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Separating recyclables

By LaVerne C. Paulson

Fri, Feb 8th, 2013
Posted in All Home & Garden

The second and third most common questions I get asked are, “Where does all that stuff go?” and “Who gets the job of separating all that stuff?” The easy answers are, “Twin Cities” and “a large machine, along with a few nimble people with quick hands.” However, it’s not quite as simple as that and I will share some additional information with help from a couple other sources.

A few of you will remember when the Recycling Center here in Preston was the County Composting Building. When the building was no longer used for the composting process, two of the three large inside bins were used to hold material before it made its next trip to Rochester, and then to the Twin Cities. One bin was for paper and other fibers, and another bin was for rigids such as glass, steel cans, aluminum cans, and recyclable plastic. People from throughout Fillmore County would bring their recyclables to Preston and deposit them in the appropriate bin. The eight rural recycling containers from six locations around the county would deposit materials in the bins as well. Waste haulers would bring recyclables from cities throughout the county and add to the growing piles of material. The third bin was, and still is used to store construction debris and other landfill garbage before they are sent to the landfill. The fiber and the rigids were loaded into separate large containers and taken to Rochester by Waste Management. Perhaps a dozen or more containers filled with tons and tons of recyclables were, and are, shipped each week.

Then, early in 2011, the process changed. Fillmore County went from two sort (fiber and rigids) to single stream recycling. Now, everything goes into one big pile. The fibers and the rigids are all mixed together and transported to Rochester in large containers, then on to the Twin Cities. Most people would agree that single stream recycling benefits our residents by making recycling less complicated, people recycle more material, and our recycling rate increases. However more than a few of you who visit the Recycling Center shake your heads in disbelief that this conglomeration of stuff can become new bottles, cans, paper, counter tops, lawn furniture, or fuzz on a tennis ball. But it does.

The January 11th issue of the Rochester Post Bulletin contained an article written by Stephanie Hemphill of Minnesota Public Radio News who explained how some of this is done. The remainder of this paragraph has been edited a bit, but I am sure it will help you understand the process somewhat better. The comingled recyclables are placed on a large conveyer belt and different methods are used to separate the different recyclables. Cardboard rides up and over a set of rotating disks and lands on the floor where it is pressed into bales to be shipped elsewhere. As the remaining material travels down the belt, air from a fan flings aluminum cans off to the side while a giant magnet grabs the steel cans. Optical sensors that can recognize different types of plastic tell a computer to shoot puffs of air at certain plastics such as Number 1 pop bottles and sends them off the belt to get them ready for baling. Workers grab Number 2 plastic containers such as milk and juice jugs and toss them into a bin to be baled later. Glass is sent to another place where optical sorters separate different colors of glass to be made into new bottles. Even though not mentioned in the article, I am sure the many forms of fiber are also baled up and sent to paper mills to make new fiber products. If you want to see how this comes to pass, go to Google on your computer, and type in, “single stream recycling video,” and watch a short presentation or two concerning the single stream process. You will be amazed, and yes, all this stuff does get separated and recycled.

So there you have it. A condensed explanation of what happens to your stuff when you recycle here in Fillmore County. By the way, this conveyor belt is the large machine I mention now and then that hates plastic bags that wrap around the gears, shafts, and pulleys and cause all kinds of slowdowns and breakdowns.

I suppose you are still wondering what is the most common question I get. “When are Number 5 containers going to become recyclable?” If and when this happens, you will get the news right here.

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