The EcoFellow Experience: Recycling in Action

By Matt Brodeur, Green Business Services EcoFellow

Photos by Ben Coe, Program Support Specialist

Have you ever wondered where your recyclables go after they get picked up from the curbside or you drop them off at the transfer station? The EcoFellows and other CET staff had the opportunity to see the next step of the recycling process in action at the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility (MRF), where most of Western Massachusetts sends its recyclables. MRFs sort the contents of your recycling bins into different categories such as cardboard, #1 plastic (PET), and aluminum. Then, manufacturers purchase the recycled materials to create new products. For example, #1 plastic soda bottles can be recycled and remanufactured to create polyester clothing!

Recycling MRF

A bale of recycled paper ready to be trucked away to be made into next week’s newspapers.

The Springfield MRF, owned by MassDEP and operated by Waste Management, has been sorting and selling the recyclables of Western Mass since it started up its conveyor belts in 1990. The tour of the MRF was a window into the colossal U.S. recycling industry which generates nearly $100 billion in economic activity each year.

Despite the massive size of the industry and the widespread acceptance of recycling, there are still plenty of misconceptions about what can and can’t go in the blue bin. A few products in particular repeatedly cause issues for recycling facility staff. Plastic bags and other types of “film plastic” are among the worst culprits. Because the bags are thin and stretchy, they often get stuck in the sorting machinery. Instead of putting plastic bags in the recycling bin, search the Plastic Film Directory to find a drop off location for film plastic.


Another type of product that many perceive to be recyclable is plastic cups, such as to-go cups for iced coffee or tea. Unfortunately, plastic cups are usually not recyclable; this is where it gets a little confusing. Many plastic cups are labeled as a #1 plastic which is the same label on soda and water bottles which are recyclable; however, the plastic number only indicates the primary plastic of the product. So, although plastic cups are labeled as #1 plastic, they often include a mix of other plastic resins that are generally not recyclable. Instead of purchasing plastic cups, consider bringing a reusable cup the next time you stop at a coffee shop.

Recycling MRF

EcoFellows & CET Staff stand on the truck scale where incoming trucks carrying recycled material get weighed.

The tour of the Springfield MRF is just one example of how CET’s EcoFellowship Program allows Fellows to experience the environmental field firsthand. A core component of the EcoFellowship is to offer EcoFellows ample opportunities to learn and grow professionally. For example, before we visited the Springfield MRF to see the recycling of paper and plastic, the EcoFellows learned how Martin’s Farm recycles food waste into compost food waste in Greenfield.

The EcoFellowship Program is a one-year paid fellowship position to work with CET staff and other fellows to carry out community outreach, school education, and other activities related to climate action initiatives and educational programming in western Massachusetts. If you are a college senior or a recent graduate, consider applying to the EcoFellowship! The application for the 2016-2017 EcoFellowship cohort is open until February 28, 2017.

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