SALT LAKE CITY — Ever wonder what happens to your old stuff after you throw it into a recycling bin?
If you live in Salt Lake City, it goes to a new, state-of-the-art Waste Management facility which sorts up to 280 tons of materials each day and gets them ready to be sold and reused.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and other leaders got a tour of its inner workings on Friday and viewed countless large cubes of smashed-together paper, plastic and other materials awaiting shipment. Inside the facility, colorful, massive conveyor machines buzz like something out of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" — except replace the candy with some much-less-fragrant garbage.
Waste Management, a private company that contracts with the city, invested $17 million into building the facility.
Mark Snedecor, director of recycling operations at Waste Management, said the new facility uses automation and runs about three times faster than the prior Salt Lake plant. It also "produces a quality of product that's probably 80% better than the prior ones," Snedecor said.
"It's an incredible amount of waste that otherwise would be buried in our earth, and to hear that the vast majority of it gets sent to post-consumer manufacturers to be turned into things like carpet and new milk jugs, it's inspiring," Mendenhall told KSL.com after the tour.
"Those small decisions that we make at our homes and in our offices about where that piece of trash, that cardboard box, that lid to our yogurt, it all ends up actually being sorted and taken care of. It's really inspiring to see," she said.
The Salt Lake location is one of just two of its kind built by Waste Management so far.
"We took elements that we've used from other manufacturers, combined it all in a system the way we wanted it set up, noting that it's the second of its kind in the country the company has," Snedecor said.
"We justified it based on the growth of the Salt Lake Valley because the population was growing. There was a need, our prior was 20-plus years old, and it warranted the investment onto it. Salt Lake City stepped in and said, 'We really need a new facility,'" he said.
The finished quality of the recycled materials is higher due to the automation, eliminating human error that takes place while sorting materials, according to Snedecor.
"We can control those machines, how aggressive they are, or what their quality settings are, so we can move things around," he said.
When recycled materials are of higher quality, it's easier to find buyers and sell them at a higher price.
In 2018, China, which receives a lot of the world's recycled materials, became more strict about what comes into the country. A lot of what was getting bailed wasn't especially clean, said Sophia Nicholas from the Mayor's Office of Sustainability.
That change started a push to improve recycling systems, including in Utah, she said.
"This is a new day for recycling, because it's turning a corner, and we're making investments in Salt Lake City and in waste management itself," Nicholas said.
But while the city has the capacity to recycle a lot of materials, the plant often gets slowed down by items that shouldn't be thrown into recycling bins, according to Walt Mathiason, facility manager.
Those who work at the plant see things like plastic bags, wood, and even engine blocks, kitchen sinks and food waste clog up the system.
"Food waste is a big deal, because if you have a can that's full of good, recyclable materials and you throw leftover chicken in there, it's going to contaminate the whole container. And customers, one little piece of chicken that gets in a bale, they'll start to smell, they'll reject it," Mathiason said.
He urges residents to rinse out — but not wash — cans before recycling them.
Bags filled with recyclable waste also shouldn't be tied off, or they'll end up in a landfill instead, he said.
"It's important to the city that we are good stewards of this incredible planet that we're on and the stream of waste that's produced by Americans, some of the biggest consumers in the world, is a major challenge to our environment. So the more we can divert from being buried in the landfill and the more we can connect with domestic post-consumer manufacturers, the better for not only our earth, but our economy," Mendenhall said.
For more information about what you should and shouldn't recycle, visit https://www.slc.gov/sustainability/waste-management/.