Manitoba·Video

Winnipeg recycling facility can take more — but not all items thrown in blue bin are welcome

The GFL Environmental facility sorts all of the contents of Winnipegger's blue recycling bins, but not everything that is pitched in can be used somewhere else.

High-tech mix of machines, computers and human hands sorts 4,000 tonnes of recycling per month

Humans with sharp eyes augment computer-driven infrared beams to help sort recyclables at Winnipeg's GFL Environmental sorting plant. (Gary Solilak/CBC )

You get used to the smell and the noise fairly quickly — and then start to marvel at the sheer efficiency of it all.

The GFL Environmental recycling plant — officially called a "materials recovery facility" — has been taking in and sorting the contents of Winnipeggers' blue recycling bins since October, under a contract that will run for 10 years at approximately $9 million per year.

The facility handles 200 tonnes of material a day, or roughly 4,000 tonnes per month.

It could actually take substantially more, but for now the city wants to focus on educating residents about what they should or shouldn't be sending for recycling.

The trucks come in with the material at one end of the building, dumping their contents into a massive pile. Then it's scooped by loaders into a giant drum.

From there, a jumble of cardboard, paper, soup cans, milk jugs, bottles, frying pans, old socks and dead animals gets sorted. 

That's correct. Frying pans, deceased pets and dozens of other items that are decidedly not on the city's list of approved recyclables come from the blue bins to the sorting facility.

High-tech mix of machines, computers and human hands sorts 4,000 tonnes of recycling per month in Winnipeg. 1:38

Without elaborating, Mark Kinsley, the City of Winnipeg's supervisor of waste diversion, acknowledges the facility sees "everything."

"You name it," Kinsley said, as he toured media through the plant on Wednesday.

Kinsley reacts to the problem of those non-recyclable items with an apparent measure of patience, asking residents to carefully check the city's list of what should and shouldn't be dropped into the blue bins. 

One of the biggest obstacles to smooth operation of the plant isn't car parts or propane cylinders or late pets sent along as recycling —it's plastic bags.

"If we could get no bags, it would help with the whole system," Kinsley said.

Residents often cram other recyclable material into bags. But mechanical and human sorters can't see what's in the bags and they get caught up in the machinery, causing downtime and increased labour costs.

Robotics, scanners, human hands 

A mixture of conveyor belts and machines, infrared beams and computers — along with human hands — sift through the seemingly endless pile of material arriving at the facility, plucking the materials out and sending them to the right place.

In one room, staff in masks and gloves pull pots, pans, metal rods and other scraps off moving tracks, letting plastic bottles, cardboard boxes and paper continue on to the next stage.

At another stage, infrared light shines onto the beltway, looking for specific types of material the computer is programmed to detect.

"The reflection says 'yes, this is it,'" said Kinsley. Nozzles then shoot air out, blowing the correct type of the material on to the next stage.

"The whole end of the belt has a plate of nozzles, and it shoots the stuff over and everything else just falls off. Amazing technology."

A robot plucks out milk jugs at the sorting facility. (Gary Solilak/CBC )

That kind of technology is needed, he says, after China introduced limits in 2017 on how much recycling it was accepting from abroad. ​​​​​

Kinsley says the industry is now working to take up the slack. Much of what the GFL Winnipeg plant sorts is sent to southern Ontario, where the manufacturing base is large, to be turned into other items.

"With this new facility and the technology and the equipment that it has, we are finally staying in North America," Kinsley said.

Only steel and glass can actually be reused in Manitoba — other material is sent elsewhere once sorted.

The metal products, though, aren't actually fit for the blue bins, and should instead be recycled through transfer stations and the Brady Road landfill.

As the tour winds down, Kinsley's other plea to residents comes up through the din of machines and conveyors and all that plastic being bundled.

Please wash your blue bin offerings.

"You don't have to put it in your dishwasher, but we want things to be clean," he said.

"The less residual in these products, the better chance it gets to where it needs to go here — and to be shipped out to be remade."

The GFL Environmental plant sorts about 4,000 tonnes of Winnipeg's recycling in a month. (Gary Solilak/CBC )

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story indicated the recycling facility handles 200 tons of material a day, or roughly 4,000 tons per month. In fact, it handles 200 tonnes per day day, or roughly 4,000 tonnes per month.
    Jan 23, 2020 4:59 PM CT

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