Inside Your Bottles and Cans’ Epic Journey to Their Next Life

A lot happens between bin and bile.


Collection trucks bring up to 250 tons of stuff a day to the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), 1401 W. Mt. Vernon Ave. in the Menomonee Valley, and simply dump it on the tip floor, according to Samantha Longshore, the city’s recycling czar. The MRF is owned by the city of Milwaukee and Waukesha County, and is operated by Republic Services.

Front-end loaders pick up the piles of loose recyclables and carry them into bins, which till the materials and lay them out on a conveyor belt.

Workers on each side of the belt comb through the containers, paper and glass in search of non-recyclables, objects that could damage machines (like plastic bags) or safety hazards, like propane tanks and batteries.

The conveyor belt feeds four screening machines, which use a series of spinning disks to sort recyclables. Cardboard is filtered out early, along with glass, which is broken into small chips, cleaned and then deposited on a warehouse floor. Paper and other flat materials are pulled up the conveyor belt through a filter, while non-flat plastic containers fall down to a different belt. The paper is hand-sorted from there. The plastic containers are pulled through three sorting machines that emit near-infrared light to determine which type of plastic it is, and then use blasts of air to shoot the plastic into its proper line.



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Employees do a final hand screen on the conveyor to check for any missorted materials. From there, everything is dropped down to a bunker, where the sorted materials are put through a baler that presses all those bottles, cans and tubs and paper into giant cubes wrapped in steel wire – say, 32,000 aluminum cans, or paper bales weighing over a ton.

Different materials go to different facilities around the state and country, such as paper to Sustana Fiber in De Pere and glass to Strategic Materials in Delavan.

The Zen of Composting

I COMPOST FOOD SCRAPS and yard waste in a big black barrel in my backyard because I am concerned about the environment, sure. But don’t think I’m not getting something out of it. There’s the unexplainable rush of serotonin when those moldy strawberries hit the pile. And there’s the compost itself, which is especially valuable when the gardener in the house otherwise buys $16 bags of “activated compost.” So I have become a zealous grower of equally premium dirt, foraging pumpkins from November leaf piles and pouring out used tea bags. I know how that sounds, taking time to keep a tenth of an ounce of tea out of a landfill. But logic be damned, I’m doing my part, and I’m gonna get my fancy homegrown dirt. – Chris Drosner




Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.