Earth Day serves and annual reminder to recycle and reuse. But for most residents of Northern Virginia, separating newspaper, aluminum cans and plastic bottles from regular household garbage is already routine.

A visit to American Disposal Service’s single-stream recycling plant in Manassas, however, reveals the dirty little secret hiding inside all those bright-colored curbside recycling containers: They’re full of trash.

Clothes, shoes, garden hoses, pizza boxes, plastic bags and brake drums -- all regularly turn up in people’s recycling bins, and that’s become a big problem for the people who spend their days sorting through the mess at American’s recycling plant on Residency Drive, near the Manassas airport.

“All that does is make more work for us,” says plant manager John Foy.

Foy doesn’t know why their customers – 90 percent of whom live in Prince William, Fairfax, Fauquier and Loudoun counties –  toss so many un-recyclable items into their recycling bins.

Some of it’s no doubt the result of confusion about what can be recycled and what cannot. That’s why the company urges customers to check out the website: thinkbeforeyouthrow.org

American’s recycling operation runs 11 hours a day, five days a week and processes about 50 tons of stuff every hour, Foy said.

Much of the process is automated and mechanized. Screens with large metal teeth snag cans and bottles while paper and cardboard cruise over the top. Further along the line, electrified magnets separate the metal from the plastic.

Nearly 60 plant employees man various conveyor belts along the way. Their main job is to pick out the garbage that the machines can’t separate. The facility ends up sending 75 to 100 tons of trash to the landfill, each day, Foy said.

The cost of the problem is also measured in time.

Every few hours, the belts grind to halt so workers can “clean the screens.” That process sends workers scrambling to pull items like clothes, shoes, hoses and strings of Christmas lights from the machines’ innards. During a recent visit, one of the workers took a power grinder to strip gunk from the metal teeth as sparks flew beside other workers tugging away at plastic bags.

Plastic bags are the main nemesis, Foy said. They get wrapped around the parts and clog up the operation.

Another problem is that some of the recyclable paper they process – including newsprint – loses its value if its soiled by food or other trash.

New contamination restrictions recently imposed by China, once a major importer of American recyclables, have changed the game for firms like American because their single-stream processing lines can’t produce paper clean enough to meet the new requirements.

As a result, American now ships its paper off to India at a fraction of the price it once fetched rom China. Before the new rules went into place – part of China’s “National Sword” program – American sold paper to China at about $150 a ton. It gets only about $13 a ton from Indian firms, Foy said.

“Just a year ago, we were making good money [on paper] but then the bottom dropped out,” Foy said. “Our profits are sharply down. It’s been a disaster.”

Whether or not the changing market will result in rising prices for American’s curbside customers remains to be seen. American Disposal is a private company, and Foy declined to comment on how the company will compensate for the revenue loss.

But customers play a role in making the operation as efficient as possible. Toward that end, American continues to try to get the word out about keeping recycle bins as clean as possible.

Some of the biggest problem items include:

  • Pizza boxes: Yes, they’re made of cardboard, but NO they are not recyclable. They’re too greasy and muck up the machines and the rest of the recyclable items.
  • Hoses, strings of lights, ropes:  Anything long and stringy is a big no-no.
  • Food waste:  Rinse out plastic containers and cans. The remnants of peanut butter and tomato sauce are a problem.
  • Plastic bags:  Take them to a grocery store that collects them but keep them out of your recycling bin. “Plastic bags are the worst,” Foy said.

An aside: Residents who take their recyclables to the seven recycling drop-off sites around Fauquier County are asked to keep their items as clean as possible, too.

But because their items are processed separately, trash is not such a big problem, said Mike Dorsey, the county’s director of environmental services.

Workers at the drop-off site sort trash out of the recyclables all day long. But doing so earlier in the process keeps the recyclables from being contaminated like they are at single-stream facilities like American’s.

Still, Dorsey urges everyone to “keep it clean.”

“When you start throwing different things into [the recycling], it’s just garbage,” Dorsey said.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com.

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