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Feb 27, 2013, 11:06 am
The next step: Following our recyclables after they leave our hands
By Brian Todd


You drink that bottle of soda or you eat that can of soup. When it comes time to toss the container in which your food or drink came, what do you do? Like most people, chances are you go ahead and toss that bottle or can into your recycling bin.

So, then what happens? Do those stacks of newspaper or bits of plastic actually get made into new items?

Well, yes, and much of that happens here in Minnesota.

Sigurd Scheurle, a solid waste planner with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, says our recycling waste is traded like a commodity in the industry. Scheurle, who works out of Winona County, says that while the bulk of materials in most recycling bins is paper or cardboard, the valuable products are plastics and metals.

Sharon Schriever, executive director for the Southeast Minnesota Recyclers Exchange, says recycling has been on the rise in the region. That, she says, can be attributed to the greater ease of home recycling and more businesses looking to increase their green bona fides.

All that reusable trash has amounted to 70,812 tons of material recycled in 2011 in Olmsted County. And that means more than just items kept from our landfills. For example, recycled aluminum saves 95 percent of the energy of mining and processing new aluminum.

Whether your hauler takes all your recyclables in one pile or requires some sorting, Scheurle says recyclables in Olmsted County eventually make it to a transfer station before being shipped on to material recovery facilities in the Twin Cities. For example, he says, Waste Management has a facility near the Rochester airport where recycling is loaded on to trucks and hauled to the company’s processing facility.

Once in the cities, each item is sorted according to type then processed into raw materials. “Most commercial haulers — Waste Management, Veolia — they take mixed recyclables to their MRFs (material recovery facilities) and sort the mixed fractions and kick out bails in various fractions such as paper, metal, glass or plastics,” Scheurle says.

Those bails, he says, are often compressed cubes of materials. Some weigh as much as a ton. Those bails are then taken to processors where the actual recycling takes place.


Different materials, different processes

“We have a number of markets in Minnesota, depending on what the product is,” says Tina Patton, who develops markets for recyclable materials for the MPCA. “For example, if it’s paper, they pulp it and there’s a de-inking process. If it’s metal, it’s melted down to make it into new aluminum or steel. Plastic is melted down and made into a number of different products.”

And, of course, with plastics it depends on the resin involved. The plastics with the No. 1 in the middle of the item’s recycling symbol — the triangle of arrows — often get recycled into carpet fibers or fleece. No. 2 can be recycled into everything from plastic bags to plastic lumber.

“Glass goes directly back into the furnace,” Patton says.

Shakopee-based Anchor Glass prefers recycled glass over making new glass — though the company does both — because it takes less energy to melt recycled glass.

“They just shoot it right in the mold and it cools down on their conveyor belt,” says Patton.

Scheurle says the process for metals is similar to the process with glass. Items are melted and reconfigured as raw materials, again ready to be used in a variety of ways.

The biggest process, Scheurle says, is in paper recycling. The recycled materials are placed into a water and chemical bath to break down the paper and make the pulp usable.

“It looks like a milk shake,” he says. “It’s even brown.”

Once the paper fiber is broken down, you can make paper from it.

Schriever says the proof of recycling is everywhere.

“Most of the aluminum cans are recycled right back into aluminum cans again,” she says, adding that the same is true of plastic bottles, which also find their way into carpet. “It’s around us a lot more than we know.”



Recycling tips

Just about anything can be recycled. Old furniture can be refurbished. Your broken down washing machine is full of metal that can be sent to the scrapper. And that coffee mug with the broken handle would probably make a nice planter.

But when it comes to putting items in your recycling bin for trash day, you’ll need to be a bit more selective on what you toss away. According to Recycle More Minnesota, the list of common items that can be set out for curb recycling includes:

Cans: If it once held food or a drink, chances are it can be recycled at the curb. Most food and drink cans are made of either tin, steel or aluminum. You can include aerosol cans with the bin if you live in Rochester — but only if the can is empty and depressurized. However, the inclusion of aerosol cans varies from city to city, so make sure to check with your local waste hauler or city government. Oh, and you should remove paper labels from the cans.

Glass: Like cans, glass bottles and jars that contained food or drinks can usually be set out on trash day in the recycling bin. However, most other glass — plate glass from windows, compact fluorescent bulbs, incandescent bulbs, mugs, dishes cookware and pottery — should be taken to Olmsted County’s Hazardous Waste Facility. Other hazardous waste items include bottles that have held hazardous materials such as nail polish or paints.

Plastics: It’s all a numbers game with plastics — the resin code numbers. You know that little code inside the recycling symbol at the bottom of a plastic object? That number will tell you if the item can be recycled at the curb. In Olmsted County, all haulers accept No. 1 and 2. All other numbers must be taken to the county recycling center.

Paper: Whether it is phone books or your shredded bank statements, paper is taken curbside.

Cardboard: Both corrugated and boxboard cardboard can be put into your recycling bin.




For more information, visit and Brian Todd is a regular contributor to Radish.


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