On a warm, sunny Tuesday morning, city recycle truck No. 36572 huffs and bucks through the alleys and streets of North Hollywood.
Behind the wheel on the right side of the cab, Ron Cole Jr. eyeballs the next blue bin on the street and pulls abreast of it. Tapping a video game-like control panel, he extends a mechanical grabber, grasps the bin and dumps its contents into the truck's receiving well.
On a small black-and-white monitor connected to a camera at the mouth of the well, Cole checks to ensure each bin is empty. If it isn't, he gives the bin a vigorous shake.
Then he sets it down and moves on.
Every week in Los Angeles, residents trundle some 800,000 blue recycling bins out to their curbs. By separating paper, plastic and glass from the rest of their trash, recyclers can feel they are contributing to an affluent society's war against waste.
But how warranted are their feelings of virtuousness?
Does the mountain of newspapers, soup cans, mail-order catalogs, plastic drink bottles, credit card solicitations and broken toys picked up each week by Cole and his colleagues actually get reused?
A surprising amount of it does.
Each day, at plants that contract with the city, the primitive work of human hands combines with clever mechanization to successfully transform the city's discards into industrial aggregates that become commodities once again.
The blue bin program, which costs about $14 million a year to run, has resulted in a significant reduction in the amount of trash the city sends to landfills.
In the late 1980s, before state law required recycling, Los Angeles buried all 1.6 million tons of waste it collected yearly from curbside. The total volume has remained about the same, but last year the city sent only about a million tons to landfills. The remainder, deposited in green bins (for yard waste) and blue bins, was recycled.
After three hours and 45 minutes of stop-and-go collections, truck No. 36572 is full. Cole heads for Sun Valley Paper Stock Inc. in Sun Valley.
Turning off San Fernando Road, he backs into one end of an open-faced building half a mile long and enters a din of ratcheting machinery and plastic bottles and jugs popping beneath the wheels of roaring bulldozers.
Here, Sun Valley Paper's 62 line employees process about 6,000 tons a month from the city program.
Cole's load weighs in at a little over 5 1/2 tons. It is slowly ejected from the truck onto the receiving floor, where a bulldozer shoves it against a tall heap of other trucks' loads, ready for processing.
Eventually, the undifferentiated mass is loaded in a single layer onto two wide conveyors that ferry it up one story to a presorting line. There, 20 gloved, masked and hard-hatted workers pull out the obvious trash -- bags of food waste tossed in the wrong bin and other garbage -- which will be sent to a landfill.
They also pluck out large recyclables, such as corrugated cardboard, plastic toys and buckets and pieces of scrap metal. Each category has its own bin on the floor below.
The most common items incorrectly placed in the blue bins, plant manager Mike Hernandez said, are wood and drywall, both of which are pulled out and sent to landfills.
Hernandez, 45, started as a sorter at Sun Valley Paper 26 years ago. He says things are greatly improved now. "In those days," he said, "we used to sort on the ground instead of up on the equipment. We didn't have all this fantastic equipment back then. The work was pretty much all by hand. Now it's much easier, more comfortable."
The work is unskilled, Hernandez said, with the principal qualification for sorters being a willingness to show up faithfully for duty.
The plant uses a mix of temporary and permanent employees who make between $7 and $16 per hour. Good workers can be moved to areas where there's a little more responsibility, he said, such as loading reclaimed items on trailers and assisting supervisors
There's no getting around the fact, though, that a job at a recycling plant means spending the day with other people's garbage.
Cole's load is making its way through the line. What has survived the presort heads to the "news screen," a row of large turning discs atop an incline.
The news screen spawns three separate streams of material: smaller fragments of trash and glass that fall immediately down to a conveyor belt; large pieces of newspaper that the discs move upward; and containers and smaller pieces of paper that tumble back down the incline onto their own conveyor line.
It's a remarkably efficient process. Shaker screens separate dirt and tiny pieces of unusable glass and divert them to trash bins.
An air jet blows paper shreds into recovery bins. Metal is recovered with a magnet.
The glass passes into an optical sorter where an infrared light identifies remaining rocks, trash and other non-translucent objects and ejects them by air jet, leaving just the salable glass.