The facility that processes recycling for Tulsa-area communities will not reopen until late December at the earliest, but it will boast an improved sorting system when it does.
The Tulsa Recycle Transfer facility, or TRT, was badly damaged and its sorting equipment destroyed by a fire April 1. The blaze was sparked by a lithium-ion battery in the recycling stream.
American Waste Vice President of Recycling Robert Pickens said the new sorting system will include several robots that will work alongside humans and help speed up sorting. Paired with a wider conveyor belt and enhanced optical scanners, the company will be able to process a larger volume of materials at one time.
"The robots can move at a rate that is three to four times that of an individual, and they can do it all day long. They don't tire. So, you don't have to deal with the Oklahoma heat doing that, because it's pretty strenuous this time of the year," Pickens said.
The robots will be powered by artificial intelligence and get updates from a global database of materials. Pickens said they will be much better at picking out hard-to-identify recyclables, like plastic clamshell containers that are hard to identify. They will also be better at separating crushed aluminum cans and plastic bottles into appropriate streams. The flattened containers often slip by and end up contaminating recycled paper American Waste sells.
"It's like going to the grocery store. If you go in and you buy oranges and they put them in the bag for you and you get home and you've got a couple of lemons in there, you're not going to be too happy. It's the same thing. When you're selling paper, they want paper. They don't aluminum. They don't want plastics," Pickens said.
American Waste could resume operations at TRT the last week of December. Pickens said a conversion of this scale is typically an undertaking of up to two years.
"So, our manufacturers really stepped up in working with us to do this in seven months. And fortunately for us, they had a couple customers that were gracious enough to put us ahead of them because they were having some setbacks with some ordinances and building codes," Pickens said.
Pickens said the new sorting system will also be easier on human workers. It’s configured so they can walk around the entire system rather than going up and down stairs to get from one area to another.
Materials from Tulsa and other communities that use the TRT for their curbside recycling programs have been going to an incinerator or landfill with the facility shut down.