ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — By now, every household in Albuquerque should have been provided a bright blue bin on wheels, making it just as convenient to send newspapers, cardboard, milk jugs, beer cans and a host of other materials to a recycling center as it is to put out the trash.
Everything in those blue bins gets dumped into a city truck and makes its way to the shiny new Friedman Recycling plant in the North Valley, where it is shaken, stirred, rolled, blown, magnetized and picked over by hand.
Including the pair of dead pit bulls.
And the 6-foot python.
“We’ll typically get three dead dogs a week,” plant manager Robert Taylor told me as trucks rolled up and disgorged their contents amid mountains of cans and bottles and paper.
As to pythons coming down the sorting belt? That was a first. “I’ll tell you,” Taylor said, “the guys jumped.”
Friedman Recycling Companies is based in Phoenix, and company President Morris Friedman was in town last week and showed me around the state-of-the-art facility that moves about 250 tons of material from dump truck to shippable bale every day.
Friedman and his brother, David, who co-manage the company, are second-generation recycling men. Their father, Abe, started as a paper recycler and built the business, which now operates in three states.
About half of what the company takes in comes from Albuquerque residents through the city’s recycling program. The rest comes in on Waste Management trucks from residents in the county and from other private contracts.
As Friedman and Taylor walked me through their mechanical sorting complex, and we watched paper cereal boxes, milk cartons, soda cans and an unimaginable number of Albuquerque Journal pages fly by, the conversation inevitably turned toward the things that shouldn’t be on the conveyor belt.
So, listen up, brand-new custodians of those blue carts:
“Garden hoses are our nemesis,” Taylor told me. “And VHS tapes.”
Garden hoses, tarps, pool covers – none of them are recyclable, and they wind their way around the sorting machinery, causing workers to spend time at the end of the day cutting them out. (Why did that not happen to the python? Beginner’s luck, perhaps.)
Those tapes – also not recyclable. They come apart and the strands wrap around material that is recyclable, ruining it for the purposes of recycling and sending the knot of stuff to the dump.
Also: Anything made of glass. Bed pillows. Styrofoam peanuts. Mattresses. Soccer balls. Basketballs. Pieces of wood. Old sweaters. Plastic grocery bags. Tree limbs. Concrete. Ceramics. Shoes.
Pizza boxes, while made of recyclable cardboard, are also not welcome, because they are imbued with grease that contaminates the clean cardboard.
I saw all those unallowed materials and more during my visit to Friedman. All of that garbage gets separated out and taken to the landfill, which is where it would have gone directly if people had put it in their garbage bins instead of their recycling bins. So if you recycle to help keep material out of the landfill, you’re only adding an extra step by putting nonrecyclables into your recycling cart.
I also noticed a lot of stuffed plastic bags rolling off the city trucks, which Friedman told me is a habit he wishes city residents would break. Under the city’s curbside program, most recyclables were put out on the curb in plastic bags provided by the city. The bin makes those bags unnecessary. And, Friedman told me, they make for extra work at the plant.
Only clean plastic bags can be recycled, and the bags that end up in the truck get contaminated by cans and bottles and dirt and food. So they end up being picked off the conveyor belts and thrown into the pile of stuff going to the landfill anyway.
Notwithstanding big dead snakes, Friedman also passed on his one biggest concern about foreign materials finding their way into recycling bins.
“Needles,” he said. “Big problem.”
If you could see the sorting process, you’d understand why that’s so important.
A combination of Rube Goldberg-esque mechanics and eagle-eyed humans with lightning-quick reflexes manages to sort out several hundred tons of the mixed-up leftovers of our lives as it flies by at 280 feet per minute. It’s loud and fast. The men and women who work on the belts scan millions of pieces of paper and cardboard, milk jugs and bean cans and soda bottles as they fly by and grab out the stuff that doesn’t belong while big metal teeth, blowers, vacuums, magnets and other devices sort what’s left.
If you’re curious where it all goes after you leave it on your curb, Friedman told me Albuquerque’s stuff goes to manufacturing concerns across the country and around the world.