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Recyclers, Municipalities Face Rising Costs Through Contamination

Recycling advocates in McLean County are pushing back against claims that materials set out at the curb for recycling are going to the landfill or being burned.

Advocates’ biggest concern is that a lack of attention to what we are and aren’t setting aside for recycling drives up costs.

Andrew Bennett standing next to trash dumpster
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
ISU's recycling coordinator Andrew Bennett said he's amazed how much recyclable materials students trash ever year, no matter how easy he makes it to recycle.

When students flood out of the dorms at Illinois State University to head home for the summer, Andrew Bennett becomes a dumpster diver.

He lunges into a four-foot tall rollout dumpster, but he’s not looking for hidden treasures. He’s looking for material that could be recycled.

“It’s in my heart, in my blood to keep stuff out of the landfills,” Bennett said. “Trying to do good.”

It’s also part of his job as ISU’s recycling coordinator. Bennett spends much of move-out week scouring dumpsters to make sure trashed items can’t be salvaged. He cordons off an area to put recyclable materials, but he said it never fails.

“It’s amazing that students will toss a metal futon up into a garbage roll-off four feet high rather than acknowledging there’s a sign there that says we take this metal futon frame they can just drop on the ground,” Bennett said.

Bennett came to ISU in 2010 just as the university was preparing to convert to single-stream recycling. He said that led to a large spike in recycling on campus, not all of it good.

“There’s the recycling wannabes that think that everything can be recycled, things like plastic hangars or plastic bags. That’s the big thing that curbside (recycling) does not want,” Bennett said.

In some cases, Bennet said, the problem is just laziness.

“We see to- go containers that end up in our recycling when the trash chute is even closer and we have signs for that,” Bennett said.

Andrew Bennett holding recycling sign
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
ISU's recycling coordinator Andrew Bennett shows a sign the university will put on each recycling container next year. Bennett, adds, however, the recycling industry believes pictures are most effective in explaining what can be recycled.

No, you can't recycle pizza boxes. There are lots of those on college campuses. Bennett said that leads to more contamination if no one catches it, and the only way to catch it is to have personnel go through the materials bit by bit, which drives up cost.

“They really didn’t educate enough, it's hard for me to even educate,” Bennett said. “I’m the lone educator here trying to educate students.”

Bennett said his office has tried posting more visible signs at each recycling bin about what can and can’t be accepted, but that doesn’t always help.

He said he may eventually make signs with pictures of what can't be recyled. He said the industry believes pictures tend to be more effective. 

Surely, college campuses aren't the only place where recycling contamination exists. It's a problem just about everywhere. That's why companies that take recyclables are investing millions of dollars to better weed out the materials that may cause contamination.

Investing in recycling

An optical sorter is the key piece of an estimated $3 million renovation at Midwest Fiber Recycling in Normal.

Todd Shumaker is director of sales and procurement. He explained how it works.

“As materials comes through, they are coming at a rapid pace and then it takes an infrared picture and then a puff of air, shoots the plastic or the aluminum or the tin can, up and over a divider and all the paper falls on one side of the divider and all the containers shoot over to the other side of the divider,” Shumaker said. “Before (the renovation), unfortunately some of this would end up in our fiber, so some of those smashed water bottles, how they have gotten so thin and so lightweight, when they go through some of our sorting they would end up in the paper so we have just people who are trying to find it. 

"They couldn’t find enough of them.”

Even with machines to separate items, sorting recyclables is labor intensive, especially at a plant that churns out about 3,000 tons of material each month. Staff work a conveyer belt line where they have to hand pick all the milk jugs and laundry detergent bottles and the harder plastics, which are recycled separately from the lighter plastics, aluminum and tins cans.

“Every minute they are finding 50 items in that area,” Shumaker said. “They are sorting with their left hand, their right hand.

“We sometimes joke usually if you are good at video games, you are pretty good at this job.”

