Tulsa’s “Mr. Murph” recycling process demystified

Excuse the ugly mascot on the side of the recycling bins dotting the campus. The image of a walking, emotive recycling bin with a face and the poor taste to put a cap on his grossly misshapen head isn’t supposed to be appealing to you, it’s just supposed to be memorable.

It’s one of many ways American Waste Control’s team in Tulsa is trying to get you to recycle and, generally speaking, cut down on your production of waste.

On average, an American citizen is bound to produce a literal ton of garbage each year. Mr. Murph, the nickname for Tulsa’s Material Recovery Facility (MRF), is trying to ensure it doesn’t all end up in a landfill.

During a tour of the facility with Robert Pickens, VP of recycling, he gave a presentation about the plant’s innovative recycling processes.

The majority of Pickens’ presentation had to do with the plant’s innovative technology for separating different materials not only from each other, but also non-recyclable contaminants. The design of MRF means it is able to process plastics, aluminum, cardboard, paper and glass, greatly diminishing the need for Northeast Oklahomans to sort their waste into different bins.

This means it is a “single stream” system, though Pickens finds that confusing, given its heterogenous nature, and instead prefers to say that it is a “mixed recyclables” system.

First, the collected trash is dumped onto the tipping floor, named for the trucks’ system of tipping their hauls out. It’s then loaded into a hopper, which sends the trash through a device which meters it for consistent volume.

Next, the conveyor belt runs past pre-sorters, who pull out material that is too large or incapable of being recycled. This material will be sent to an incinerator in order to recover its energy. The recyclables next move on to a three-tier sorting system of screeners with varying gaps.

These gaps mean that cardboard moves on above, three dimensional material drops one level and glass, the heaviest material, falls to the lowest level, where it shatters on impact and is loaded for transfer to the glass cleanup system. Next for the recyclables is the polisher, which separates out the newspaper.

The newspaper faces another quality checkup before it is placed in bins to be bailed later. The next polisher ekes out the fiber and mixed paper before running by yet another quality check station. Once fiber and glass are removed, the MRF sets about separating aluminum, metal and plastics.

A crossbelt magnet pulls the ferrous metals from the conveyor, while a later station uses an eddy current to repel the aluminum into a farther chute than the plastics. The plastics move onto optical scanning, which quickly scans plastic materials before using an air current to divide the materials between a closer and farther chute. The next scanner does much the same, only it detects the color of the passing object rather than its makeup.

Sorted materials are finally brought to the bailer, the final step before being shipped to manufacturers who use recycled materials.

All in all, the MRF sorts between 36,000 and 38,000 lbs of recyclables per hour, though its maximum capacity is 40,000 lbs. Per month, MRF handles a million pounds of waste, but is built to handle twice that amount, though it would require many more shifts.

The processed material is sold to manufacturers across the country according to the market; this stuff is still a commodity, after all. Still, Pickens says they have an easy time keeping the business local, as Tulsa has an unusually robust market for recycled materials to use in products such as glass bottles, sheetrock paper, tissues, towels and plastics.

Despite all of this, Pickens and his peers are having a hard time getting Tulsans to recycle, at least correctly. This is for the most part a consequence of Tulsa’s only recent embrace of recycling.

Since Tulsa became a recycling city so much later than larger urban areas, it skipped the days of the blue bag system and dual streams, which both required attentive sorting from recyclers.

Because they started with carts, Tulsans often can’t discern a non-recyclable item from a recyclable one. Common examples are clothing, which gets wrapped around the MRF’s screeners and has to be manually cut down, and film plastics, like grocery bags (though most grocers are making an effort to collect and recycle these bags on their own).

Pickens had two final instructions for college students in particular. The first is that while most pizza boxes are indeed recyclable, the recycling process is incapable of cleaning out food or liquids. In other words, don’t throw a full slice of pizza into the recycling bin and, if grease has seeped into half the box, tear off the clean part and recycle that alone.

The second clarification pertained to beer bottles. The MRF is capable of recycling the bottle caps, so when you’re recycling your empty beer bottle, leave the cap on.

The MRF is a seven million dollar investment, and recycling’s just a business like anything else. Only it so happens this business slows the pollution of our planet. So the next time you see that ugly Mr. Murph, try to remember that it’s simpler than ever to ensure your trash doesn’t end up in a landfill.

Post Author: tucollegian

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