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Today's tin cans, recycled in a whirl of high-tech gadgets, may be tomorrow's car parts

At Integrated Paper Recyclers LLC in North Andover, an employee does a rough sort of plastic on a conveyor belt. (MARK WILSON/GLOBE STAFF)

David Reiniger of Rowley is one of those people who faithfully hauls dog-eared papers and empty bottles to the local transfer station. But he is not completely confident that all of this work culminates in a recycled product.

"I assume there's some process for recycling the stuff, but do I believe 100 percent of it is reused? No," said Reiniger, 48. "I noticed my glass bottles get all smashed up" at the station, he said. "I have no idea what happens to them. I doubt all those smashed up pieces are recycled."

As it turns out, nearly all of the recyclable items that are hauled to the curb or taken to the local transfer station really do seem to get reincarnated -- even those tiny shards of glass -- as recently witnessed at a recycling plant in North Andover.

Crushed cardboard boxes are sent off to become new boxes, board games, or even book covers. Old milk jugs get a fresh start, too, sometimes as lawn furniture. And those veggie and soup cans? Although most folks think of them as tin cans, they're mostly made of steel and can be transformed into car parts.

In the early days of recycling, back in the 1970s, crews would pick through the refuse by hand. But the system has evolved into an elaborate network of sophisticated machinery and computer-controlled gadgets, from air guns and digital cameras to conveyor belts and super-magnets.

Recycling plants dot the landscape, but most people pay little attention to what goes on there.

"I suppose I give some thought to separating the plastic from the paper, but beyond that, it never crosses my mind," said Daniel Raycroft of Newburyport, who purchased a three-family home in Amesbury and plans to encourage his tenants to recycle.

Tucked away in industrial areas in cities and towns across the state, recycling facilities are processing a growing amount of material. Between 1990 and 2004, the percentage of municipal solid waste recycled in Massachusetts more than tripled, from 10 percent to 35 percent, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Much of the material from Boston's northern suburbs is trucked to the North Andover plant, which is operated by Integrated Paper Recyclers LLC. The company processes plastics, paper, cardboard, tin cans, glass, and aluminum from more than 40 communities, including Amesbury, Boxford, Essex, Marblehead, Merrimac, Middleton, Newburyport, Rockport, and Rowley. Other area communities send their recyclables to a plant in Charlestown.

Charlie DeRosa, a principal owner of Integrated Paper Recyclers, has been in the business since the 1970s, when communities first started to invest in recycling as a way to reduce landfill disposal costs.

"Back then, we thought the landfills were going to close," said Bill Rafter Jr., DeRosa's former partner, who at the time owned a rubbish company. "So we wanted to learn to handle solid waste in a more economical way. Our mission now is to educate municipalities, to help them to better understand the value of recycling."

Over the years, the industry has changed little, though the process has benefited from technical innovations, such as computerized equipment, DeRosa said. By 1994, DeRosa was able to expand the operation through a partnership with John Gold, vice president of the recycled fibers division of the Newark Group. The New Jersey-based company owns two Massachusetts paper mills that Integrated Paper Recyclers now supplies.

Today, Integrated Paper Recyclers processes more than 250 tons of material a day, DeRosa said. Roughly 75 percent of it is paper or cardboard, with the rest a mix of plastics, aluminum, glass, and steel known as "commingle."

"The ratio of commingle to paper and cardboard has remained fairly stable, but we've noticed in recent years that we've been getting less and less paper and more and more cardboard boxes," said Christine DeRosa, Charlie's daughter, who handles sales for the family-run plant.

"It seems like everyone is giving up their newspaper and magazine subscriptions and reading the news online and shopping on the Internet. And, of course, each online purchase means another shipment -- another box."

When the recyclable items arrive at the North Andover plant, they are quickly separated -- paper and cardboard in one pile and everything else in another. On a recent morning, the mix included a Tidy Cat litter container, Tide detergent bottles, Folgers coffee containers, s oda bottles and milk jugs.

A front-end loader with a quick-release log fork -- think of a steel lobster claw on steroids -- grabs the commingle indiscriminately and dumps it onto a large, black conveyor belt that moves at a crisp pace, causing a din that drowns out all other sound.

The belt moves the material through the sorting process, where items that can't be recycled -- household garbage that mistakenly got lumped in with the newspapers and milk jugs -- are removed from the stream by hand, and plastics are sorted by their resin, or chemical makeup. (Overall, less than 5 percent of the waste trucked to North Andover ends up in a landfill, its operators say.)

The value of recyclable plastic depends on its chemical makeup, which is denoted by a number, 1 through 7. Those deemed of little value -- including certain fast-food containers and packaging for some frozen dinners -- are manually removed from the waste stream and heaped in their own pile. The rest of the plastics stay on the belt with the aluminum, glass, and steel.

Heavy machinery and high-tech computer-controlled gizmos sorts the remaining refuse, and ultimately groups like items together. Once sorted, the recyclables are crushed into compact cubes that are set aside in neatly stacked rows.

Glass is the only exception. First crushed into tiny chips, it is then loaded into containers to await shipment to local companies that use it as filler in parking lots or to reshape landfills.

"Some people are under the impression that a portion of their recyclables are truly not reused and just disposed of, but everything that comes into IPR is recycled," said Christine DeRosa. "Some of the plastics -- the ones labeled 3 to 7 -- are harder to find a market for, but it is manageable."

From the plant, the cubes, weighing as much as 1,100 pounds, go their separate ways. Like the glass, some stay close to home. Others are shipped to places as far away and disparate as North Carolina, Canada, and China.

All of the plastic processed by the facility is shipped to North Carolina, where it is given new life, Christine DeRosa said. Highly prized HDPE plastic often ends up being reused as milk jugs, but other varieties are used for flexible pipe or lawn chairs. The foreign market for the resin in soda bottles is growing, as more and more of it is exported to China and other Asian markets.

The paper goes to one of the Newark Group's local paper mills, which are in Haverhill and Fitchburg. Some of the cardboard is made into a gray fibrous material that will end up in shirts or cereal boxes, or used to make board games like Monopoly or the jackets of hardcover books, including the Harry Potter series.

Most of the steel cans go to Canada, where they are recycled into a range of products, from cans to automobile parts, Rafter said. More than 1,000 facilities across the country make and process steel, with most in the Great Lakes region or the South.

Despite the large volume of waste that is recycled, officials say, more can be done.

"When you throw away recyclables, you are throwing away money," said Brooke Nash, a state Department of Environmental Protection branch chief.

She stressed that the process provides benefits for taxpayers -- since the more trash that is recycled, the less their community has to pay in disposal fees -- as well as the environment.

If the paper products still tossed into the trash were recycled instead, Nash said, cities and towns could save $52 million a year in trash fees, and might even come out ahead by a few dollars.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at bbuote@globe.com

NorthTalk
Do you take the time each week or month to recycle your glass, plastic, and paper trash? Or do you think it's not worth the effort? Share your recycling philosophy with us at boston.com/northtalk, or write to us at globenorth@ globe.com, or Globe North, 1 Corporate Place, Danvers, MA 01923

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