People that recycle often feel recycling guilt. It’s when they want to make sure something gets recycled even if it’s not recyclable. This is when wish cycling occurs. You can’t just wish your grease-stained cardboard pizza box can get recycled. Cardboard is recyclable, right? Instead let’s put it where it belongs and really reduce the contents of your waste bin.
To get started, let’s look at the big picture: total trash output. It appears that we reached “Peak Trash” in 1990
While total consumer waste output is continually increasing, the peak landfill output was in 1990. Thankfully recycling has ramped up so landfill use doesn’t follow the same trend.
“Combustion with Energy Recovery” is just cities burning trash in specialized energy recovery facilities and turning it into electricity. It’s better than the landfill, but reuse is always preferred.
Even while landfill output is not increasing, it’s not decreasing fast enough. How can we quickly and easily make a big dent in the trash going to the landfill?
Drawdown lists composting as #60 on the top list of things you can do to reverse global warming. Also if you reduce food waste by purchasing and using the right amount – #3(!) in Drawdown – you’d be killing it on your new year’s resolution.
Many people already do at-home composting with a bin in their backyard. But what if you don’t garden and don’t need fresh soil? Municipal composting will help you reduce your trash and turn your compostable material into rich soils that others can use.
Even people that have home compost bins can enjoy the benefits of municipal composting. The large compost facilities can process materials that your home compost bin can’t – including meat, fish, eggs, even bones. Who wants to trudge through the snow to the backyard compost bin when you can just put it in an organics cart?
Seeing the future
I had the privilege of touring the Mdewakanton Sioux organics recycling facility and Shakopee, MN. We got to see how they manage the organic material, mixing and turning it to keep it composting all year-round (even in the harsh Minnesota winters).
What struck me the most was that the Mdewakanton Sioux started the organics recycling facility as a seventh generation initiative. Not because the organics market is hot right now, but because it is the right thing to do – thinking ahead seven generations down the road.
Many cities and haulers now offer composting options, referred to in their business as curbside organics recycling pickup. Some municipalities, usually those with organized waste collection, will offer organics collection in conjunction with normal yard waste collection.
Fridley, where I live, is running a pilot program for organics collection. Right now it means another (small) garbage can, and in Fridley it picks up on a Wednesday – no matter what your normal trash day is. It is $10 a month to participate. I consider all of these responsibilities to be an investment, ensuring a quarter of my trash is going to be reused.
The bottom line
Composting is just as important as recycling. Used kleenex? Compost it. Coffee grounds and filter? Compost it. Last week’s leftovers that now look like a science experiment? Compost it!
Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Waste Management Material Recovery Facility (MRF) in Minneapolis, colloquially referred to as a “Murf.” Simply put, this is the type of place all of your recycling goes to be processed. This particular facility is where recycling from Columbia Heights goes (and other cities that contract through Waste Management). Fridley’s recycling goes to a similar type of murf facility owned by Republic Services in Inver Grove Heights.
The trip was enlightening and I wish everyone could see it in action. If you can’t make it, here are the cliff’s notes.
My favorite part of single sort recycling is that you just put all of your stuff in one bin. Remember the days of crushing cans and taking them to the metal recycler? Now you just throw it in the bin.
Not only do you not have to crush your bottles & cans, the recycler prefers you don’t.
This is because the sorting machines rely partly on dimension to determine the material type. It’s easier to sort a plastic bottle that hasn’t been crushed than one that is flat. Vice versa for paper and cardboard, which is the exception to the be lazy rule – you should always break down cardboard boxes so they’re flat.
If you use a brown grocery bag in your kitchen for recyclables, remember to empty the bag when you dump it into the recycling cart for your hauler. It may not get separated at the recycler – which makes it part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Likewise, don’t stuff things into other things. Don’t put a piece of paper in a plastic bottle and think the recycler will be able to sort it out (they won’t). The only time things can be nested is if they are the same product.
Keep It Clean
I want everyone to visit the recycling center because it re-enforces the feedback loop of what you put into your recycling bin. My guess is you don’t talk to the trash guy like your grandma did. Seeing how it’s processed helps close the loop so you know what you should put in and what you shouldn’t.
What you shouldn’t put in is as important as what you should. It matters because recycling is a supply and demand business. The stuff you put in that can’t be processed could very well become a contaminant that devalues the raw material that would normally have a buyer.
As we say in computing, garbage in, garbage out.
The biggest two things I noticed were plastic bags and paper shreds. While these both can be recycled, they need to be handled appropriately.
Plastic bags do not go to your recycling hauler. They need to be brought to a specialist. Target takes plastic bags. Recycle them there. At the Waste Management MRF they remove plastic bags from their equipment 4x daily (along with other trash like saran wrap, ropes, chains, hoses, VHS tapes, cords, and Xmas lights). Some of that other stuff is recyclable as well, but not through your normal recycling hauler.
Paper shreds were everywhere at the murf. They don’t cause trouble as much as they just coat everything and don’t get recycled. You can recycle paper shreds through your hauler, but put them in a brown paper bag and staple it shut and write “SHREDS” on it. Someone at the murf will pull it out, or it’s greater dimension will help it through the process. The murf uses air pressure to sort materials of different density – without being sealed the shreds will likely explode into a ticker tape parade.
Two more things that trouble the recycling plant manager are wood, it gets stuck in the machine and actually starts to burn the sorting wheels up. The other is hazards like lawnmower blades, which will get flung about in a facility like this. 🔪 It will shut the place down. Take it to a metal recycler. Your city or county likely has recycling days where you can bring scrap metal so you don’t even need to seek out a scrap metal specialist.
Stay up to date
Facilities like the murf are constantly being updated to be able to handle new materials. If your hauler, county, or city is doing their job, they’ll send out appropriate information to keep you up to date. However, the Minneapolis MRF highly recommended that you call them if you have a question – 612-379-1360.
Make sure you’re only putting in stuff that your hauler can process. Send as much of the other stuff as you can to the specialized recyclers. What little trash you have left shouldn’t be a huge concern, most of it likely goes to a Energy Recovery Center like the HERC. There it gets burned and turned into energy rather than just adding to the landfill.
Here’s a quick tip on lettering even the smallest tire sidewalls. I essentially used the technique in this video, but with some extra techniques to work on a 1/10 scale on-road tire: