When glass bottles are thrown into a recycling bin in Manatee County, they have quite a journey ahead of them.
Often they end up passing through the Bradenton-based Strategic Materials recycling center — but not quickly enough for Tom Burns, Southeast regional manager for the company.
So Burns, along with Strategic Materials’ CEO Curt Busey, plans to build a $7 million facility at the decades-old center in Bradenton by year’s end, increasing the center’s capacity from 5,000 tons a month to 100,000 tons a month.
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He hopes to have the plant run 24/7, which will create 24 new jobs, including some management positions.
“What’s caused us to spend a lot of capital is how the glass is now collected,” Burns said.
Strategic Materials, owned by Chicago-based Willis and Stein, now has only two low-yield conveyor systems for sorting glass, and mounds of recyclables have piled up — to the point where the company has had to ship materials to its facility in Atlanta.
After a Manatee County recycling bin is emptied into a Waste Management or Waste Pro dump truck and compacted, the mixture of paper, cardboard, glass and other recyclables is taken to Recycle America in Sarasota. According to their contracts with Manatee County, privately owned Waste Management and Waste Pro must deliver the recyclables they pick up to a facility that can process them.
Recycle America, which also is owned by Waste Management, satisfies this requirement by roughly sorting the recyclables and then delivering them to companies that can turn would-be waste into sellable product, said Melissa Doyle, district manager at Waste Management.
Recycle America begins by running all of the mixed-up recyclables in a large, rotating drum called a trammel, which has holes that allow smaller items, such as glass, plastic caps, aluminum soda tabs and paper, to sift out. Recycle America then pays Strategic Material to take the sifted-out recyclables. Bobbie Edelen, of Recycle America, said that Strategic Material purchases all of his glass, but would not say how many tons a month.
The finished product is piles of pencap-sized glass chunks called cullet, which are sold to fiberglass and container industries to be melted down and reshaped.
Getting the glass out of the recyclable slurry and then sorting it by the basic colors — flint, or clear glass, green and brown — is no easy task.
“We call it the scrambled egg effect, we’re taking a bunch that’s mixed together and trying to unscramble the egg so to speak,” Burns said. “In that same process we remove all the contaminants. It’s very complicated and it’s very expensive.”
In a perfect world for Burns, he would never have to deal with contaminants, because everyone would know what is recyclable and what isn’t. For instance, he wouldn’t worry about leaded glass, commonly used in heat-resistant cooking ware, which doesn’t melt in a furnace and makes his product unusable to some customers.
Instead, high-tech equipment, such as an X-ray machine which will identify the leaded glass, will be installed in his new facility to handle this and many other unwanted materials.
Once the contaminants have been weeded out, there is still the issue of sorting the glass by color.
This used to be done by hand, but the new facility will include a machine that can recognize the color of each piece of glass and sort it properly.
“If it sees a brown piece it will blow it one direction, if it sees a green piece it shoots it off in a different direction,” said John Burns, Tom Burns’ father who has been in recycling since the early ’70s.
This is particularly important to container manufacturers who are creating new bottles and jars from old glass.
Looking forward, Tom Burns is preparing for a future in which much more waste is recycled in Florida.
In 2008, the Energy, Climate Change, and Economic Security Act was signed into Florida law by Gov. Charlie Crist, mandating that by the year 2020 75 percent of all Florida’s waste be recycled.
If this is achieved, “that would be huge for us,” Tom Burns said.