Why, Richmond, Why?!? Debunking more myths about recycling in Richmond

This week, we report on our field trip to the TFC Recycling facility in Chester, which was made to help placate readers who continue to express their skepticism of recycling.

Q. When people suggest recycling is a “lie,” they don’t mean TFC is taking recyclables straight to the dump. What people are suggesting — and I believe some reporting would confirm — is that TFC is dumping all items on a conveyor belt, combing through for things that have market value (aluminum and cardboard primarily) and then sending everything else (including materials that are recyclable) to the landfill. — D.P.

This reader is one of a handful who have emailed or commented in one of several recent columns answering recycling questions. The reader also claimed that recycling is “a feel-good lie,” based on claims that “there is zero market for things like glass” and some plastics.
I was challenged to “get out from behind your desk and do a little investigative reporting.” Well, I’ve stated many times that I love to recycle, so I jumped at the opportunity to tour and photograph the TFC Recycling facility.
I was impressed to find a clean, well-run facility. I expected it to smell like garbage. The general manager, Tad Phillips, reassured me that they didn’t clean for my visit; rather, workers are constantly cleaning each shift. Plus, recycling isn’t like garbage — it typically doesn’t have rotting food and waste.
The Central Virginia Waste Management Authority handles the curbside recycling program in the Richmond area, serving more than 260,000 households. Nearly 36,000 tons of recyclable materials is diverted from Virginia landfills annually.
“On average, we collect 130 tons per day from CVWMA jurisdictions,” Phillips said. TFC accepts cardboard, newspaper and mixed paper — which make up about 70 percent of what’s collected by weight — as well as steel and aluminum cans, plastic bottles (marked with a 1 or 2), and glass bottles and jars.
Those numbers are likely to rise; CVWMA announced this week that it has seen a significant increase in recycling in the city this year.
“Both participation and tonnage collected by city of Richmond residents have increased since the 95-gallon recycling carts were rolled out this year,” according to a news release. More than 60,000 carts have been distributed.
The carts have made it easier for CVWMA to collect recycling because all the trucks in their fleet are equipped with mechanical arms that pick up and dump the carts into the trucks. Drivers navigate their routes solo and are paid a “per-ton” rate, meaning that the more they collect, the more they can earn, according to Phillips.
Once CVWMA collects recycling in the Richmond area, all of it is taken to the TFC facility, which also handles industrial clients and some materials collected from Charlottesville and Stafford County, he said.
An average shift uses about 40 workers. The biggest task is sorting out the recycling through a large system of conveyors and machines to get as much material as possible separated before being crushed into bundles for resale. Most of the paper goes to China and Indonesia, while plastics and aluminum are usually sold within the United States.
“Single-stream” recycling is how most residential recycling is collected in central Virginia. Customers put everything into one container rather than sort their recyclables. Sorting the mixed products is not a problem for TFC, Phillips said.
Nonrecyclable items often find their way to the facility. TFC doesn’t want foam products, food-contaminated items, juice boxes, milk cartons or any plastic caps and lids. Other unwanted items are plastics (other than those marked 1 and 2) and plastic bags, which can easily get stuck in the sorting machinery.
“CVWMA does a great job of educating people, but we get a little of everything,” Phillips said.
Single-stream has caused a problem with the recovery of glass for many recycling companies across the country, but not TFC, Phillips said. While there isn’t much of a market for recycled glass, TFC does dispose of it to be recycled.
“We lose money on it, but we do get some money,” he said. The glass is purchased by Reflective Recycling, which sends two trucks daily to take the mixed glass to its facility in Wilson, N.C. Throwing it away would cost more.
“On average, we generate around 500 tons of glass per month,” he said. “If we had to haul that much to a landfill and pay disposal costs, that would cost us about $40 a ton.”
For many recycling facilities that cannot sell the collected glass, it is sent to a landfill and often is spread as landfill cover — so the glass is reused, but not recycled to make new glass containers.
Not everything that people put in bins can be recycled. Some of it is recyclable material for which it is difficult to find a market. For example, the load dumped the day of my visit came from the Fan District. There was a bike frame and fitness apparatus, both metal. Neither fit in with the program, and there is little available facility space to save materials.
I was sad to discover that dirty recyclable materials are sometimes deemed garbage too. I’m guilty of trying to recycle bottles and cans I recover from the James River. They need to be washed before recycling if they are muddy. Same for containers covered in food residue.
Most of the nonrecyclable material the facility processes is just garbage, and workers separate it from the recyclables to be sent to a landfill.
“Landfill tip fees in the Richmond market vary by site and by volume. The more volume you take to a site, the better rate you can negotiate,” Phillips said.
“The nonrecyclable residue we collect is on average somewhere between 8 to 10 percent, which is very low compared to industry standards,” he said. Non recyclable materials are hauled to a landfill every day.
Everybody’s heard of “reduce, reuse, recycle” by now. There is less need for recycling when you find ways to reduce and reuse.

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