When my elderly mother puts a tiny Estee Lauder cosmetic bottle in the recycling bin, I bite my tongue and don’t say anything. We recycle assiduously, yet I have always harbored a deep suspicion about what happens to the trash we so carefully separate. Is it surreptitiously taken to a landfill and dumped, our civic duty done? To paraphrase Dick Cheney, recycling may be a sign of personal virtue, but what are we really accomplishing? Are we just saving our own souls but wasting a lot of water, energy, and manpower?  

I set out to find the answers to my own cynical questions by going to my local government, which referred me to two recycling companies operating in San Antonio. To my entreaties one responded: Greenstar. Arrangements were made for me to visit their plant on the Southeast side of town.

I don’t know what I thought I was going to see – darling elderly ladies in hair nets separating the Estee Lauder bottles from the wine bottles from the milk jugs – but nothing prepared me for the mammoth operation I was shown. 

First the trucks, dump trucks and 18-wheelers, rumbling and easing up to scales in the parking area made it clear this was not the Home for Wayward Cosmetic Bottles. This was shaping up as far huger, far more masculine. Inside I was fitted with a hard hat and protective glasses by the plant manager. He started to hand me a mask, then didn’t. I thought about that mask the rest of the tour. 

We walked briskly around to the back of the building to the tipping floor where the dump trucks, the ones that pick up your recycling from the curb, tip their loads onto the floor of an area the size of a gym. The trash is piled ten feet high, then moved into the system by front-end loaders.

Here’s the thing: we separate our recycling into newspapers and slicks, plastic, glass and metal, but when the boys on the curb put it in the truck, it all gets mixed together. Separating ones recycling is for the birds, it turns out. The Bollegraaf machine doesn’t care about your careful separating; in fact it exists to un-separate it, and so it does in a series of moves that starts with just that: separating the crushed-together refuse.

Rube Goldberg eat your heart out; the Bollegraaf, a Dutch machine from a Europe with little frontier for landfills, thus serious about recycling, is one tough, sexy system. The Bollegraaf drum feed decompresses and presorts the trash using laser light, then sends it up belts where men and women (with masks) pull out paper and plastic bags at strategic intersections and discard it for later processing.

One wants all the paper and plastic bags out before the other stuff goes into sifters fed by gravity through which valuable goods fall through star-shaped filters to be sorted into the categories post-consumer-use manufacturers want. Yanking paper and plastic bags off fast-moving conveyor belts is not a job for the clumsy, and takes place at more than one juncture – in fact from beginning to end. I felt guilty because we put our recycling on the curb in plastic and paper bags, but the plant manager reassured me his wife does the same thing.

It is smelly and dusty, but the dust is not dirt, it’s trash residue that lies like alluvial silt everywhere underfoot, on machinery and people and floors and belts and steps and below the catwalks in bins full of milk jugs and other separated things. I knew it was in my lungs, too, but I was too fascinated to care.

The end of the process is the baling of the separated trash into its constituent parts for sale. The 18-wheelers back up to the loading dock and carry away tons of our discards to use for another day. 

The immense size of the Greenstar operation, from the tipping floor on one side of the building to the loading dock on another, simply boggles the mind. The soaring height of the building has to hold huge machinery that goes up in order to work its magic. The building interior is open to the elements through mammoth doors to the tipping floor and out to the trucks, so it is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The air is always full of particulates. If I hadn’t been so concerned about my lungs I would’ve let my mouth hang open, that’s how impressed I was. 

Impressed and strangely moved. Sheer huge amounts of waste are going back into the cycle of production and not being buried in the ground or dumped in the ocean. Our local governments charge us to pick up our recycling and Greenstar probably charges them to dump it out at their plant, then turns around and sells what we have all paid to deliver to them. You don’t amortize the cost of the great Bollegraaf machine unless it is lucrative to sell what it creates, so I am not pretending that any of what I saw was being done for charity (Dick Cheney!). Yet I repeat, it was a moving experience to see the brilliant, clever way people have found to mitigate a real problem, and seeing the amelioration being done on such a scale.

I only saw part of the process, the part that touches our homes. A final tidbit I was sent away with was small Estee Lauder bottles and prescription bottles should go straight into the trash. They do not survive the machinery and the shards are not worth anything to anyone. Mother.

Taddy McAllister is a civic activist who also attempts persuasively to write about her causes.