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Urban Explorer's Handbook 2006

Talkin' (Recycled) Trash

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It disappears then turns into something else, but it's not magic, says Scott Brown. He's Mecklenburg County's solid waste services manager. "People want to forget about their waste once they put it on the curb," he says.

At the curb, garbage men sift through your junk, separating paper from containers. Then, at the 110,000-square-foot recycling facility, the separate piles are dumped on the ground, creating rolling hills of multicolored refuse: Diet Dr Pepper Peak and Cinnamon Teddy Graham Canyon.

You know something really stinks when open-air ventilation does little to mask an odor. The nasty smell has a name: garbage juice. The local solid waste Web site describes it thusly:

"One-fourth cup of spoiled milk; a splash of grass drippings; and a touch of rain water mixed with applesauce, gravy from last night's dinner, and a hint of vanilla ice cream from dessert. Mix it all together and you have the newest beverage craze sweeping the Charlotte area -- garbage juice."

This batch of garbage juice has a tinge of rotten meat. Brown says the pungent olfactory cocktail is the result of people forgetting to wash out their recyclables, something he urges folks to do (hint, hint).

Once they reach the recycling center, the aluminum cans, ferrous metal (soup cans), newspapers, tin, cardboard and two types of plastic (polyethylene terephthalate and high density polyethylene) are dumped, separated and compressed into bales that are sold on the free market. A 1,300-pound bale of aluminum goes for about $900. Most of the paper isn't destined for bales though; it travels up a conveyor belt where three employees in a tower (all wearing surgical masks) pull out nonrecyclable materials like cardboard. Only 4 percent of the material the recycling center receives has to be shipped to landfills.

The journey continues for the paper, as it rolls on a conveyer belt as long as an airport's moving walkway. The papers zoom across the facility to another on-site company, US Green Fiber, where it is shredded and packaged into fluffy insulation. Metrolina Recycling Center is the only such center in the United States that recycles paper into insulation at the site, says Brown.

At US Green Fiber's end of the center, miniature paper particles that have escaped the paper shredder flutter down like snow. Usually US Green Fiber runs only during the day, but since Hurricane Katrina they've been frequently running 24 hours. With the increased demand, Green Fiber produces enough insulation to fill a truck in a single day.

On the very same day that the garbage man picks up your junk mail from the curb, it's outbound for the relief effort in New Orleans. Maybe it is magic after all.

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