PHOENIX (Field Trip Friday) - Have you ever wondered where all your recycled trash goes? The entire process is pretty fascinating.

We all know at the Waste Management Phoenix Open , recycling is a big deal. The tournament is "the largest zero-waste sporting event in the world," for eight years straight.

So, how do they do it? Well, we went behind the scenes to see just how recycling works.

"A couple of years ago, we had a live python come through in a box," says Mark Snedecor, the area director of recycling operations for Waste Management. "We hope somebody made a mistake, but those aren't recyclable." Yup, they get some weird things. While we were there, we saw a purse and a Christmas tree come through; both items, by the way, are not recyclable. "Mannequins we've had come across... we've had whole refrigerators come across," Snedecor tells us. Nothing seems to surprise him anymore.

Every hour, 25 tons of tossed-out treasures travel down the conveyor belts, with the help of good old-fashioned manpower and high-tech help. "There are optical sorters, new screening technologies. In Colorado, we're actually employing robots." For Snedecor, after 23 years, it's a job he never gets sick of. "It's a fun, exciting day; you get to do new things every time."

Seventy-five employees rotate 16-hour days to sift, sort and separate the rubbish by hand. It's a dizzying amount of recycled materials, and our cameras were there to take a rare tour of the trash. "This is materially unprocessed coming from our various businesses and our residential customers," Snedecor said, pointing to a pile of garbage nearing ceiling height.

Sifting through recycled materials

Inside Waste Management's recycle facility in Surprise, we had to back up as a tipper truck dumped a heap of 30-thousand pounds. That's 15 tons of garbage ready for salvage. And now, because of the pandemic, they're seeing 25% more residential waste as millions work and school from home. "We've seen big increases in cardboard as people are shopping online with Walmart, Amazon or the other online services," Snedecor said. "Also, with aluminum cans, [as] more people consume seltzer water and sodas at home."

They'll process 6,000 tons each month; the bulk of it being, paper, glass, plastic and cardboard. Cardboard bails here weigh about 2,000 pounds. They'll be shipped out and turned right back into cardboard boxes. Other stuff is repurposed at mills all over the country. Plastic is reborn as carpet, paper transforms to tissue, and old glass becomes beer bottles in two weeks! And the re-birth happens right here in Arizona. "The aluminum can you consume today, within 60 days is probably back on the store shelf in the form of an aluminum can again," Snedecor explains.

Which means, for many of these products, the cycle on recycling is infinite. Which is music to Snedecor's ear. "It's all a part of the process of reducing our carbon footprint, making the world a better place, and reusing valuable resources."

One of the most important tips on recycling, Mark says, is don't put your items in a plastic bag, they have to be loose in your bin. Plastic bags will actually slow down the process and can ruin the equipment. Also, he recommends, "when in doubt, throw it out." It's a saying they've come to use at Waste Management, as every day, they'll see items that don't belong, which can be dangerous to the workers and can even shut down the entire recycling center.

How to Recycle Right:

  • Recycle clean bottles, cans, paper and cardboard.
  • Cups with plastic or waxed coatings are not recyclable. The plastic lids should be trashed as well.
  • Flatten and recycle all cardboard and paperboard.
  • Recycle clean and dry containers, with the cap back on before tossing in the bin.
  • Cardboard pizza delivery boxes without leftovers or liners can be recycled; but leftover crusts, cheese and other food should not.
  • Keep food and liquid out of your recycling bin.
  • No loose plastic bags and no bagged recyclables. Materials inside may not get recycled
  • Garden hoses, rope, leashes, wire, holiday lights, string and chains should never go in the recycling bin. These "tanglers" can wrap around equipment, endanger workers and shut down the entire recycling center.
  • Household items such as clothing, shower curtains, mini-pools, fencing and furniture don't go in the recycling bin.
  • Car parts, scrap metal, tires, filters, propane cylinders and the like are safety hazards if put in curbside recycling or trash bins.

 🡕 More information about recycling in Arizona

Jessica Parsons is a segment producer and reporter for Good Morning Arizona.  She has a knack for great storytelling so be sure to watch Good Morning Arizona to catch one of her stories.

Copyright 2021 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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