The Material Recovery Facility uses state-of-the-art processing equipment, including robotics and optical sorting | Photos by Ruta Smith

‘A New Life’

 Nestled off Palmetto Commerce Parkway in North Charleston, a short walk away from the landfill, sits the 82,000-square foot Material Recovery Facility (MRF), its warehouse walls lined with stacks of thousand-pound bales of recycled cardboard, newspapers, plastic and metal. 

It’s a sight — and smell — to behold. 

“It wasn’t until someone came in and said, ‘Hey, do you know there’s an odor in here?’ And I was like, ‘No!’ But there’s a landfill behind us, so that doesn’t help,” said Charleston County deputy director of public education and administration Shawn Smetana.

Christina Moskos, program director for Charleston County’s MRF, opened in December 2020, said while the new facility is state-of-the-art, it still has a lot of limitations that it’s important for those in the Lowcountry to be aware of, lest they do more harm than good when it comes to recycling. 

Moskos pictured here in the Material Recovery Facility, which houses an education center, complete with a wall of fast facts and do’s and don’ts when it comes to recycling in Charleston

Recycling is only as impactful as the people that buy into it, she said, both literally and figuratively. If residents treat their blue bins like a second garbage can, the program wouldn’t be as successful as it could be. But with full participation and a little diligence, a real difference could be seen. 

“Everything we receive here that is recyclable at our facility is given a new life, as opposed to ending up in a landfill,” Moskos said. “That’s the whole point behind it really — to save landfill space.”

The confusing part, Moskos said, is that technically, the vast majority of materials can be recycled in some form or fashion. But recycling programs vary program by program and county by county, so things that could be processed elsewhere may not be able to be recycled in Charleston. 

Know your ‘NOs’

“It’s so important that citizens understand how to recycle, how to recycle correctly and how to avoid contamination,” Moskos said. “ ‘Recycling-streaming contamination’ sounds like a big, scary phrase, but really, it just means any item that is not accepted for recycling here in Charleston County.”

These contaminants include plastic bags or film; hoses, cords and belts, which can get tangled in the machinery; scrap metal; construction debris; clothing and textiles; medical waste; and food waste. These items entering the system can damage the machines or pose health risks for workers who hand-sorted through material.

Moskos said that if you aren’t sure whether or not a material can be recycled, it’s best to leave it out. 

“We coined the term ‘wish-cycling’ — people who say, ‘Oh, well this is a bulky plastic item or a metal item like a car part. I think it can be recycled; I’m going to put it in my cart, and you know, fingers crossed,’ ” she said. “That’s definitely detrimental. Contamination can harm our processing equipment, it can cause worker safety issues and it can devalue the material itself.”

The value of the material is important, as it is the primary source of revenue for the MRF. Once it’s processed, it is sold to remanufacturers. Exact costs and revenues for the new facility aren’t yet available.

The MRF is able to recycle paper products like magazines, newspapers, office paper, envelopes, junk mail and paper bags; plastic bottles and containers; paperboard and flattened cardboard; aluminum, tin and steel cans; glass bottles and jars; and cartons for milk, juice, stock or even eggs. 

One of the many strange and/or dangerous items to come through the recycling center was this Bowie knife, safely pulled off the line before it could do any damage

But Moskos said the MRF has gotten all sorts of items people attempt to recycle, including a sword, whole animals, air conditioning units and car parts, all of which pose a risk to the people and machines.

“I see it happening every day,” Moskos said. “I can vouch for the fact that recycling is happening, but the reality of it is that we do receive items that are put in their carts at the curb that are not accepted at our program, and we have to dispose of those.”

State-of-the-art processing equipment

Contaminants are made even more problematic by the facility’s system that automatically sorts and bales different recyclables, manned by a crew that helps to sift out nonrecyclables and stack thousands-pound bales of cans, cartons and paper. Lasers and robotics are able to sort cardboard, aluminum and other items swiftly and accurately, so long as materials are properly disposed of (don’t crush your cans, y’all).

“The processing equipment here is really state of the art,” Moskos said. “We’re really utilizing the County Council’s vision of a regional recycling facility here. We’re accepting material from neighboring counties, and it’s all great.”

And the MRF was built to handle the volume. The technologically advanced system is able to process 25 tons of recyclable material per hour, about five times faster than operations in other facilities, according to county officials. 

Thousand-pound bales of recycled material get loaded onto trucks and distributed to remanufacturers, where it is used in the making of new products

The whole process begins at the curb, where material is collected from more than 130,000 homes’ blue recycling carts, using side-loading trucks. It’s then taken directly to the MRF and processed and sorted according to type before being baled. Remanufacturers then buy the bales and begin the process of turning it into something entirely new. Similar processes are used across the country to recycle tons of tons of materials.

According to county officials, nationwide:

• Paper material is made up of more than 33% recycled paper products

• About 120,000 aluminum cans are recycled every minute

• More than 600 steel and tin cans are recycled every second

• An estimated 80% of all glass containers recovered for recycling are remelted in furnaces and used to make new glass products.

A prime field-trip destination

The MRF is not just a functional recycling facility. A large portion of the building is dedicated to an interactive education center, with visual aids, games and examples to teach kids and adults about the impact of recycling as well as the dos and don’ts. 

“One of the selling points of this facility is that we have a state-of-the-art education center,” Smetana said. “We’re really looking forward to, when the pandemic allows, having schools back in here to do education programming.”

An entire wall is decked out with fast facts, display cases of recyclable materials and more. The aforementioned sword recovered from the recycling line is on display in a sealed plastic case, as an example of what not to toss in your recycling bin.

Smetana

Smetana said while everybody should understand the recycling process and do their parts, the education is really geared toward kids.

“Once the kids understand how to recycle correctly, they’re usually the ones directing the household,” he said. “And we have great opportunities for education here … A lot of it is just looking to see what can be recycled and what can’t be.”