Hunched at the beginning of the conveyor belt, Shelby Salmon ripped open blue bags and dumped the contents. Occasionally grabbing a broom to sweep in stray debris, he mostly relied on his gloved hands to feed recyclables onto the belt and up to the sorting area 15 feet above him.
When he works at the top, Salmon, a temporary worker for three months at the municipal landfill’s recycling center, grabs milk bottles, beer cans or coffee tins off the line, tossing them to bins below. Glass is dumped by the conveyor belt at the end, providing a constant din as it shatters. Even though the center runs 78.5 hours a week, there’s a backlog of recyclables waiting to be sorted on the warehouse floor.
It’s a dirty job that Alfonzo Lawhorn, an equipment operator at the center, never thought he’d have. After years of working retail, he found the job through a temp agency and started working at the center as a sorter. Two years and a promotion later, he said he will never work retail again.
“I don’t like to get dirty, and it’s the dirtiest job you can have,” Lawhorn said. “But I help save the environment in my own little way.”
The beginning is the worst part of the line. Lawhorn said he’s seen boats, hypodermic needles and half a deer carcass mixed in with the recyclables.
A new machine proposed for the recycling center won’t take away Salmon’s or Lawhorn’s job, or sort out the needles or deer carcasses. It will bring a little more automation into the sorting process, which is done largely by hand.
Currently, sorters handpick through the material brought in from the blue bags from curbside pickup, community recycling bins and commercial recycling. The only automated part of sorting recyclables is a magnet that automatically picks up tin, such as soup or tuna cans.
The machine the city plans to purchase works like a magnet in reverse, with aluminum repelled off the conveyor belt automatically. Called an eddy current separator, the machines have been around since the 1990s.
“This eddy current separator is common in the industry. It’s proven, it’s reasonably priced, and it makes our system more efficient,” said Richard Wieman, solid waste utility manager for Columbia’s Public Works Department.
“It’s a cost-effective item for us because it is a piece of machinery that will help as more of Columbia increases recycling. We will be better-equipped to handle more recyclables,” Wieman said.
The equipment is not considered more thorough than human hands and eyes but will allow the sorting system to handle a lot more recycling, Wieman said.
While the separator will eliminate a spot on the sorting line, this will not mean a loss of staff, Wieman said. Staffing is an issue, Wieman said, because of the landfill’s remote location and the nature of the job. The recycling center sees many turnovers and temporary workers, so any losses on the sorting line due to the new machinery will be absorbed.
At this point, no further plans are in the works for additional equipment, Wieman said.
“I think that the evolution of our recycling equipment has been toward automation, but our system is not intended to be fully automated, at least not in the near future. That’s not what our goal is,” Wieman said.
The recycling center sells some of the recyclables, like aluminum and paper. Some items, such as glass, are not profitable to sell, said Derek Collier, Columbia landfill superintendent. The glass is finely crushed by a pulverizer and currently reused as backfill and in the landfill drives and parking lots.
The Public Works Department was awarded a $45,000 grant from the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District to buy the separator. The department on Monday asked the City Council for $15,000 to use as matching funds and approval to buy the equipment.
The grant money comes from a state “tipping fee” on landfills, which is then turned over to different solid waste districts for grant distribution.
The eddy current separator is estimated to cost around $40,000 before installation costs, Wieman said.
If the City Council approves, advertising for bids should start in July with the equipment installed in September or October.