Where Does Our Trash Go? Takeaways from a Material Recovery Facility Tour

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

On Friday, November 9th, I had the opportunity to revisit the Waste Management Material Recovery Facility (MRF) in Azusa, CA. As part of the Hixon Center’s “Eco-Engage” Sustainability Dialogue Series held each Fall, I was joined by students, faculty, and staff from across the Claremont Colleges for a tour of the facility guided by Waste Management professionals.

The MRF is an impressive and sizable facility – boasting a daily waste capacity of 3,800 tons and including a state-of-the-art recycling system. The MRF was constructed and made open to the public in 2014 to provide “a long-term waste and recycling solution for the San Gabriel Valley,” and to aid the state meet its 2020 waste diversion targets (at least 75% of solid waste must be recycled, composted, or source-reduced by that year). Naturally, much of the region’s recyclables, as well as its landfill and organic waste, ends up passing through this MRF – including that from Claremont.

This wasn’t my first tour of the facility, but since my last visit some important circumstances have changed. Primarily, China passed policy in 2017 banning the import of plastic waste. This is a pretty huge deal, considering that over 90% of the country’s recyclables were finding their way to recycling mills and facilities in China up until the policy entered force at the beginning of this year. Consequently, waste is now piling up at facilities that had previously relied on sending recyclables (especially plastic) to China. According to a study out of the University of Georgia earlier this year, this also means that some of the waste that would have previously been sent to China is now either finding its way into domestic landfills, incinerators, or is being sent to other countries that often lack the proper infrastructure and safety regulations to handle it.

A Waste Management professional explains to multiple tour attendees how waste is sorted on fast-moving conveyer belts in the Material Recovery Facility.

A Waste Management professional explains how waste is sorted on fast-moving conveyer belts in the Material Recovery Facility.

This story is not too different from what we heard from Waste Management professionals we spoke with during our tour. Many recycled materials are now being diverted to any other countries that will take them, primarily India and Indonesia, and there just is not an adequate market for processing recyclable materials in the United States. According to our tour guide, a lot of this comes back to regulations that make it challenging to open recycling mills in the U.S., and even though Chinese recycling mills do want to buy these materials, their domestic port has now changed that. This means that any existing mills in the U.S. are being overwhelmed.

This change in international waste and recycling markets has presented challenges to daily operations at the Azusa MRF and other facilities like it. Despite the facilities’ impressive size, the process is being squeezed at both ends. With a smaller viable market to which to sell recycled materials, as well as a painfully slow shift in consumer waste sorting practices, the MRF cannot process nearly as many tons as it would otherwise be able to in a day, while still receiving large amounts for handling. Ideally, the MRF should process about 500-700 tons of waste each day. However, the MRF only ends up processing and sending off for recycling about 200-500 tons. As our guide stated, “We’re having a hard time keeping up with what we’re getting, which means that some stuff is going to have to get diverted to other MRFs.” And if materials can’t quickly be processed or diverted to other facilities, it piles up at the MRF – placing additional strain on workers already doing particularly challenging and physically demanding work.

It is thus important to step up efforts to reduce and clean up our waste streams before they reach the MRF. While it’s easy to understand why it is now hard to properly sell and process recyclable materials at the end of the process, it is a bit more challenging to fathom why there is still so much waste coming into MRFs like the one in Azusa. I personally thought that California would be more on top of consumer waste reduction, considering particularly progressive environmental and waste management policies across the state. However, as our tour guide lamented, waste volumes received have barely declined over the past few years and it also isn’t better sorted: “25 percent of what we find in single stream recycling is trash.” In alignment with the findings of the University of Georgia study, this means a lot of recyclables are finding their way into landfill waste streams simply because people don’t properly sort their waste or know what is recyclable. But this also presents challenges for MRFs and waste management companies, as it is costly to ship and dispose of materials in landfills.

One attendee of the tour asked about plastic bags and how effective Waste Management found the statewide bag ban to be. According to our guide, the policy has not shown results. The MRF in Azusa does not recycle plastic bags, and it is not quite clear how other MRFs handle plastic bags. Either way, they’re finding their way into both recycling and waste streams, and thus into landfills.

As to why consumer-side waste output and sorting hasn’t improved, Waste Management says that most people still do not even know what and how important recycling is. Even as city councilmembers and community members continue to walk through the facility, WM has observed a lack of knowledge and consistent communication from municipalities to city residents about how to properly sort waste. To Waste Management and MRFs nationwide, this remains the biggest challenge.

The main takeaway for me seems to be that education remains as one of the biggest challenges around reducing waste and improving landfill diversion. People simply do not know or understand what to do with their waste on a broader scale, let alone engage in practices to reduce the amount of waste they produce. And while the state has waste diversion targets, the information across municipalities around what material can be collected, recycled, or thrown out is still highly inconsistent (though even different facilities like the Azusa MRF have different rules about what they can sort for recycling). And while this has always been a problem, China’s new policy amplifies the intensity of those challenges.

It leads me to suggest that no matter how well intentioned anyone is around recycling, composting, or reducing waste, there is serious value to going to MRFs or other waste facilities and seeing what exactly ends up happening with our trash. The functionality and operations of any MRF are highly impressive, but more importantly, they are revealing of just how much we waste. As the story always goes, it’s easy to throw something away because we don’t necessarily see where it ends up – but the reality of waste cannot be avoided when you see the process for yourself.

With that being said, the Azusa MRF offers free tours all the time, so if you are interested in learning more about waste streams and recycling, their tours are a prime opportunity to do so. I encourage readers to reach out to the Hixon Center or to their college’s sustainability office and ask about MRF tours.