The trip was in part triggered by a debate about whether Princeton should ask Mercer County, which runs Princeton's curbside recycling program, to add several items to its list of accepted recyclables, in particular plastics 3-7. (For background on this subject, see previous research I've posted here and here.)
This particular machine is compressing aluminum cans into big blocks.
which look like modern art. I heard a figure of $1400/ton mentioned for aluminum cans. The energy-intensive process of making aluminum from ore dug out of the ground may have something to do with the high value fetched by recycled aluminum, which unlike many other materials can be recycled indefinitely.
One thing they mentioned about paper: If it gets wet, as can easily happen in Princeton's uncovered yellow or green recycling buckets during rains, the machinery can't separate the paper as well. The portion that fails to be sorted out ends up going to the landfill. Shredded paper also tends to fall through the cracks, making it a better prospect for backyard or curbside composting.
Mercer County does not include plastics 3-7, aerosol cans, and aluminum trays and foil on its list of accepted recyclables. Yet, all of these items are accepted and successfully marketed by the Colgate plant.
Neither Princeton nor Mercer County has any control over where our recyclables end up. If we decide not to recycle various materials because we don't know where they go, then most recyclables would have to be sent to the landfill. Though it may seem a waste of energy to send recyclables overseas, they likely are carried by ships that would otherwise be empty as they return to China or elsewhere to pick up more merchandise.
Plastics 3-7 represent only 1% of the materials currently coming to the Colgate plant. Staff there gave us the sense that the more of a particular material that can be collected, the more likely it can be successfully marketed, and new uses found for it. This echoes what Kevin Lyons of Rutgers University has said.
A separate but related issue is whether manufacturers can and should be required to design products and packaging so they can be more easily recycled, and reduce packaging in general. For example, one can feel good buying ecologically friendly Fair Trade coffee, but the package is seemingly designed to defeat any attempt at recycling.
Whether or not Mercer County finally adds plastics 3-7, aluminum trays and foil, and aerosol cans to its list of accepted curbside recyclables, at least we now have a better understanding of the first leg of our recyclables' journey back to utility.
Thanks to our hosts at Colgate for the tour!