The first sorting experiments were by local private contractors, homeless people, inmates from Perryville. The latter were adept at personal reclamation; they would pull Christmas tinsel and garlands that people had mistakenly put in the recycling bins and use them to decorate the sorting facility at 23rd Avenue and Buckeye, pull out discarded stereos, rewire them, and boogie down.

@body:J. Sanger, who runs the current MRF, has no time for such frivolity. He's the sort of fellow who might spend 20 minutes sputtering that he doesn't have time to talk, or ask a visitor for proof he's not an industrial spy from rival Waste Management, Inc. But he has his soft spots.

A helicopter flies overhead, and Sanger suddenly stops his spiel. "I used to fly the shit out of those," he says, his voice brimming with nostalgia. "Alouette; it's got a fan for a tail rotor."

Sanger spent six years in the Marines, 25 years in the Army. He did three tours with Special Forces in Vietnam, and retired as a full colonel with two master's degrees. He brags of how he once flew an F-4 through a hailstorm, "and when I landed the plane, they had to take it to the scrap heap."

Perhaps he exaggerates--what would that be worth on the scrap-metal market?--perhaps not. Sanger seems to vibrate palpably, with the potential energy of a fault line. When he started in Phoenix last June, he claims a cellular car phone blew up in his hand from the heat. One wonders if it weren't turbocharged telekinetic aggravation transmitted from his hand into the fragile mechanism.

CRInc is a 10-year-old company owned by Wellman Inc., an East Coast plastics recycling concern; it has 20-some MRFs in the United States and Europe. Phoenix awarded the company a contract last March that required it to build and operate its own facility and find the markets for the recyclables; CRInc receives a processing fee that is now $36 per ton and in turn it must share one-quarter of the revenues with the city.

Sanger arrived in June and threw together a building in six weeks, as if by force of personality. When the plant is fully operational in February, the CRInc company literature says it will process 120 tons per shift; Sanger says it will do 340.

He walks the big hall where it will all take place, 70,000 square feet. The $6 million of sorting equipment is disassembled on the floor and in the parking lot, enormous slabs of sheet metal, girders, rollers; three giant electromagnets, 12 feet long, six feet wide and weighing 12 tons each; all of it painted industrial green. A couple of engineers stand scratching their heads and staring at blueprints; a couple more crawl dwarfed among the hardware, poking crescent wrenches into remote crevices.

"That is an incline sorting belt," says Sanger, pointing to a pile of steel struts. "That's a BFM-60 shaker, one of the largest in the world. That's the baler--it's a mon-stah!"
Excitedly, he explains how it will all work, how a conveyor will shoot recyclables through a hole in the wall from the tipping floor next door to a platform 30 feet high where six workers will pull out the obvious contaminants, "grass, lumbah."

The magnets pull out the iron and steel and launch them into roll-off bins. The rest flows onto a shaking Rube Goldberg platform that sloughs the paper to one side. Chains and screens rattle and shake and flagellate the mass. Bottles and cans drop through holes, bounce along a 20-foot-high mezzanine that runs more than 60 feet along the length of the room. Human sorters behind plastic bubbles separate the glass by colors and send it off to a crusher that shatters it into road-accident-size pellets. Other sorters pull out plastics, PET in one bin, clear and colored HDPE elsewhere. When the giant bins fill below, a light comes on in a nuclear-power-plantlike console, the foreman pushes a button, and the bins roll automatically to a pit and dump. Then the material floats along a conveyor to the baler.

In Sanger's mind, the room is bustling like a painting by Hieronymous Bosch, like a scene from Blade Runner, front-end loaders spitting, strumming, the balers buzzing and humming, the belts bouncing and shaking, oozing milk jugs, old rugs, plastic tubes from shampoo or hair goo, empty bottles of Pepsi-Cola, TV sets from Motorola, kids' shirts, Dad's ties, tins from store-bought pies, boxes, boxes, boxes. . . .

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