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Recycling: It’s all about separation

At TFC Recycling, it’s all about separating things into categories.

The Chesapeake-based recycling company is trying to encourage at least 3,000 Suffolk households to sign up for curbside pickup service for $12 a month, which will include a 95-gallon blue bin and twice-monthly pickups.

The sorting process at the company’s Chesapeake headquarters is almost entirely automated, with a few human eyes and hands keeping watch along the way.

To begin the process, trucks that have collected recyclables from residents, businesses and events pull into the Diamond Hill Road facility and dump their loads onto a tipping floor. Tons of bottles, cans, paper and cardboard come tumbling out onto the pile.

Once all the trucks are out of the way, one or two workers gather up large items they can see that are not recyclable at the Chesapeake facility. The most frequent items — electronics, laundry baskets, garden hoses and clothing — get pulled to the side and thrown in a separate pile. Though many of these items are recyclable — thrown in the bin by what TFC vice president for business development Ed Farmer calls “overzealous recyclers” — they don’t fit into the Chesapeake facility’s automated system and have to be pulled out.

“We’ve literally seen it — the kitchen sink,” Farmer said during a recent tour of the facility. “We’ve had bowling balls, plastic colanders. They don’t work in our system. Even though they’re recyclable, they’re not an item you would build a whole system on.”

The remaining items — cardboard, mixed paper, Nos. 1 and 2 plastic bottles, glass bottles, steel, tin and aluminum cans and aluminum foil — remain in the pile and get hoisted by a bucket loader onto a belt, which lifts the material two stories in the air to the first station, where six to eight workers hand-separate things that don’t belong in the system. Items removed at this stage typically include plastic bags, the plastic wrapping of water packs, and anything in a garbage bag. The workers do not have time to open the bags and see what’s in them, so they simply get tossed, Farmer said.

Further down the line, a series of discs spinning on an axle separate containers from the cardboard and paper. The containers drop down between the discs, but flattened cardboard and newspapers get spun over the discs and onto a separate conveyor belt.

After passing through a series of optical eyes designed to weed out non-paper items, the paper and cardboard get compressed in a baler.

Likewise, the containers also get scanned with optical eyes. Any bits of paper are electronically separated back into the paper system by a burst of air. The plastic containers, after being separated from everything else, also get crushed and baled.

Steel and aluminum cans are separated from each other by a series of magnets that attract and repel the containers into separate piles.

Once everything is separated and baled at a rate of 40 tons per hour, the bales are stored in giant bunkers until they are shipped off to facilities, either domestic or overseas, that turn the baled recyclables into new products.

“It’s turned around pretty quickly,” Farmer said. From the time a soda can is tossed in the curbside bin, it can be back on the grocery store shelf as a new can in as little as 60 days.

“With aluminum, you can do that for an unlimited number of times,” said Farmer, noting that making a can of recycled aluminum uses 95 percent less energy than making a can from new aluminum.

Suffolk residents who sign up for the service will have their recyclables processed in the same facility.

To register online for curbside recycling, or for more information, visit www.tfcrecycling.com/suffolk. The company now also has a Facebook fan page. Those who sign up for the program do not have to give their billing information until after the 3,000-household threshold is met.