Big machine needed for big job

An excavator works on the single-stream tipping floor at Willimantic Waste Paper, moving the pile to be sorted.
An excavator works on the single-stream tipping floor at Willimantic Waste Paper, moving the pile to be sorted.

Willimantic There's no need to sort the cereal boxes from the plastic milk jugs anymore.

With single-stream recycling taking hold around the region, everything that can be recycled can go into one bin now.

One year after the option of single-stream recycling became available in eastern Connecticut, towns are reporting that more people are recycling and less trash is being hauled.

Between 40 and 45 towns, many from southeastern Connecticut, have contracted with Willimantic Waste Paper Co. for their recycling.

This month, the Willimantic facility marks a year of using the Bollegraaf single-stream recycling system. The system, made in the Netherlands, can sort recyclables faster that previously possible, processing more than 25 tons of material an hour.

The massive, green and yellow machine is 600 feet long, as long as two football fields. When it's running - six days a week for 20 hours a day - it's loud enough to make people have to shout to have a conversation.

Willimantic Waste employees describe the single-stream machine as a "moving ship."

"There are a lot of moving parts," said Vice President Thomas DeVivo.

The process starts with people placing their recyclables at the curb for trucks to pick up. At the Willimantic facility, trucks dump the items onto the tipping floor, a holding area that accommodates 500 to 600 tons of everything from pizza boxes, books, cardboard and newspapers to detergent bottles, soda cans, milk jugs and plastic toys.

A large excavator moves parts of the pile to the drumfeeder, the first component in the system. The drumfeeder controls incoming material so it flows evenly through the rest of the system.

About 20 different conveyor belts move rapidly, about 125 feet per minute, around the multi-leveled system. About 50 workers separate items that fall through the sorting operations.

Sorting is next. The machine divides the cardboard, newspapers and plastics by type and conveyors send them through a baler. After the recyclables are sorted, they are sold.

Willimantic Waste has markets throughout the world. It sells corrugated cardboard to Rand-Whitney Containerboard Corp. in Montville and paper to a company in Sprague to make baseball cards. It ships products to China and Southeast Asia.

Items such as food, plastic bags and Styrofoam can't be recycled. Garden hoses get into the system and tend to wrap around other objects, causing the machine to jam.

Before Bollegraaf, employees lined up at conveyor belts to sort recyclables by hand and could only process 8 to 10 tons an hour.

Towns receive a share of profits from the recyclables they bring into Willimantic Waste, as compared to paying to have trash hauled away.

"It's a win-win at this point," said Jerry Tyminski, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority, the agency that manages the region's trash disposal.

"Right now it's a success. There are some considerable savings to the towns. They are picking up more recyclables than before, and materials can be recycled out of the process," he said.

Some towns have had initial capital expenses - buying plastic containers and trucks - with savings anticipated from using fewer trucks and paying to haul less trash.

East Lyme reported a 35 percent increase in the number of households recycling and expects to see a savings of more than $110,000 each year. Waterford is estimating it will save $95,250 next year.

"Single stream has taken off. Many communities have seen a 6 to 8 percent decrease in trash and an increase in recycling," DeVivo said.

His grandfather, Patrick DeVivo, started Willimantic Waste Paper Co. more than 60 years ago. Now managed by the third generation, the company has three waste and recycling plants, a transfer station, 160 employees and an extensive collection and trucking system on its 60-acre site.

At first, the company recycled metal, rags, glass bottles, paper and tires.

"We've been here recycling long before the buzz word," DeVivo said.

One other Connecticut company, in Hartford, does single-stream recycling.

"I was a 'doubting Thomas' at first, but technology has evolved, and I became a believer," DeVivo said.

Employees of Willimantic Waste Paper Co. pull recyclable items that were sorted out from the newspaper conveyor belt.
Employees of Willimantic Waste Paper Co. pull recyclable items that were sorted out from the newspaper conveyor belt.

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