DULUTH — The garbage truck drives by, takes your recycling and your garbage — but where does it go?
In years past, about 70 percent of the world’s plastics were shipped to China, but since the country’s government put the kibosh on accepting solid waste last year, many markets are looking at what’s next.
Recycling is a large part of the business, and officials from Western Lake Superior Sanitary District and Waste Management Inc. weighed in on how to do it right.
There’s a lot of confusion around recycling, said AJ Axtell, WLSSD environmental program coordinator. Plastic containers for berries, doughnuts or take-home boxes from restaurants are not recyclable in our market. They’re “end-of-the-line” plastics, she said, not high enough quality to be remade into other products.
Instead, items such as peanut butter and pickle jars, sports drinks, mouthwash, laundry detergent and shampoo bottles probably are OK to recycle. Other plastics, such as toys, squeezable bottles and packaging plastic, are trash.
To check a plastic’s recyclability, look at the bottom of the container. There’s a resin code numbered 1 through 7. Materials with 1, 2 or 5 can be recycled in our market.
Also, yes to glass bottles and cans, steel and aluminum, but no to Mason jars or ceramics — they don’t mix with glass and can’t be remade, said Julie Ketchum, public affairs representative for Waste Management Inc. in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Cardboard is a commodity that has some value, but used pizza boxes are a no-go because materials are expected to be clean and free of residue in order to be sold.
And as far as Styrofoam, the answer is always trash, Axtell said. “The best thing you can do is avoid bringing it into your home when you can.”
As much as we wish some of these things are recyclable, “recycling is a business,” said Karen Anderson, WLSSD director of community relations. Somebody has to want the material, and they need to be able to turn it into something. If nobody wants it, or there’s no need to use it in a new product, it might be recyclable someplace, but not here, she said.
If we want recycling to be a lasting system, we need to support it, and that means the right materials in the right condition, local experts said. More nonrecyclables mixed in with good items can potentially contaminate a load.
That includes diapers, aerosol cans, propane tanks, animal carcasses and containers with food in it. Food residue can lower the quality of items, making them not recyclable.
At the Waste Management sorting facility, they see a lot of bowling balls, Christmas lights, bags of medical waste. “Those are considered contaminants because they don’t go through our processing facilities,” said Troy Hanson, Waste Management director of recycling operations.
Other items, like batteries or plastic bags, can be a risk to the facility, equipment or the employees. A battery can start a fire in a truck or onsite, and plastic bags that go through their equipment can jam up machines, cause temporary shutdowns and added labor.
The facility sees a fair amount of “wish-cycling,” he said, people tossing items in and hoping for the best. Adding incorrect items to recycling uses additional resources by shipping them to the Twin Cities, and more resources to sort them, Anderson said.
Consumers need to strive for higher quality material and less contamination in their recycling output, Ketchum said: “It’s simple supply-and-demand economics, and it allows our domestic end markets to be more selective in what they will accept.
"When in doubt, throw it out; don’t throw it in the recycling."
Both the garbage and recycling bins are waste receptacles, and being a good steward is reducing the volume that goes in both, Axtell said. “Keep it much more simple: If it’s a bottle, tub, jug, jar or lid, recycle it.”
The bulk of materials being sorted are items coming into consumers' households one piece at a time, Anderson said, so a solution is to reduce single-use plastics and single-use materials. Buy in bulk, and use recyclable bulk containers.
Waste Management Inc. is partnering with state and local governments and working with customers to reduce contamination and keep recycling programs viable. Over the past 18 months, education has led to lower levels of contamination showing up in their facilities, Ketchum said.
Lori Blaise coordinates rural recycling services for WLSSD. She said neighboring townships have the advantage of rural recycling drop-off sites, where attendants can provide another layer of education.
As the solid waste authority for Duluth, Hermantown, Proctor, Rice Lake and surrounding townships, WLSSD created brochures with visual stats on waste, sharing this data: Every year, we toss enough steel cans in the trash to fill Enger Tower 11 times; enough plastic bottles to fill Amsoil Arena 52 times; enough cardboard to cover the Lakewalk 74 times.
The best thing you can do is try really hard not to bring these items home, Axtell said. “Not everything is avoidable. Sometimes, there’s trash, and it’s OK. Just make sure we have the right materials in the recycling bin.”
In her work educating others, she said, it’s not about guilt. It’s about encouraging people to do the best they can. Ask questions if you get confused, and encourage employers to provide recycling bins if they aren’t already.
Added Blaise: “Every little bit helps.”