A peek inside North America’s largest recycling center, located right here in the Las Vegas Valley

A truck dumps recycling materials at the Republic Services of Southern Nevada Recycling Center in North Las Vegas
Photo: Wade Vandervort

On a recent tour of Southern Nevada Recycling Center, Community Relations Manager Jeremy Walters offered examples of the kinds of things people throw away that they think are recyclable but are, in fact, not. He pulled out items like dirty diapers, blown-out tires, electrical wiring and a plastic Christmas tree.

To say that Walters has seen trash in all its forms is an understatement. The 110,000-square-foot North Las Vegas facility is the largest residential recycling center in North America, with the capacity to process 2 million pounds of recyclable material a day (or roughly 70 tons per hour). For context, the bales of recyclables the facility processes in a single day can reach as high as two Stratosphere towers.

It has sophisticated sorters of the magnetic, optical and human kind—separating trash into paper, plastic, aluminum, glass and landfill-bound. It’s a stunning display of the detritus of modern society, from plastic water bottles to food containers to a head-spinning array of product packaging.

In one corner sits a mountain of cardboard boxes, the majority stamped with the Amazon smiley face, a reminder of the price of convenience. Walters even has a name for this new class of trash: the Amazon effect. During the pandemic, it has increased in proportion to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ net worth.

Overwhelming as the trash processed here on a daily basis might be, Walters says it’s actually a good thing. “As long as they’re here, it’s OK. Not everybody recycles. There’s a decent amount of stuff that goes to the landfill because someone at the consumer level at the curb is making the decision to throw good recyclables in the trash. But definitely, if you see it right here, that should give you hope.”

There are lots of tips for proper recycling at republicservices.com/residents/recycling/basics. Tours of the facility are available by appointment only (vegasrecycling.com). Meanwhile, here are the top three things Walters hopes customers will keep in mind when filling their blue bins …

Flexible plastics are a no-no.

Any plastic you can poke your finger through, like grocery bags, Ziploc bags, single-use produce bags and those white Amazon satchels or envelopes, are not recyclable, as they gum up the recycling machines. “The best example I can give people to really visualize it is think about when you vacuum at home,” Walters says. “Over time, when you’re vacuuming, the roller on your vacuum gets wound up with hair. If you don’t cut it out, your vacuum will either become inefficient or jam all together. That same principle applies with flexible plastics, and how our machines are working.”

Be mindful of food contamination.

When you don’t rinse out and dry your recyclables, they can contaminate a big batch of other recyclables, which then needs to be tossed in the landfill. “That’s why it’s important not to throw pasta sauce jars that are dirty into [the] recycling,” Walters says, “Because if that gets soiled, that’s something that we have to take out and throw away.” Walters also says people often confuse composting with recycling, throwing out food waste with their recyclables. “No organic material should be in the recycling,” he says. “We call it ‘empty, clean, dry’—three words for people to easily remember.”

Don’t confuse reuse with recycling.

Walters says there’s a certain type of mentality called aspirational recycling, or “wishcycling,” that happens frequently. This is when people throw things in the recycling bin, hoping and wishing that they are indeed recyclable. “We get all these things, like bowling balls, clothes, shoes, toys. You have things that are still good and usable, maybe you’ve outgrown them and you no longer want them. Keeping things out of the waste stream is always going to be the most sustainable option. Take those things to a donation center or places like that,” he says.

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Genevie Durano

As deputy editor at Las Vegas Weekly, Genevie Durano covers the Valley’s dining scene. Previously she lived in New York ...

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