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Life After Trash

Environmental-minded homeowners and shopkeepers dutifully toss recyclables into bins every week. Trucks rumble through neighborhoods to collect them and cart them off. The urban eco-warriors feel good: They've done their part. And after it's picked up, the reusable rubbish is no longer an eyesore -- out of sight, out of mind.

But it ends up somewhere. And at the five-year-old BFI Waste Systems recycling plant in Davie, garbage sparkles. Viewed from afar, huge bundles of discards shimmer in silver and vibrant colors. Up close, the source of the sheen comes into focus: Flattened cans -- green Sprites, red Cokes, and silver light beers -- provide the glitter.

When recyclable refuse is sorted and compacted, the finished product is sometimes rather artsy. Squashed jumbles of juice cartons create a tropical orange-and-white pattern. Slabs of plastic water and milk jugs have a bumpy-textured, chalky look. Shaggy-edged bundles of crisp, white office paper form contemporary designs with freckles of color scattered throughout.

If you'd like to view trash in a whole new light, Manager Radcliffe Thompson and his staff at BFI will accommodate you with a tour of the facility. They're only too happy to show off the plant's role in the recycling cycle.

But if it's hot outside, dress lightly. With no air conditioning, the work area at the plant is warm. It's also loud. Machinery clanks, trucks zoom in and out. If you have a sensitive nose, your nostrils may twitch at the subtle odors coming from various food containers. But no clothespin is needed; keeping things clean is part of the routine, Thompson says. Bert Luer, a district vice president for BFI, explains: "[Garbage] doesn't have time to ferment. We process it quickly, and we ship it out."

At ground level, piles of newspapers and cardboard boxes and an array of jugs, cans, and bottles create rolling hills of reusable refuse. The potpourri is sorted on a platform overhead. As a stream of used containers rolls by on a conveyor belt, workers push individual items into chutes, diverting them to the proper holding silos. At the end of one line, a waterfall of newspaper sheets cascades off the platform. The pile created below is then pushed over to the equipment that does the compacting and bundling.

The sifting and crunching takes place after trucks drop off their bounty at the plant -- about 300 to 400 tons a day. When it's separated, the junk is smashed into desk-size bundles weighing hundreds of pounds, then shipped to other parts of the world to be reprocessed.

Old newspaper, for example, is sent to various parts of the globe, where it's repulped for fresh newsprint. "Last month we sent 2000 tons to China," Thompson says.

Juice cartons are sold to a company in Miami-Dade County that produces toilet paper, Luer says. And some of the office paper goes elsewhere, also to be used for new tissue and towel products.

The plant doesn't produce recycled items, but it has a few samples in its lobby, including the gray benches made of plastic lumber.

And if the tour isn't artsy enough for some folks, there's "art" on the lobby walls appropriate to the recycling theme. The pieces put an aesthetic spin on what many consider garbage and, in some cases, put to use stuff that can't otherwise be recycled. For example, an owl's face is made of brown and white eggshells, and a colorful, geometric design that pops from a canvas is simply bottle caps.

Hmm. Maybe some things should just go to the landfill.

-- Patti Roth

To arrange a tour of the BFI recycling plant in Davie, call 954-474-3248, extension 145. The staff prefers small groups of at least four people. Calling in advance is required because the plant is off-limits without an escort, and a tour guide is not always available.

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Patti Roth

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