons etc.  They had to determine whether the items belong in recycling bins, the garbage, Household Special Waste or hazardous waste. 

What we learned:
  • 90% of the recycling is sold locally to businesses in Southwestern Ontario.  Paper coffee cups, which are new additions to the blue box, go to the U.S. while the market for used plastic wrap is in China.
  • Paint can be recycled.  Loop Paint, in St. Catharines, recycles leftover paint and plants a tree for every gallon sold.  I love this!  Londoners, take your leftover paint to Rona or Lowe's.  For more on paint recycling, click here.  For more on recycling batteries, oil, solvents, propane tanks etc, click here.
  • Some recycling tips from facility posters:
aerosol cans go in the bin?  who knew?

Maiike made a point of telling us that wrapping paper cannot be recycled; it goes in the garbage
The kids each received an adorable souvenir - a mini blue box!

Recycling is not difficult, people.  I am sure that everyone who reads this blog is on board; however, I am frequently astonished when I visit people's homes and see that they're throwing out their cereal boxes and paper, instead of flattening them and tossing them in the blue box.  I am also disgusted by the number of businesses that do not practice recycling and/or use excessive amounts of packaging or  plastic cutlery.  I DEPLORE PLASTIC CUTLERY, but you know what I hate even more?  When people toss out cutlery after one fucking use.  My head spins.  Rant over.

Here we are, entering the first stage of the facility's production:

We were astonished by the enormous amount of waste, growing by the minute it seemed.

A closer look at the mountain of refuse.  The kids had a lot of questions.  
Although I am already a hyper-recycler (Don't throw that in the garbage; you can compost it!  That goes in the Goodwill bag!  Who threw out this yogurt tub???), it readily became apparent to me that everyone needs to be on board with recycling.  Equally important is reducing our volume of household waste; we are all responsible for keeping the planet healthy.

We watched one of the recycling trucks dump its load into the warehouse:
The truck has separators that allow only one stream of recycling to be unloaded at a time
Once the truck was empty, a front loader (not pictured) pushed the waste into a gigantic pile:

Our city produces a titanic amount of waste, and the facility is capable of processing up to 75,000 tons per day, but that does not preclude us from trying to decrease our household litter and recycling.

When we stepped onto the production floor, it occurred to me that I've seen too many episodes of Dexter - my initial impression was that this would be an ideal setting for a horror movie:  

I don't want to die in a tub of cat litter!  Go away, scary man!  Stop chasing me up and down all these rickety, metal stairs!  Ooh, it's slippery and I've fallen!   Where am I?  Why is it so dark in here?  What's that noise?  Where's the exit?  Why is this door locked???
All those dark corners, mysterious drips, large dirty machines, filthy ramps and creepy conveyor belts.  I kept expecting to see an arm or a finger roll by...

The sad teddies didn't help either:
One of many Teddy Bear stuffies in the plant.  They must have a thing for stuffies.

Taking a page out of Ted, I call this piece "Bear Humping Fan"

London's Machinex - the largest in North America - is a sophisticated sorting and recycling system, but is amazing in its simplicity.  The magnet portion of the system grabs all the steel on the belt and diverts it from the glass and paper products:
items entering the magnet
The air separator divides the remaining recyclables based on weight.  A blast of compressed air pushes everything (except the heavy objects such as glass) up and off the conveyor belt and into the air toward the optical sorter:
watching objects being processed by the optical sorter 
The sorter uses a combination of light, lasers and cameras to analyze the objects' colour, size, shape, and material and sorts them accordingly.

another view of the optical sorter
I felt sorry for the manual sorters (see below).  The belts move extremely quickly and I was constantly worried that one of the kids was going to get caught on the belt and processed in the compactor.

Watching the recyclables race along made me feel slightly ill, like I was on a dodgy spinny ride at the fair.  When I was in my late teens, I was employed by my cousin-in-law's sister's husband (how ridiculous is that description?) at a paint factory.  I was one of three women out of a total workforce of twelve and I was responsible for hanging the entire day's production "on the line" - fun stuff like mud flap hangers, telephone bases, and riding lawnmower handles.  Whenever a deadline had to be met (all the time, it seemed), the powers that be would ratchet up the line to warp speed.  It was futile to attempt to keep up.  But I tried, dammit.  I'm competitive; I couldn't help myself.  As I fell farther and farther behind, the other employees would eventually trickle over to help me.  As soon as I was caught up, they would abandon me until I fell behind again.

manual sorters removing garbage; everything remaining on the belt goes through the entire process again

After sorting, the recyclables are crushed or flattened and shaped into bales.  A bale of crushed aluminum cans is a fascinating thing to behold.  There are a lot of cans in that bale (9000, I think):

beware of sharp edges...

a bale of cardboard waste, paper exploding out of it
The bales of plastic bags earn the facility a mere $10 each
I took the picture below to illustrate how the recyclables are desperate to return to their former state.  Bands of steel may contain the bale's contents but the goods tend to escape their bonds.  In the photo above, the bale is warped and at quite an angle and below, the plastics are busting out of their bales.

steel cans
At the end of the tour, we stopped by two blue bins that were full of an average household's yearly recycling (60%).  We can do better than that, I think.

it doesn't look like much, does it?

As we exited the facility, I spied this dusty book displayed prominently on a stand by a huge cardboard cutout of a chocolate chip cookie.  It made me laugh.  I wondered if it had been "rescued" from a blue box, like all those teddy bears...

Our day done, we thanked Maiike, removed our gear and headed out to our vehicles, visions of recycling dancing in our heads.

I would definitely recommend taking a tour of this facility; give them a call.  It's open to the public, and it's free.  I think it made a big impact on all of us and my kids told me afterwards that they loved it (I knew it).    

And so my friends, I will leave you with a brief musical interlude by Jack Johnson - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, aka Three It's a Magic Number: