Laverne Gambrell bent over the giant blue container of plastics left for recycling, plucked a bottle, gave it a shake and heard the telltale slosh. With a quick, effortless untwisting motion, he unscrewed the cap, dumped the contents, in this case protein powder, and tossed the empty bottle into the baling machine.
The Houston Chronicle reports Gambrell, an ordained minister, repeats this task, day-in and day-out, more times than he can count or remember, emptying plastic bottles of soda, antifreeze and other liquids. He does it all with a smile, a sense of purpose and a feeling of satisfaction.
"I really enjoy what I'm doing," he said. "The only way you can really do something, you've got to enjoy what you're doing."
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Gambrell's labor-intensive job at the Huntsville recycling drop-off center opens a window on the challenges facing the U.S. recycling industry, one that is struggling with high costs, low prices and substantial contamination of materials that come into sorting facilities such as this one. These struggles come as the need for recycling takes on greater urgency with millions of tons of plastics choking the oceans and millions of tons more ending up in landfills, where they can take hundreds of years to decompose.
A healthy recycling market is particularly important to the Houston area, where energy and petrochemical companies have invested billions of dollars in plants that make plastics and plastic feedstocks. As plastic waste mounts, these companies are at risk of public backlash that could lead to tougher regulations, outright bans of some plastic products and shifts to different materials that degrade quickly in the environment.
Contamination of recyclable materials is one of the biggest issues facing the recycling industry. The high volumes of contaminated materials from the U.S. and elsewhere led China to severely restrict the import of recyclables, limiting access to what was once the world's biggest market and undermining prices.
A half-finished soda tossed into the recycling bin can cause a multitude of problems.
It could burst while being compacted inside the recycling truck. If it spills onto cardboard, it can lower the price that paper mills will pay for the material, if they don't just reject it. If it gets into a mechanical sorter, the added weight could cause those sorters to spit it out with the trash, rather than sorting it with other plastics.
The problem doesn't stop with liquids. Garden hoses, electronics, old toys and clothes are among items found in recycling bins that cannot be processed by companies such as Waste Management of Houston or FCC Environmental Services, the Spanish firm that recently took over the city of Houston's recycling contract. About 25% of items in curbside bins don't belong there.
"That sort of mentality we call `wishcycling' or aspirational recycling," said Brandon Wright, spokesman for the National Waste and Recycling Association, a trade group in Washington. "Folks want to do good, so they put it in the bin. But it doesn't belong."
It's hard to know what does belong because requirements differ from community to community. This is where Gambrell comes in, providing gentle reminders when people try to recycle toothbrushes or air filters.
Vehicles pull up to his drop-off facility, trunks laden with recyclables, and Gambrell greets them with a shopping cart or large blue bin. He helps unload the vehicles. Plastics are lumped together and pushed toward a small baling machine. Glass or aluminum are directed toward dumpsters, which will go to a larger sorting facility.
He sorts through the plastics during lulls in vehicles. Empty water bottles go straight into the baling machine. Peanut butter jars with sticky residue into trash. Dark-colored containers get a shake, with each slosh followed by the quick flick of Gambrell's thumb and forefinger to remove the cap, an easy turn of the wrist to turn the bottle upside down, and the splash of liquids emptying into a trash can.
Gambrell, 65, has worked with Huntsville's recycling department for 18 years. He had put in a general application with the city, seeking the benefits he didn't get working at a truck stop fixing flat tires and changing oil on 18-wheelers. He was offered a job in the recycling department. He took to it immediately.
"I liked it, and they liked my work," he said, "and we went on from there."
Nearly two decades later, he still likes helping the environment -- and he likes talking to people.
That skill comes naturally to Gambrell, who people call "Rev." He spent 28 years preaching at a Baptist church in Crockett, about an hour drive from Huntsville. He's now an associate minister at the Greater Robinson Memorial Church of God in Christ, assisting the main pastor when needed.
He has long mingled his two vocations at the recycling drop-off facility in the northwest part of Huntsville. His license plate used to read "Rev.G" so people would bring up religion, a conversation starter that could sometimes lead him to discuss recycling.
Greg Garcia, of Huntsville, dropped off cardboard on a recent morning. He likes to do his part in protecting the environment, and he always talks to Rev.
"We're brothers in Christ," Garcia said. "We talk about Jesus and we talk about the struggles and challenges in our lives. And we pray for each other."
When Rev's adult son Donald Bernard Gambrell died last year, Flo Cruz, of Trinity, prayed for his family. She said Rev is always helpful when she drops off recycling, and talking to him is part of the experience. She's learned that glass needs to be separated by color and that lotion remnants can't be left in the bottle.
"I rinse out my cream rinse bottles," she said, "where I didn't before."
If only everyone was as vigilant. Contamination is a problem that has grown over time, largely stemming from changes in how the country recycles.
Recycling previously involved more sorting by households, which were required to separate recyclable waste into different bins. Today, most communities allow recyclables to comingle in one bin, a shift that increased convenience and participation, but also contamination.
"We were so excited to get these recycling rates up," Brent Bell, vice president of recycling for Waste Management, said in an interview last year. "We just kept on going faster and faster converting facilities to single stream, converting municipal programs to single stream. We got the recycling rates up, but we didn't do a good job on education."
Some recycling companies are investing to improve sorting and screening technology and to hire more people to sort recyclables. FCC Environmental just opened a sorting facility in Houston. And while it advocates emptying bottles prior to recycling, the new facility will be able to remove liquids by breaking glass and punching holes in plastic bottles, allowing the liquids to run out before the baling process.
"We aim to have the (fewest) contaminated recyclables as possible," FCC Environmental Director of Recycling Andrea Rodriguez said, "because our recyclable buyers would prefer it among others and they would also pay a premium for it."
To help the city of Huntsville recoup more money from its recyclables, Gambrell recently began separating and then baling Nos. 1 and 2 plastics, used in water bottles, milk jugs and laundry detergent bottles. Sorting these from the other plastics -- the drop-off center accepts plastics No. 1 through No. 7 -- allows Huntsville to receive more money from Waste Management.
"The prices have really fallen," said Darrel Luker, superintendent of solid waste for the city of Huntsville. "We're just trying to save the taxpayers as much as we can."
As he separates the Nos. 1 and 2 plastics, Gambrell takes the tops off of creamer containers because they tend to trap air, meaning the bottle won't squish as well in the baling machine. Lids of Folgers coffee containers are plastic No. 4, meaning they must be removed and placed into a different recycling stream.
So should consumers leave the caps on or off? It varies, depending on the recycler.
FCC Environmental recommends removing the caps before recycling, since they are frequently a different type of plastic than the bottles. The caps can be placed separately in the recycling bin.
Waste Management, however, recommends that recyclers empty the bottle, squeeze out the air and then screw the cap back on. Plastic mills accept empty bottles with the caps attached, because they have the equipment to remove caps when washing and turning the used containers into plastic flakes.
Gambrell, following Waste Management's guidelines, leaves the caps on whenever possible. But sloshing still requires investigation -- and that quick flick of Gambrell's thumb and forefinger.
The untwisting motion doesn't bother him, thanks to years of muscle memory, but he could do without the smell of leftover milk or chewing tobacco spit into soda bottles. So the next time you're ready to recycle a half-full soda bottle or leave some potentially pungent remnants in a plastic jug, think of Rev.