Almost two dozen members of congregational Green Teams from all over the metro area met on July 14 for a tour of the WestRock Recycling Facility in Marietta. The event was organized by Georgia Interfaith Power and Light and led by WestRock’s general manager, Will Howard, and business development manager, Hal Risher. Parjit Kaur, Julie Simon, and I represented UUCA’s Climate Action Team.

After fielding a barrage of questions from our eager group, Westrock’s staff toured us around the collection bins, sorting belts, optical scanners, and massive baling operation. This facility processes almost 12,000 tons of material each month, most of which comes from Cobb County and several municipalities within the city. Most of WestRock’s recycled material becomes consumer packaging and liner board (cardboard’s inner layer). Once baled material leaves Marietta, it becomes a new package within days at another WestRock facility.

Most of our group’s questions revolved around what household products are actually recyclable and what happens to non-recyclables in their sorting process. The facility employs workers who diligently pick out problematic material, like plastic grocery bags, batteries, and propane canisters. Optical scanners, air blowers, magnets, and sifting screens do the bulk of the sorting. General manager, Will Howard, said that their goal is to eliminate landfill waste because it saves WestRock money. They strive to process almost everything.

Here are some of the prime takeaways that one participant, Jim Rogers, shared after our tour:

  1. Don’t worry about getting things completely residue free. Quickly rinse items, but don’t overuse water.
  2. Keep plastic caps on bottles. Why? See number seven below.
  3. Pizza boxes are okay (if not overly saturated with grease).
  4. 1s and 2s of plastic containers are particularly recyclable – that’s any container that has contained liquid.
  5. Avoid small paper (playing card size or less) and shredded paper because it gums up their sorter.
  6. Generally, used paper towels and napkins should go in your compost
  7. With plastic, recyclers want three-dimensional materials. Flat plastic (two dimensional) doesn’t work well in sorters.
  8. Take plastic grocery bags back to the store for recycling – don’t place in single-stream recycling containers.
  9. Unfortunately, alkaline batteries can’t be included in regular recycling.
  10. Lithium batteries (like those found in laptops) can explode during the sorting process and should never be included in single-stream recycling.
  11. Be careful where you take your glass for recycling – you have a better chance of it actually being recycled if it’s separated by color (like you do at the DeKalb Farmers Market).
  12. Because recycling technology and processes keep evolving, it is hard for city and county sanitation departments to always have the most up-to-date lists. Find out where your recycling is actually going and contact them directly. You may be pleasantly surprised at what they will actually take!

From GIPL’s community organizer Joanna Kobylivker come a few more lessons from our tour:

  1. Avoid items that could clog up machines: no plastic bags, ropes, chains, fabric, or other materials that can cause blockages/disruptions in the sorting process. 
  2. Avoid items that could cause injury: no hypodermic needles, propane tanks, pressurized air canisters, or firearms – they can cause major injuries and even explosions in the facility. 
  3. Avoid contaminants but don’t worry about perfect conditions: food containers are OK with small amounts of food, like the peanut butter on the sides of the jar!

The Climate Action Team is working with Project Phoenix to maximize our new facility’s recycling efforts. Your efforts will make a huge difference. Pay attention to the collection bins you see in the new social hall and elsewhere and become a smart sorter at both UUCA and at home. Learn more here from the EPA about doing recycling right.