Borough does all their processing in-house

By Morgan Bayer

Brian Bailey, the Public Works Superintendent of the Kutztown Borough Refuse and Recycling plant, took time this past Wednesday to explain in an interview what happens to residents’ sorted recyclables. He said that it is crucial for residents to sort plastics, glass and paper when placing it on the curb for pick-up in order to make the recycling process efficient and to make the processing equipment last.

Bailey, who was born and raised in Kutztown, started out as a garbage collector on the trucks and worked his way up to superintendent. He knows the complete process, but sometimes wishes he was “back on the truck.” Bailey not only works to manage a crew but also handles other tasks, such as applying for grant funding, documenting and submitting the yearly recycling quantity and networking with various recycling plants to ensure that Kutztown’s recycling is taken, sorted and compressed and bound into what are called “bricks.”

Aluminum compressed bricks for recycling.
Photo Credit: Morgan Bayer

“Plastics don’t make money,” Bailey explained. “We get a little return for aluminum [such as aluminum cans], but not much.” The Borough is required by law to recycle based on the town’s population and the amount of recyclables those residents produce. The town receives $5,000 yearly from the state government for recycling, which goes back into the department to “buy the crew new gloves or other essentials,” Bailey said.

The industry appears to be less self-sustaining than desired. For instance, Kugel’s, the main company who purchases the Borough’s recycling – or, more accurately, the company that takes it off the Borough’s hands – can reject certain “bricks” depending on their quality. Bailey looked over a brick of plastic products that was covered in rust from the compression machine. “This one,” he said pointing at the brick, “you can tell it was processed during the rain because of all the rust from the compression machine.” He was not sure if Kugel’s would take it or if the crew would need to power wash the brick beforehand.

Plastic brick covered in rust.
Photo Credit: Morgan Bayer

The recycling and sorting process can seem a bit daunting for Kutztown residents compared to people living in larger cities or towns that have hired a Waste Management  company that possesses more effective sorting equipment. The reason for this is that the Kutztown Borough does all their processing in-house with a sparse crew and one compression machine mainly used for two materials (plastic and aluminum).

The Kutztown Borough applies for grant funding, but they must be careful not to dominate the grant applications, sharing the processes with other departments that require funding as well. Grants such as Acts 101 and 902 have helped the Borough procure equipment to ensure that residents’ recyclables end up recycled and not sent to a landfill.

 “Sometimes you get a glass bottle mixed in with the load of plastic bottles at the curb,” Bailey said. If the crew doesn’t catch this stray glass bottle, it will go through the compression process, which is not designed for glass. The glass bottle then breaks and gets wedged into crevices in the machine that can jam up the works.

Another reason why the Kutztown Borough asks residents to sort their clear glass bottles from their colored ones is because of the repurposing process. Clear glass is in demand because it can be made into a broader range of materials, whereas colored glass has a limited color pallette to choose from when repurposing into other products.

Sorted colored glass in designated bay.
Photo Credit: Morgan Bayer

Another challenge particular to Kutztown is the frequent rotation of student residents throughout the years, as new residents may find it difficult acclimating to the sorting process. This means that the Kutztown Borough has an added task of training residents more often than other towns on its rigorous process.

Bailey explained that some landlords have sorted recycling as a requirement for their tenants and can face eviction if these requirements are not followed. This may seem extreme, but Bailey stressed how instruction, encouragement and awareness given by landlords and other Kutztown entities help the recycling process become more effective. This stimulation can lead to larger quantities of recyclables, thus warranting more grant funding for better sorting equipment. Only recently, Bailey was finally able to apply for the attachment track that feeds the compression machine, making the process much more efficient.

Kutztown Borough compression machine.
Photo Credit: Morgan Bayer

Currently, Kutztown residents see either a truck with four large silver containers or a pick-up truck dispatched to retrieve the hard-to-reach curbside recyclables. The crew dumps each curbside bin into a specified silver container. Once the container truck comes back to the recycling plant, the container mechanically lifts to dump each specific material into the selected bay (Video 1).

The plastic and aluminum materials are fed separately through the compression machine, which results in a compressed brick (Video 2). Steel ties are then applied to bind the brick holding the compressed recyclables in place. “You don’t want to be anywhere near those ties if they pop,” explained Bailey. It was a painful learning curve for the crew when acclimating to the new compression machine (Video 3).

The compressed bricks of recyclables are then stored in the old police station because exposure to the sun can cause the recyclables to expand and the steel ties to pop. A third-party transporter then delivers the bricks to either Kugel’s recycling plant or another recycling facility. All recyclables are counted and documented to submit to the State each year. Video 4 features the new forklift that the Borough received through grant funding, which helps transport the large and heavy compressed bricks and comes in handy for numerous non-recycling purposes. Due to the forklift’s multifunction, a grant request for an upgrade was approved. (Video 4).

Currently, the recycling is picked up every week on separate days for North and South Kutztown. However, Bailey noted that this may change next year because of the minimal labor force needed to maintain a biweekly schedule. But if Kutztown residents keep sorting their recycling, Bailey’s crew will keep making sure it is processed.

When asked how knowledge of the recycling process has changed personal behavior, Bailey stated, “I always have everyone in the house rinse out the recyclable containers.” This makes for a cleaner and more sellable brick. For instance, it reduces leachate – an environmentally harmful liquid byproduct of waste – and “makes the floors really slippery. Especially liquid detergents,” a wide-eyed Bailey expressed, conveying a precaution learned from experience.

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