Forty minutes had passed since the warm hand had pulled my plastic body out of the break room vending machine drawer, cracked open my lid, and taken a gulp of the cold water inside of me. A sip here, a mouthful there, a swig at lunch, and one final swallow polishes off the liquid that once filled my cavity, leaving my interior an empty void. Now purposeless to the hand that had purchased me, the fingers grip my cylindrical body and trek back to the break room and stand facing an assortment of colored receptacles. The black canister is a garbage graveyard: discarded coffee filters; the remaining grounds clinging to the porous sieves; day-old newspapers, crossword puzzles solved and headlines devoured by hungry eyes; peppered in with rotting bits of food emitting a putrid stench that deters even the bravest of noses. Next to the burial site of waste sits a green can. This viridescent receptacle displays an attention-grabbing label reading “Paper Only!” and a skinny slit on the top of the container deters any material other than paper from entering. The green can neighbors the final container, a blue box. Filling the blue can is a sea of bottles like myself, the colorless plastic reminding me of the waves ocean. Having reached a decision, the hand hovers my plastic body over the opening of the blue can for a brief moment before releasing its grasp, sending me tumbling through the air before crashing into the supple pile of plastic flasks who already called this bin home. This is where my adventure begins – the recycling can. I don’t know how many days I spend in the blue box, but eight more bottles are dropped in before early one morning, a man enters the break room, grabs the container, and marches out the front door to the curb, and places us next to another black trash receptacle, except this one is bigger and smellier than our previous neighbor in the break room. The morning is peaceful, the sun reflects beams of light off of our plastic bodies, and the birds chirping are a pleasant change of scenery from the incessant clicking of keyboards in the office. A rumble in the distance grabs my attention, and I watch as a heavy steel garbage truck chugs down the road to where our can village resides. Like a claw machine, a hydraulic arm extends from the side of the truck and firmly clamps the side of the box I lie in. Gears grind and churn from inside the truck, and the arm begins its ascension, sending us soaring through the air. At the apex of our flight, the box lurches forward, sending us plummeting through the air onto the mountainous pile of bottles within the cavity of the truck. Moments later, we are rolling down the road to the next part of our journey.
We arrive at a massive industrial building with the letters “M”, “R” and “F” above the front doors, which I later learn stands for Material Recovery Facility. The garbage truck pulls around the bland building and backs up against a large vat full of other recyclables, which we are unloaded into seconds later. Flying down the slippery-slide-like vat is exhilarating; I can feel the wind whistling between each groove of my plastic body and I am thankful for the soft landing of the previous bottles that landed before me. I take in my surroundings and realize that we are still moving. The conveyor belt winds around a corner and that’s when I see them. Hundreds of gloved people on either side of the belt, readily awaiting our arrival. When the first recyclables on the belt reach the first set of hands, chaos erupts. Plastic, cardboard, and aluminum are flying through the air like an enraged nest of hornets. The hands have been trained to locate, grab, and sort a specific type of recyclable into the appropriate bin of the many habiting the space around the belt, one of which grabs me roughly around the middle and sends me soaring through air and into the bottle bin. I am quickly buried in similar plastic bottles to myself, and shortly after, another gloved worker replaces the overflowing bin I reside in with an empty bin to allow sorting to continue.
The worker wheels us into a loud room, where we are emptied into a baling machine. I estimate that below me are roughly seven more bins worth of bottles. The worker closes the hatch and pushes a button, sending a heavy weight down from above, crushing all of us bottles into one tightly packed cube. The cube is secured with string, and then we are unloaded onto a pallet, and wheeled away to a room where a truck is being loaded with bottle units just like us.
“The last pallet just rolled in!” a worker hollers when he sees us being rolled toward the truck.
“Super, load it in the back and let’s get this plastic on over to the buyer,” the driver responds, “a new life is waiting for these bottles.”
The driver was right, I was on my way to becoming something entirely new, all thanks to the global scrap trade that is recycling.
While this lucky water bottle survived the recycling process and was purchased in order to make new items, many others are not as lucky. A mere 10% of materials are actually recycled, which has tragic implications for our natural world. However, recycling plants are not to blame for the immense amount of packaging that is wasted each and every day. Recycling itself is simple; us as consumers place acceptable materials in a recycling bin, which we place on the street for collection on garbage day. The truck that picks up your recycling takes it to materials recovery facility, and the items are then sorted by material composition. From there, materials are compressed into bales and then sold to companies around the world, and are remade into new products. Seems simple enough, right? The design of the recycling system works well, but it is up to society to ensure that they can function the way they are designed to. When acceptable materials are placed in our recycling bins at home, the process is able to run a smooth course and effectively collect material for reuse. Unfortunately, non-recyclables often contaminate this operation and hamper the success of recycling. It is like someone fuels their body with unhealthy and non-nutritious food, and is upset when they are unable to function at optimum levels. The same thing goes for recycling; if we are not putting acceptable materials into the bins at the beginning of the process, then we are setting the system up for failure. Ultimately, what is at stake here is the livelihood of the natural world and the Earth we live on. We all must take responsibility for our actions and participate in the global scrap trade that is recycling.
Essay by: Isabelle Larsen
Bend High School