Troy Edwards didn’t flinch as hundreds of pieces of trash raced and tumbled below him — old newspapers, crushed water bottles, watermelon rinds, prescription pill bottles, a stray flip-flop and a multitude of other discarded objects bouncing noisily along.
After all, Edwards belongs to a trash dynasty.
His father, Larry Edwards, founded a waste removal company and teamed up with Paul Coury, owner of a second trash company, to start a third. That jointly owned company, American Disposal Services, recently opened the American Recycling Center, a $10 million state-of-the-art recycling plant and interactive learning center in Manassas that celebrated its grand opening Wednesday afternoon.
Larry’s son Kevin — who happens to be married to Coury’s daughter Karli — is now the center’s general manager, and Troy, who stood surveying the chaotic assembly lines full of trash Wednesday, is an operations specialist.
If the family tree weren’t enough to make one’s head spin, the progress of the recyclable materials as they rattle, slide and collide through the plant would be. Some assembly lines look orderly. The series of mechanized processes that trash goes through as it is sorted, squashed and shipped off for reuse seems anything but.
Of course, when the messiest of materials are involved, the process is going to look like a jumble. Recyclable trash comes into the 45,000-square-foot facility by the truckload, carted in from curbsides as far away as West Virginia and Richmond. To separate the many materials in the mix — the glass and the aluminum, the many varieties of plastics, the non-recyclable trash — the refuse travels through 11 sorting processes.
First, a spinning cylindrical feeder drops pieces of trash onto a moving belt, where workers sort them by hand, yanking out anything that could clog the machinery, such as a hose or a plastic bag.
Then the trash tumbles over a set of spinning wheels. Glass, naturally the heaviest of recyclables, drops between the wheels and into a machine below, where it is crushed to pieces. Smaller items, such as paper and plastic, fall between the next set of gaps. Cardboard, aided by teeth on the metal wheels that snag it, goes right over the top.
The next set of wheels is rubber, not metal. This time, the paper sticks.
A giant magnet helps remove some metal items from the stream. And an optical sorter, which measures the quality of light reflecting from objects, helps differentiate colored plastic from natural plastic, which is sold separately, at the end of the process.
At almost every step, workers stand with hard hats and dust masks, briskly removing all the wayward items that the mechanical sorters miss. “The trick to this is if you miss something, just not to turn around, or you’ll never catch up,” said Troy Edwards, who said he has been working his way through various jobs in the facility. His favorite machine, he said, is the optical sorter.
Rusty Angel, a representative of Machinex, the company that built the machines in the plant, said that the typical piece of trash passes through the facility in just 60 to 90 seconds. At the end, a machine applies as much as 3,800 pounds of pressure to compact the sorted trash into evenly shaped bales.
The bales are sold and turned into various products. Paper or cardboard might become paper or cardboard again; a soda can might live its next life as a piece of a car or bicycle; a plastic bottle might turn up again as synthetic clothing or carpeting.
The plant turns out five to seven bales per day of aluminum, its most lucrative product. Each one weighs about 1,300 pounds, contains more than 44,000 soda cans, and sells for about $1,000.
Anna Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for American Disposal Services, said at Wednesday’s ceremony that the recycling plant saves 1 million kilowatts of energy per day — enough to drive a car almost 400,000 miles or power a house for 100 years.