Notes and Photos from Material Recovery Facility Field Trip

CR&R’s Material Recovery Facility in Stanton on June 19.

A quote from their website?

CR&R’s Material Recovery Facility in Stanton on June 19.

A quote from their website?

"CR&R Waste and Recycling Services is one of Southern California’s most innovative and successful recycling and waste collection companies, serving more than 2.5 million people and 5,000 businesses throughout Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Imperial, and Riverside counties. Thanks to groundbreaking technologies and pioneering reclamation programs, we are able to recycle over 120,000 tons of materials each year, creating cleaner communities, reducing air and water pollution, conserving landfill space, and extending our natural resources. We’re making your neighborhood a better place to live and work."

The trip began promptly on schedule, which is saying a lot for getting 31 people to arrive at their destination on time. The fact that our first stop would be a nice lunch provided by our generous host, Dean Ruffridge of CR&R, may have had something to do with it. No one wants to miss out on a nice lunch, right? We were not at all disappointed when we were ushered in at the "Park Ave" for some truly fine dining. The custom menus folded neatly into our cloth napkins, with our group’s name printed at the top, confirmed that we had indeed "arrived". After a scrumptious lunch, we scrambled back into our vans and cars to get to our real destination, the corporate headquarters and the Clean MRF ("Murf") portion of the facility, just a few blocks away.

From the crowded conference room, which seemed rather lavish in contrast to the view below, of trucks and containers of recycle-able trash coming and going in ant-like fashion, we could get a sense of the magnitude of waste coming from twenty cities, including our own.We were told the history of the plant’s origins and transformation into a facility that is truly setting the standards in this unique and somewhat invisible industry. They overcame huge environmental challenges which were only complicated by the fact that they had to take into consideration the neighboring community that had sprouted up around them.That is a difficult task when you consider the volumes trash that comes from our recycle bins which needs to be methodically separated into various categories of glass, paper, aluminum, tin, and plastic, not to mention the unmentionables that inadvertently end up being carelessly tossed in with the rest. If we all understood just how important it is to be selective when we separate our junk into the proper containers, there would be far more reusable material and less contamination and effort involved in the process. It really DOES make a difference, and we need to get the word out about this.

While this portion of our tour gave us a dramatic overview of the operations, our next stop would give us an up-close and personal view of the system in action. We were headed for the "Dirty Murf" just a few blocks away. The term is somewhat misleading however, because it really was not all that offensive. Instead, the processing and separation of good trash from bad was methodical and fairly clean. The massive building, 80 feet tall and about the size of a football field, contained the mechanical equivalent of the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory, except it was for garbage. A huge cylinder spun slowly in the distance, connected to the system by catwalks and conveyor belts. Inside the drum, various sizes and types of trash were being screened and redirected to their appropriate destinations. As we climbed the stairs to reach the highest platform where most of the sorting was being done by hand, we got glimpses of people and machines going about their business, amongst the assembly of chutes and ladders. At the top platform, people in smocks and gloves and the occasional dust mask skillfully picked away at the endless stream of trash coming at them on the conveyor system. As unwanted items came by, they were quickly disposed of in chutes taking them to their proper destination.

With all that trash flowing here and there, you would expect the stench in this vast enclosure to be intolerable, but actually the air seemed cool and fresh and the surfaces neatly swept and uncluttered. As we were being ushered to the back of the building to see the bio-filter area, we happened to pass by a large number of bikes in racks next to the break area. It turns out the company gives incentives to the workers to ride bikes, and they get about 75% participation. The bio-filter consists of three huge fans and an acre of wood chips which is about nine feet deep. Any foul air coming from the processing plant is sucked out by the fans and pumped into a chamber below the vast field of wood chips. As the air passes through the chips, micro-organisms which thrive in the moist wood pile devour bacteria before they can escape into the atmosphere, only to be scented with a hint of cedar wood. This is quite a successful and natural solution, making it possible for this facility to co-exist with its neighbors.

We learned much about the technological ingenuity that goes on behind the curtain which usually separates us from the unpleasant realities of our waste stream. Regardless of the truly amazing achievements CR&R has made in this challenging and significant role they play in our society, there is no substitute for practical thinking to take place in our own homes. The choices we make every day about the products we buy and the way we dispose of them determines the magnitude of the problem. It becomes painfully obvious that we are the ones responsible for the degree of difficulty in managing this huge task. This industry can only react to the situation we give them, and I am happy to report that CR&R is doing an amazing job of it. But there is still much to be done in the world of waste.

Here is some of the disturbing news we got. No one takes back all of that styrofoam we use, even though some of the packaging claims to be recyclable. In reality, there are just too many problems in recovering that back into the system, so it just builds up over time, usually finding its way back to the environment. Of all the plastic we use, less than 4% even makes it to a recycling facility. The numbers one through seven indicate which types of plastic they are, and usually only the ones and twos are saved for processing. CR&R is the exception, because they actually bail up the threes to sevens for shipment to China, where much of our other disposed resources end up. One can only wonder about this whacky system we set up. It seems a bit ridiculous to be using up all our resources here, burning precious oil to ship them across the globe, to be processed where there are less labor rights and environmental restrictions placed on businesses, who make products of questionable quality to be sold back to us at seemingly low prices, (only future generations will know the true cost). There must be a better way!

Food waste in the recycle stream creates problems too, but CR&R is working on a composting program which will address this issue, hopefully sometime in the near future. The unfortunate truth is that our society throws away about 25% of the food that is planted, fertilized, watered, harvested, packaged, shipped, refrigerated, and prepared, only to be thrown into the trash can. If not separated from other trash to be composted properly, it rots into carbon-heavy methane gas, promotes various diseases, and a host of other problems. This is an issue that most of us are completely unaware of, but it needs to be addressed on many levels, as we enter what some call the age of efficiency.

What will this new age really look like ten to twenty years from now, when we find ourselves on the other side of this transition from dependency on cheap oil? Hopefully, solutions that arise from the crisis that awaits us will result in a more vibrant, resilient, compassionate society that not only creates zero waste, but also has an abundance of resources and a much improved quality of life for the whole planet! We all may just have to slow down a bit, and focus on the things in life that really matter. The sooner we embrace the change that is needed, the easier and more successful this transition will be.

To learn more about what you can do, please look into some of the resources listed below.

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