The journey to a better end for tons of recyclable glass, paper, plastic and aluminum turns out to be a 133-mile stretch of Texas highway between Wichita Falls and McKinney.
In July, Progressive Waste Solutions placed six big orange roll-a-ways on the parking lot of Sikes Senter, an entry-level effort to introduce the public to single-stream recycling.
Instead of sorting their own cans, bottles and newspapers, environmentally friendly folks could throw recyclables in the community drop-offs for others to sort.
The response, says David Davis, PWS commercial, industrial and government sales representative, has been impressive.
"We started with the six roll-a-ways, picking up twice a week. Now there are 10, and we pick up every day," said Davis, who recently took a group of current and prospective system users to tour PWS' Materials Recovery Facility in McKinney.
Other community drop-offs are at United MarketStreet, River Bend Nature Center, in Burkburnett, Henrietta and Lakeside City.
"Overall, people are interested in recycling, but we've learned that the easier it is for consumers, the more they participate," Davis said.
Tucked into McKinney's growing industrial corridor, the 26,000-square-foot building hardly belies the trashy nature of its business.
Wichita Falls public collections are a fraction of its intake; the company has curbside pickup agreements with several Dallas-Fort Worth area cities, Sheppard Air Force Base housing, Altus Air Force Base and Fort Sill in Lawton, plus private contracts with businesses in between.
Davis points out that it's 75 percent cheaper to recycle materials than to send them to landfills, which are costly to operate and maintain by strict federal environmental safety standards.
Once inside the building, about 3,000 tons of recyclable refuse per day begin the process of being turned into revenue-generating commodities for PWS.
"Forty to 60 percent of everything that comes in is paper that is mechanically sorted out first. The cardboard ends up in a plant in Forney where it will be turned into liner board, the wavy part inside new cardboard," said Elizabeth Combs, PWS public relations and recycling coordinator, overlooking the center's huge work floor. "Heavier items move on up the belts."
Glass is separated and prepared for a Midlothian plant that makes fiberglass. Optical sorters read plastic like a scanner, determining whether it's "natural" — the kind used for water bottles — or colored plastic used to make detergent bottles; both have separate reuses.
Powerful magnets pull out tin and steel, and a strong eddy current of air and electrostatic charge pulls aluminum into huge bins for bailing. Alcoa will turn the old beverage cans into new ones.
Across the moving belts, human hands remove anything missed by the mechanical process or trash that can't be recycled.
"About 80 percent of contaminants in the system are plastic grocery bags," said Combs, sighing. The ubiquitous bags are on a shortlist of nonrecyclables along with food waste, Styrofoam, electronics and bathroom waste.
"On the bright side, however, we're working with a company that recycles old bags into new ones. If everything works out, there will be vacuum hoods overhead that sorters can simply lift them into."