Of all the colorful places in this eclectic enclave of the Tampa Bay area, there is one that touches us all—and most of us have no idea it's there.
Twenty-one hours a day inside a three-story-tall warehouse, Waste Management is processing our recycling. A gargantuan machine takes whatever we abandon in those blue curbside bins and turns it into something useful.
"It's almost a reverse manufacturing," said Eddie MacManus, recycling director for Waste Management.
The process is a modern marvel, with an unpredictable mixture arriving at all hours and rolling down a speeding conveyor belt at a rate of 25 tons an hour.
Ninety-seven percent of what ships in ships out as a pure commodity, rushed to manufacturers worldwide.
"Our goal is to make sure waste no longer goes to waste," said Waste Management's Dawn McCormick.
The process begins with tractor trailers tipping their load into a huge holding area. It's a chaotic avalanche, and to people like plant manager Scotte Kavanaugh, it's a gold mine.
"Yeah it is, and you're mining for gold," he said.
Although much of the operation is automated, Kavanaugh points out the handful of people who monitor the line for foreign objects.
"You really don't know what lies on the belt in front of you," he said.
Job one is filtering out plastic shopping bags and feeding them into a vacuum shoot. After that, the hungry, speeding line rushes toward a wall of sprockets.
"The cardboard will track up those gears," Kavanaugh said. Then the old boxes drop to a holding bin of their own.
As newspaper rapidly falls away from the blend, the remainder races under a powerful rare earth magnet. The unseen force yanks away tin cans in high-speed. It happens so fast, it's almost invisible.
"It'll gravitate off to the magnet, then go off to a bunker," Kavanaugh explained.
The magnet doesn't attract aluminum. So, the facility employs a scientific phenomenon known as an eddy current. The reverse magnet of sorts causes the can to literally leap off the belt.
"It's very exciting," Kavanaugh said.
Next plastics are eyed—literally. Electronic sensors scan the conveyor for various types of plastic.
"It's near infrared spectrometry," Kavanaugh said. "It's looking for the colored plastic."
A staccato air jet the shoots the different kinds of plastic off to their respective bunkers.
"We want to separate the colored plastics from the naturals," Kavanaugh said. "The most valuable plastics would be those that don't have the pigments in them."
By now, glass is all that remains. It's shaken to pieces in an agitator, then mounded in tall pile.
The rest is compressed into a bailer, when the materials are compressed into bulky one-ton blocks.
"That's treasure to us," Kavanaugh said.
Depending on the metals market, one aluminum block can be worth $1,500.
"Aluminum cans are one of the most valuable commodities," McCormick said.
The purity is astounding. Thousands of milk jugs, for example, roll down the line—segregated largely by machine. The block is almost 100 percent milk jugs, culled together from thousands of bins all over the area.
From here, the blocks ship by sea or by road, destined for re-use.
"New paper, new cardboard," said Waste Management's Greg Branam. "Not only domestic, but foreign mills."
Even for insiders, the behind-the-scenes operation is awe-inspiring.
"It is simply amazing," Kavanaugh said. "I am proud of it, very proud."
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