The dirt on recycling

Published 11:40 pm Thursday, March 22, 2012

If you’ve noticed the bright blue cans multiplying on the streets of Suffolk, you’re not the only one. The bins mark the arrival of the TFC Recycling program to Suffolk. TFC rolled out the bins to more than 29,000 homes last August. Company officials say the recycling program has become a success.

“Suffolk has surprised us. We were a little worried, but as it’s gone on, it really has turned out amazing,” said Kristi Rines, public relations event manager for TFC.

Since pick-up began in September 2011, many tons of recyclables have made their way from Suffolk’s homes to the processing plant in Chesapeake.


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“Suffolk’s done really well. Those trucks come back full. Even the drivers are noticing how well the neighborhoods are doing,” said Rines.

With that in mind, here are a few facts about what you can — and can’t — recycle and what recycling means for Suffolk residents.


What can you recycle?

Steel, tin and aluminum cans; glass bottles; #1 and #2 plastic bottles, including water, shampoo, detergent, lotion and milk containers; mixed paper; cereal and snack boxes; and any cardboard, as long as it has been flattened. Only shredded — as opposed to cross-cut — paper can be recycled, and TFC asks that shredded paper be placed in a paper bag so it doesn’t fly around during processing.


What can’t you recycle?

Aerosol cans, plastic bags, motor oil, Styrofoam, electronics, wood products, paint cans, yard waste and containers that held corrosive agents, like bleach.


Should recyclables be rinsed?

Not necessarily.

“We just ask that they be as empty as possible,” explained Rines.

Since everything is eventually compacted at the plant, anything left in the recyclables may get squeezed out and can sometimes make an unwelcome — and potentially dangerous — mess.


What about bags?

For several reasons, bagging is not recommended, with the exception of shredded paper. First, the items are scanned as they come in. Items in bags cannot be recognized or sorted automatically and so must be hand-sorted by workers, increasing the cost and time needed to recycle. Second, plastic grocery bags, Ziploc bags and shrink wrap are not recyclable by TFC.

“It’s like the Willy Wonka of facilities.  We have conveyor belts that go up and down and over and under — it separates the items. It’s an amazing process to see everything coming down the line perfectly separated because of this huge crazy system of conveyor belts,” said Rines. But any product that is light, such as plastic bags, shredded paper, cellophane and Ziploc bags, can throw a wrench into the process. “Air catches the plastic bag, and it will wrap around the machinery. Then we have to shut it all down and send somebody in to clean it off.”

Most grocery stores will accept these items for recycling.


What about those pesky bottle caps?

Bottle caps can be recycled and even left on empty bottles. If that sounds wrong, there’s a reason.

“Recycling companies have spent all this time training people to take off the caps, because they couldn’t be processed,” Rines said. “Now the companies that receive plastic bottles have figured out how to process the caps, so they are recyclable.”


What is the most common nonrecyclable item that shows up at the plant?

Plastic bags, Styrofoam and electronics. TFC can’t process them and while they do their best to get these items to places they are supposed to go, it’s not always possible.


What happens to the recyclables once everything is sorted?

TFC sells units to other companies that process the items into something else. For example, water bottles are often broken down and turned into fibers that are then used to make carpeting and clothing. Paper can be recycled seven times before new pulp needs to be added to replenish the fibers.

“Aluminum cans are my favorite. Aluminum is 100-percent recyclable,” Rines said. “So in 60 days, once it leaves our facility, it’s back on the shelf as an aluminum can.”


What is the weirdest item that has come through the processing plant?

Rines’ short answer: “We get everything.”

Often, people either don’t know what they can’t put in the cans, or they treat them like another trash can.

“We get stuffed animals, bowling balls, water hoses, extension cords and tents. We get Barbie dolls. I couldn’t figure out why we got so many Barbie dolls,” Rines said. “Then I realized, people think it’s plastic. They say, ‘Oh, I can recycle this plastic, so I can recycle any plastic.’ But that’s not true. Those items are better donated to Goodwill.”


What’s the most common argument you hear against recycling?

“The idea that everything ends up in the landfill anyway, so why bother,” Rines said. “But when you recycle, it goes to the TFC facility and it stays there until it goes off to the companies who reuse it. What recycling can do is divert as much waste from the landfill has possible, and that is good for Suffolk.”


What does recycling do for the community besides reduce waste?

TFC firmly believes that recycling is nothing but a boon for the community.

“It creates jobs and it’s better for the environment,” said Rines. “It’s the little things people don’t think about. It’s not just the driver, but the mechanics, the guy we bought the fuel from, the employees who sort and process the items, and then more drivers who transfer the units to the companies who make them into something else. It creates jobs in the community, and its way better for the environment over time.”

Another economic boost comes to Suffolk through the Recycling Perks program.

“It’s an incentive-based recycling program,” explained Rines. The program offers the homeowner 50 points every time their can is put on the curb. As points accumulate, they can be redeemed for coupons to Farm Fresh, the Virginia Zoo and the Aquarium, just to name a few.

Visit to get rewarded.