SoCal Connected on KCET

CarbonLite: Inside the World's Largest Plastic Bottle Recycling Plant

Original Airdate May 21, 2014

Derrick Shore: Every year in the United States, consumers use literally billions of plastic bottles just like this. But after you toss it into the recycling bin, do you ever wonder where it goes? Well, about 20 percent of those bottles end up right here at CarboLite Industries - this is the largest facility of its kind in the United States, and Leon, the chairman…you're going to show us around, right?

Leon Farahnik: Yes here you go. Please put your safety hat and all that on before we can go in.

Derrick Shore: This is for me? Got to suit up?

Leon Farahnik: Suit up.

Derrick Shore: Wow this place is huge! This $60 million facility in Riverside processes 2 billion plastic beverage containers every year. That’s more than 500 bottles for every person in L.A.

Leon Farahnik: We bring in bales of product as you can see from the trucks in bale form and then we have to break up that bales.

Derrick Shore: OK so you separate the bottle and that's the process that's happening right here?

Leon Farahnik: That process separates the bottles so it breaks up the bale.

Derrick Shore: Most of the bottles recycled in this facility come from redemption centers, where consumers can return their beverage containers for a cash refund. So plastic is relatively lightweight, right. Well. this square bale of plastic bottles weighs more than 1,300 pounds. And it stinks, by the way. And the journey begins. Conveyor belts, tumblers, sorters.

Leon Farahnik: Then it goes through a metal detector to make sure that any cans or bottles come out. Any cans or metal cans..then it goes to, we call it a pre-wash. What it does is it washes the bottles and removes the labels. You can see the labels are being removed.

Derrick Shore: So it's a pretty involved process then from the time the plastic arrives and is in these big bales. It seems like it goes through a lot even to get it to the point where it's first being washed.

Leon Farahnik: Exactly. From the time it starts ‘till it ends as a material you lose about 30 percent of it in caps, in labels, in dirt, and we end up with only 70 percent of what we get in.

Derrick Shore: In the U.S., most recycled beverage containers are sent to China. They’re melted down and turned into polyester material and used to make anything from t-shirts, to carpet, to teddy bear stuffing. But often, those items ultimately end up in a landfill. CarbonLite’s goal is to get a bottle’s cycle of life going. It’s known as closed loop recycling, or bottle-to-bottle.

So I would imagine that one of the huge advantages of this kidn of recycling is if you’re getting bottles from Southern California, you’re recycling them here in Southern California and then they’re being made into new bottles in Southern California, so it makes it very local.

Susan Collins: California is far and away, head and shoulders above the rest of the country.

Derrick Shore: Susan Collins has been studying the environmental impacts of plastic for more than 20 years. She says California's recycling success is because we require deposits. And the law is statewide.

Susan Collins: The states that have programs that cover the whole state, where they make a decision like our entire state will adopt a container deposit law, then boom, within in a couple of years they see recycling rates in the 80 percent range.

Derrick Shore: So after the bottles have been separated by colors this is the final check before they're ground up into little bits the size of cornflakes.

Leon Farahnik: This is the washed flake that comes out after all that washing and going through the system, this is your washed flake.

Derrick Shore: It’s still warm, like it’s fresh out of the dishwasher.

Leon Farahnik: It is like a dishwasher. A sophisticated dishwasher. We process about 10 to 11,000 pounds of this an hour.

Derrick Shore: As much as they recycle here, it’s still less than 1 percent of the 245 billion beverage containers Americans use every year. And while some of those containers are recycled as well, they rarely turn into bottles. CarbonLite hopes to change that. Because when plastic bottles turn back into plastic bottles, that means less new material is being sourced.

Susan Collins: Fulfilling the promise of recycling is making a product that can be used to replace virgin material. Because when you do that, you save all the greenhouse gases, all of the production of toxics, all of the energy that when into getting all the virgin material out of the ground in the first place.

Derrick Shore: And the final step, sterilization.

Leon Farahnik: Taken out and melted and made into pellets to be shipped to the customer.

Derrick Shore: So essentially, you have to sterilize all of this plastic to make sure it’s food-safe. So that is really hot plastic right here.

Leon Farahnik: That’s really hot plastic. You don’t want to touch that.

Derrick Shore: So what does all of this ultimately produce? These tiny little pellets, enough to fill giant silos like these, before being shipped off to bottle makers.
So when a crushed bottle enters CarbonLite, it looks a little something like this before ultimately ending up as the final product. These are food grade plastic pellets which will then be sent off to bottlers to create new bottles. It could be a 50 percent recyclable bottle or a bottle like this. So with this type of closed-loop recycling, that means these bottles can literally be used an infinite amount of time. Fewer bottles end up in the ocean, in the streets, or in the landfill. So ist here really such a thing as eternal life for plastic bottles? Well, for now, this place is probably as close as it gets. I’m Derrick Shore for “SoCal Connected.”

Quick Links

Trash for Teaching

CarbonLite is the world's largest "bottle-to-bottle" plastic recycling plant in Riverside, Calif.

"SoCal Connected" takes a look inside the state-of-the-art facility where billions of plastic bottles are churned on an annual basis. The process involves transforming old plastic bottles into PET pellets and flakes in order to produce new plastic bottles.

The bottles are required to go through metal detectors, a special "prewash" phase, and a label-removing facility before they can become shiny, brand new pellets.

Even though your plastic water bottle might not weigh as much, a square bale of plastic bottles can weigh more than 1,300 pounds, as Derrick Shore reveals in this segment of "SoCal Connected."

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Leon Farahnik, CarbonLite Industries
  • Susan Collins, Container Recycling Institute

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