During a typical day at the Associated Student Recycle Center, supervisor Richard Neyer oversaw the student employees sifting through bins of plastic bottles and milk cartons. He watched a student staff member stick her head down into a blue recycle bin to sort its final contents into their correct places. After fishing at the bottom of the plastic bin, she accidently opened a week-old plastic shrimp salad container. The smell quickly filled her nostrils with the fowl stench of rotten seafood.
She gasped for fresh air, but only drew the stench deeper into her lungs. Neyer watched as she quickly ran out of the Recycle Center to toss up her breakfast.
Neyer is one of 19 AS Recycle Center staff that collects recycling from all of the buildings on campus.
The staff hand sorts 4,000 pounds of recycling from Western’s campus every day, said Richard Neyer, who has worked at of the Recycle Center for 23 years.
Hand sorting barrels of recycling every day, the staff at the AS Recycle Center never knows what they are going to find.
Some of their worst finds include a used condom, porn DVDs, underwear, mice, rats, hair and a plastic dildo cover, said Ariel Davis, Western junior and staff manager at the Recycle Center.
"We have seen, touched and smelt disgusting things while sorting through recycling bins,” Davis said.
While some of the items the Recycling Center sorts through are repulsive, others can be great finds for the students. Staff members have found an REI Jacket, a $20 bill and a PlayStation 2 that one of them took home to test out.
The team is not afraid to indulge themselves with a few snacks from the recycling every once and a while.
They have pulled a sleeve of donuts, loaves of bread and unopened bags of chips from the bins to eat, Davis said.
“The grossest thing I have ever eaten was probably unopened yogurt,” Western junior Hayden Marotz said.
While sorting one white piece of paper after another at the Recycle Center in spring last quarter, Marotz found a hidden treat among the recycled essays and homework assignments — a giant bag of unopened tortilla chips.
He set it off to the side and continued sorting. A few days later, he found a Costco-sized container of salsa. The staff opened the two and had a fiesta for days to follow.
A Day in the Life
In one of his first days on the job, Marotz was hand sorting through a barrel of recycling when a melted Wendy’s Frosty tumbled out and spilled all over him. Marotz simply scraped the chocolate Frosty off of his jacket and continued with his work, he said.
“A common misconception is that we have a machine here sorting everything for us,” Davis said. “That is not true. We sort everything by hand.”
The workers’ day starts off with what is known as a “run.” Sporadically throughout the day, the team completes six or seven runs, in which two to three staff members go to campus and check all the recycling bins in a building. Bins that are more than halfway full, have an odor or have flies buzzing around them are emptied, and their contents are taken back to the Recycle Center, Marotz said.
During a recycling run on March 7, Western junior and AS Recycle Center staff member
Michelle Seymour brought the large recycling truck to an abrupt halt, backing up as close as possible to one of the six large brown containers inside the Recycle Center. As she hopped out onto the paper-littered floor of the Recycle Center, she began the sorting process, dumping the contents of the blue bins into the large container.
The walls of the center are lined with items the staff has found while sorting through recycling bins. A life-sized Chewbacca poster and a surfer couple carnival cutout are among the many items displayed for Seymour and the rest of the staff to admire while sorting recycling.
Seymour, who collected several full bins on her run, briskly walked to the back of the truck and climbed in. Dragging one recycling bin forward, she jumped into one of the six large brown containers in the room and started sorting the mixed paper by hand.
As Seymour pulled a barrel over to start sorting, she let out a shriek of frustration as packing peanuts fell out of her recycling bin and clustered at her feet. Packing peanuts, which are made of plastic called polystyrene, are not recyclable.
“The quickest way to ruin someone’s day is to recycle packing peanuts,” Seymour said as she picked the little nuisances out of the shredded paper.
Once the team is done sorting the mixed paper and all the barrels are emptied, the barrels are washed out and put back.
The items collected are then sold to Northwest Recycling, where they compact the recycling in a bailer, and then ship them to a paper mill or ship them overseas, Neyer said.
Before beginning her job at the Recycle Center, Davis said she never really realized how much stuff people got rid of. Now that she has been with the center for three years, Davis asks students on campus to remember the people sorting their recycling are humans too.
“If you do not want to touch it, we do not want to touch it,” Davis said.