By Bill Sheets Herald Writer
WOODINVILLE — Kasandro Eperiam has to handle dirty diapers nearly every day, and he doesn’t even have children.
He also has to deal with dead animals, car batteries, barbed wire and broken Christmas lights.
These are just a few of the things people toss into recycling bins that are not even remotely close to being recyclable.
People on the other end have to sort it out.
Eperiam is one of them, along with more than 40 other sorters at Waste Management’s Cascade Recycling Center here. One of their jobs is to pull non-recyclable items off conveyor belts that run through the plant.
“We have to go in there and clean them out, at the risk of getting us injured, and at the same time it reduces the performance of the machines,” he said. “Day in, day out, you’ll see dirty diapers coming down, nonstop.”
About 550 tons of material — 1.1 million pounds — are brought to the plant every weekday. The 8,200-square-foot building takes in curbside recycling from most of Snohomish County, the Eastside suburbs of Seattle and parts of central Washington, said Waste Management spokeswoman Robin Freedman. The nationwide company, based in Houston, also has recycling centers in Tacoma and Spokane.
Machines do much of the sorting at the Waste Management plant, but the tons of bottles, cans and paper would not get to their rightful places without the people who work there, officials say.
“We are hard at work extracting more value from the materials we handle,” Freedman said. “That is why each employee at the Cascade Recycling Center is so important.”
In addition to removing non-recyclable items from the lines, the sorters check for items that may have been missed by machines and gotten onto the wrong conveyor belt.
At the end of the process, recyclable materials — aluminum and tin cans; glass and plastic bottles; other clean, plastic containers; cardboard, newspaper and mixed paper — are bundled up and sold to various markets.
Eperiam, 34, a native of Micronesia, has been working at the plant for five years. A few months ago, he was promoted to lead sorter. He splits time between working on the lines and supervising other workers when the lead supervisor is out or off the floor.
Despite the sometimes nasty nature of his job, Eperiam says it’s easy compared to some other things he’s done, such as high-rise construction.
Regular briefings drill safety into the recycling center employees, Freedman said.
“That is our culture,” she said.
Workers wear hard hats, goggles, two layers of gloves and high-top, steel-toed boots.
A sign in front of the recycling center recently said it had been more than 200 days since the last accident that cost work time.
One of the harder parts of his job, Eperiam said, is communicating through the language barriers. More than half of the sorters don’t speak English, he said. Languages include Spanish, Laotian, Vietnamese, Somali and Ethiopian.
Eperiam speaks Pohnpeian, the language of his native island, Pohnpei, he said. He’s the only sorter at the plant who speaks the language, he said.
“I’ve been trying to learn some Spanish from these guys,” he said.
Eperiam was living in Hawaii and his brother was working at the Waste Management plant when he suggested to Kasandro that he come over so the two could work together.
“I started, and I was thinking about trying to look for something else,” he said. “But then the further I go, I realize how big this company is. And I realized the benefits that come with it. I decided to stick with it. I believe it has something for me in the future.”
Waste Management is increasingly focusing on recycling, Freedman said. The new, more sophisticated machinery allows people to toss all recyclable materials into one bin as opposed to separating bottles, cans and paper.
This also requires more sorting, said Larry Goulet, manager for Rubatino, which serves Everett. Smaller companies don’t have large plants, Goulet said. Rubatino has its own plant for paper but sells the bottles and cans to Busy Beaver, an Everett company, he said. Everett residents put their recycling into two separate bins, one for paper products one for hard containers.
At Waste Management, trucks bring the material into a huge bay and dump it, and it’s moved onto a conveyor belt. At the first sorting station, atop a catwalk, two or three workers pull out as many non-recyclables as possible.
In addition to the diapers and other onerous items, plastic bags are one of the most commonly misplaced items on the line. Waste Management technically does not accept plastic bags because they get caught in the machinery. Ultimately, though, they’re bundled up and sold to be recycled.
“We have a big problem with plastic bags,” Freedman said. “They wreak havoc with the equipment. But we’re all about recycling.”
Often, bagged-up items come down the belt. These bags might contain recyclable materials, but workers have to toss them because they don’t know what hazard might lie inside, Eperiam said.
Next on the line, machines separate the cardboard. Large steel disks spin through the material, and because of the density of cardboard and the way the disks are shaped, the cardboard “surfs” over the top of the spinning disks while the rest of the material drops onto a conveyor below. The cardboard falls into a storage area for baling.
Similar, smaller disks then cull newspaper from the line, and at another location, mixed paper is extracted.
Shredded paper is recyclable, but Waste Management asks that it not be put in recycling bins because the small pieces get caught in the machines.
Glass is diverted into a large metal box where it’s broken and crushed. The glass is vacuumed to remove paper and then goes down another belt where workers wearing heavy gloves pick out lids, caps and other items that don’t belong in that stream.
A vacuum device pulls out remaining paper. A magnet pulls out tin cans, and optical sensing machines sort the plastic by color — clear, translucent and colored.
Aluminum cans are separated by a device called an “eddy current” — a repelling magnet that flings the cans into a chute while the remaining material falls below.
At nearly every step along the way, people are checking the lines afterward for misplaced items.
Workers rotate every two hours between the different stations to stay fresh, Eperiam said. There are two shifts of 20-plus sorters per day, plus others who come in during the graveyard shift to clean up and maintain the equipment, Freedman said.
Altogether at the plant, there are about 80 employees, including drivers and people who check the finished bundles for misplaced items.
Most of the plastic is sold to companies in Canada or China and most of the rest is sold domestically, Freedman said.
“Our bundles are never rejected,” she said.
Eperiam said he’s developed a strong appreciation for the value of recycling.
Despite the trash that has to be weeded out of the system, 95 percent of the material at the Cascade Recycling Center does get recycled, Freedman said. That’s more than 1 million pounds a day that’s kept out of landfills.
“The world needs to know that by practicing waste management, at home or at work, it will really help save our planet,” Eperiam said.
- Waste Management and most other recycling collectors accept only mixed paper (not shredded); cardboard; aluminum and tin cans; glass and plastic bottles and containers. Drinking glasses, other types of glass and soiled napkins and paper towels are no-nos.
- Cleanliness of items is important. Some collectors who take organic waste for compost also will take soiled paper and cardboard. Check with your provider.
- Numbers listed on plastic containers are irrelevant for most customers’ purposes and should be ignored, Waste Management spokeswoman Robin Freedman said.
- Metals other than cans should either be thrown out or taken to a business that specifically takes metal for recycling.
- Batteries, including car batteries, should be taken to an authorized hazardous waste collection site.
- Waste Management asks that plastic bags not be placed in recycling bins.
- Caps and lids should be thrown out.
- Any item that does not meet the above criteria should be tossed. The recycling mantra: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
- For details or questions, carefully read guidelines on recycling bins, contact your service provider or check their websites.
Waste Management: tinyurl.com/lwrx6l9
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Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.