Emerson’s Waste Management facility highlights campus sustainability efforts


Sasha Zirin

Conveyor belt at Emerson’s Waste Management facility.

By Sasha Zirin, Assistant Living Arts Editor

Equipped with policy-mandated hard hats, neon vests, and glasses, a group of Emerson students toured the Waste Management facility in Billerica, Massachusetts, where Emerson College sends its trash and recycling. The trip, held on Feb. 17 and arranged by Campus Services, allowed students to see a system conscious of recycling, reaffirming the college’s commitment to sustainability.

Kevin Andrade—the facility’s liaison with the college—along with facility manager Mike Campbell explained to students and faculty supervisors what happens to the waste products after it’s thrown in Emerson’s trash cans and dumpsters.

Andrade noted that approximately 70 percent of what’s thrown away is able to be recycled with the help of 85 conveyor belts, both machine and manual, sorting paper, cardboard, aluminum, tin, and five kinds of plastic.

It’s possible to minimize and even eliminate landfill usage, Andrade said.

School worksheets, soda packaging, newspapers, and empty gallon jugs can be found throughout the facility’s inner workings. There were even some soccer balls, though those aren’t recyclable.

The facility staff have seen far more than just the average college waste, Campbell said. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the facility saw a lot of wine bottles, but, on a sadder note, they have seen deceased deer, a 13-foot boa constrictor, and dogs, he said. When domesticated animals are found, the processes stop and animal control is called, who look for a location-tracking chip in them. 

Before the waste management process can start, there is a pre-sorting stage in the cycle during which mattresses, 800+ pound waste, wet material (which sticks to machines), food (which is only recyclable through compost), electronics, and batteries get immediately prevented from infiltrating the recycling system.

Electronics, including appliances like light bulbs, are labeled “e-scrap,” Campbell said. Despite accumulating about four loads a month, WM tries not to let it get into a landfill.

Plastic bags also disrupt WM’s recycling processes. Campbell believes the only way to make a difference in the damage of plastic bags is to “stop using them” altogether, not just limit their usage.

Chemical material, like batteries and paint, is a dangerous waste. It’s flammable and subsequently a workplace danger. This is commonly an issue with propane tanks in the summer, Campbell said, where there have been fires in the facility once a week. 

Massachusetts has 14 landfills and 10 incinerators where unrecyclable and contaminated waste goes to.  

Once the remaining recyclable material enters the next stage, they get sorted into the materials they are made up of. Smaller materials, like shredded paper, receipts, and mini cardboard boxes, can slip through the cracks of the gapped conveyor belts.

“We don’t have the ability to capture it,” Campbell said. The gapped conveyor belts are part of “paper screens,” which help ensure that non-paper and non-cardboard are not mixed with paper materials.

Magnets and screens are also used as a means of sorting. Once the recyclables, trash, and contaminates are sorted, it’s cubed and turned into bales.

The bales get marked with spray paint to ensure which are clean and which aren’t, he said, for both forklift and material safety. The bales then get shipped off via truck.

The recyclable material gets shipped and sold to mainly nearby companies, such as paper mills. Campbell said the facility makes over a million dollars yearly from selling reusable material, especially from clean cardboard. 

If it’s marketable, it’s recyclable, according to Andrade. 

“It’s three-to-one,” it costs, on average, about three times more to get rid of trash waste than recyclables, especially in rural areas, according to him.

According to Campbell, loads that consist of mostly trash are considered “downgraded.”

Only about 15 percent of the waste WM receives can’t be recycled. They have even been able to recycle styrofoam waste, Andrade said. WM are able to turn around 55,000 pounds of paper and the same amount of cardboard each month.

WM is constantly working on its carbon footprint. Recycling’s “always evolving, always changing,” Campbell said. The facility invests in its recycling facilities and is downsizing its trucks’ diesel usage. Human waste and incinerators are being used for electricity and energy.

Even though a lot of the trash people dispose of is contaminated in some way, “Emerson does a good job,” Andrade said. 

Throughout the tour, Emerson students asked questions avidly, and left feeling informed.

Andrade noted that it takes time for these types of environmental issues to improve. “Small incremental changes [do] add up—it’s possible.”