Salon 02: Athens Services

Salon 02: Athens Services

AIR, the Artist-in-Residence Program at Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), empowers innovation by uniting the creative and cleantech communities in the shared aim of addressing global environmental problems.

We took a trip to Athens Services, a waste management facility in Sun Valley, with AIR to learn about recycling and sustainability initiatives, and how we can create art to promote a zero-waste society.  
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What Do You Really Know About Recycling?

You ordered some takeout during your lunch break. A caesar salad-- dressing mixed in-- with a bottle of Kombucha. You grab a set of plastic silverware and take your meal to an open table. When you’re done eating, you toss your fork and knife inside the dressing-coated container, screw the cap on your empty glass bottle, throw it all in a single stream recycle bin and call it a day.
“It’s all recyclable,” you think to yourself as you head back to work. “I’ve done my part.” But did you? Can you really say you know the exact way to recycle, or what happens to your empty cartons of Almond Milk, dirty takeout containers or empty bottles after you recycle them? We at Small Green Door couldn’t until we stopped by Athens Services, a family-owned mixed-waste management facility in Sun Valley, with our fellow artists in LACI’s Air Salon.
Jessica Aldridge, a Sustainability Manager at Athens Services, took us artists under her wing for the afternoon and taught us all about the ins and outs of recycling and waste management, the tasks she’s faced with, and new initiatives that are being developed to make Los Angeles a zero-waste city. 
If you’re like us, you aren’t privy to waste management-related jargon, so let’s break some things down.
She explained that mixed-waste processing (MWP), also known as “all-in-one,” is a one-bin system where the consumer (you) doesn’t separate out your recyclables. You put everything in the same bin, and wait for the garbage truck to roar down your street and haul your trash away. Mixed-waste facilities became popular because studies show they actually increase the recycling rates of certain materials.


athens services waste management


Another thing she discussed is that Athens is a LEED-certified building. It’s designed to be environmentally friendly by conserving water and energy through various in-house procedures. The facility runs on solar power. Their near-zero emission natural gas vehicles are 90% cleaner than the EPA’s strictest standards. They preserve the surrounding air quality by adding a touch of cherry scent in their emissions, just like a giant essential-oil diffuser.

To help them sort what comes through their facility, Athens employs the Max-AI commercial unit: an artificially intelligent autonomous technology that uses mechanical vision to differentiate between recyclables and waste. It’s essentially a giant robot arm that can sense what is fit for recycling and what isn’t. The arm picks out the trash while letting recyclables pass through the rest of the system. Some tips: “Maxene,” what the robot is affectionately referred to as can’t sense anything under 4 inches. Black plastics don’t register either, so keep those old Thai food containers and loose bottle caps out of your recyclables. Anything that’s dirty gets tossed, so you’re better off throwing away unwashed takeout boxes and used plastic silverware.

athens services waste management sustainability lesson

recyclables in barrels athens services waste management


After going through Maxene, the remaining materials are sent down a line to be filtered out by human hands. The workers pick out any waste items the machine may have missed. These individuals have to be on high alert, as any non-reusable materials that pass through them end up packed away in 17-ton barrels of recyclables. These barrels are made to be shipped back to China, where factories turn the discarded materials into a new product. If the barrels contain a certain amount of non-recyclables, they’re sent back to the U.S. where services like Athens are forced to foot the bill.

So, now that you’re more familiar with the process, how can you improve the way you recycle? A few suggestions via Athens’ website:


  • It’s easier to identify smaller plastics when grouped together. Collect small plastics in one bag and knot it when it’s full.
  • Return your plastic bags back to the grocery store to be recycled. Or, you can choose to put all your plastic bags in one secured bag.
  • By purchasing recycled-content product, you create a closed-loop system. Using material with at least 30% recycled content can reduce significant water and energy use, air pollution, and mining waste.
  • Commit to carrying your own reusable ware. This can include reusable utensils, carryout containers, coffee cups, water bottles, straws, chopsticks, and/or napkins.


Want updates on the next Air Salon and our sustainability initiatives?