Super sandwich bale — Utah man's idea nets wholesale recycling

Published: Tuesday, April 22 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

According to the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, more than 1 million birds and more than 100,000 sea mammals, amphibians and fish are killed annually by plastic rubbish, including plastic bags, through entanglement, suffocation and starvation after ingesting plastic — a phenomenon that Salt Lake artist Carol Sogard represented in her art piece "Bagging Birds" earlier this year. Scientists worry that chemicals from all that ingested plastic then gets into the food chain, perhaps causing havoc with animal and human endocrine systems.

Some grocery store chains are encouraging their customers to bring reusable bags. Whole Foods Markets no longer uses any petroleum-based plastic shopping bags, but does use biodegradable plastic bags, which can be composted.

Ashby audibly sighs at the mention of biodegradable bags, which sometimes end up being recycled by mistake. "They do not play very well with the other polymers," he says. They don't melt at the same temperature, and the corn-based polymers, if mixed with other plastic bags, have a tendency to catch fire. "And they fall apart. So now you have millions of little pieces of plastic. ... I know there's a place for it and it makes us feel better because it's made from a renewable resource, but it's messing up a pretty good recycling program."

The Super Sandwich Bale (which Ashby developed with colleagues John Sasine, Chuck Jongert, Marvin Acey) works like this: separate recyclable items from Wal-Marts all over the country are put in big plastic bags that are then wired together in bales at each Wal-Mart store. These bags are then trucked to an MRF, where they are re-baled — bales containing just hangers, for example — and sent off by train to plants that then turn those items into decking or carpet or agricultural film used on farms as far away as China. At Rocky Mountain Recycling's facility on 900 South and 2900 West, the bales are stacked 18 feet high and are a microcosm of consumption: empty boxes of Rice Krispie Treats and laxatives, reams of shredded paper, plastic bags full of other plastic bags.

Rocky Mountain Recycling also has another facility on 900 West and 3100 South, where trucks dump off the "curbside recycling" trash produced by Salt Lake households. The place smells sweet, the result of all those tiny drops of leftover soda in the tens of thousands of pop bottles that pass through the facility each week. All the recyclable trash gets put into separate bales to be sent somewhere to be made into something else.

Amid the constant hum of the baler's conveyer belt, the facilities operate two shifts six days a week, because, first of all, the world keeps producing more and more stuff, and second, there's big money in recycling these days. Plastic wrapping brings 20 cents a pound, and there are tons of it. Ashby has made a good living off all this. These days, he drives a Porsche.

His favorite book among the 1,800 books in his home library is "The Secret," the aggressively upbeat best-selling book and DVD that postulates, as Ashby puts it "you inevitably experience what you consistently expect." Ashby is such a fan of the book and its philosophy that he has handed out some 250 of the DVDs to people he meets on his business travels. And he travels all the time: 138 nights in motel beds last year, traveling to Wal-Marts and recycling manufacturers across the globe.

Ashby's hope is that "as we drill further into the waste stream, pretty much everything can be recycled."

E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com

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