They also have to remove contaminants. Really stinky contaminants. Shumaker said the most common offenders are pieces of clothing, plastic bags. and diapers. Yes, dirty diapers, which can tangle in equipment.

Midwest Fiber takes recyclables from about 1 million commercial and residential customers throughout Illinois, including Bloomington-Normal, and parts of Iowa. As many as nine staffers at a time do manual sorting.

After the big sort, Shumaker works the phones to find buyers. China stopped taking U.S. materials a few years ago because of contamination problems. He said that has turned the recycling market on its head. Some materials can't find a home, at least not a cost-effective one.

Todd Schumaker and Michael Brown at Midwest Fiber Recycling
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
Midwest Fiber Recycling's Todd Shumaker (left) speaks with Michael Brown of Ecology Action Center during a recent tour of Midwest Fiber's recycling operations.

Some recycled material goes to waste. But Shumaker said not at Midwest Fiber.

“There are stories coming out of Nebraska of recyclers having to landfill materials,” Shumaker said. “Fortunately, where we are at geographically and our selling strategy, that’s not really a concern of ours. We have enough domestic paper mills and we have enough good people here to make sure we have a good, clean, quality product that we will have a market.”

Shumaker said they can store materials at a warehouse if they can't sell them right away. They did that recently when their plant went offline for three weeks during the renovations.

Also, not all recycling materials are equal. Cardboard has plummeted in value in the last year. Shumuker said that's in part because there's more of it.

“Ten years ago, 50 dress shirts would ship to Sears in one box,” Schumaker explained. “That Sears would take the box out of the market and that box would get recycled and the shirts would get put on the shelf. Now 50 shirts, no longer from Sears but from wherever, gets shipped to your house and each one of those creates a box.”

As recently as a year ago, ISU's Bennett said Midwest paid $100 a ton for cardboard. Now he gets about $5 a ton.

No More Glass 

Some materials face such a poor recycling market, recyclers won't take them.

Area Disposal Service of Peoria, a recycler in Central Illinois and parts of Missouri and Iowa, operates landfills in Clinton, Hopedale, and Pike County, Missouri.

"It's been hard over the years to encourage the right type of recycling."

Municipal Marketing and Communications Manager Eric Shangraw said Area Disposal will no longer recycle glass.

He recalled the company recently got $6 from a processor in Wisconsin for driving 21 tons of glass to them. That was before the company added labor and transportation costs.

“You can’t run a business making $6 on 21 tons of material,” Shangraw declared.

Just like Midwest Fiber, Shangraw said Area Disposal put in a multimillion dollar recycling processing system at its facility in Pekin. The company recently signed its first municipal recycling contract in Heyworth that excludes glass.

Shangraw said glass left in the recycling bin will end up in the landfill.

“I know it’s hard on people when they wash out that cottage cheese container or wash out that Ragu bottle that they’ve done for so long and they want it recycled and they put it in, that’s annoying to them when they hear it’s going in the landfill, but that’s the reality of the marketplace," Shangraw said. 

Different companies taking different materials adds confusion. Ecology Action Center Director Michael Brown said this is at a time the recycling industry wants a simple, unified message to encourage more people to recycle.

“Some sectors will have one list of acceptable items and then for others there’s a slightly different list,” Brown said. “It does complicate our messaging somewhat.”

The Ecology Action Center in Normal has set a countywide goal of recycling 50 percent of trash by the year 2022. It's currently 42 percent. Brown said customers should be confident that when they recycle according to the directions, that's exactly what will happen.

“We have very high confidence because of strong relationships and just the transparency with these local companies,” Brown said. “Yes, things are being recycled when they say they are being recycled.”

Municipal Costs 

Recycling costs money, especially when markets dwindle. Normal Public Works Director Wayne Aldrich said municipalities have to pay more.

“I would say the price has basically doubled since this time last year, so we are concerned with this trend,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich said the average monthly recycling haul is about 150 tons through the Town of Normal curbside and drop-off programs. That costs the town $90,000 a year, about twice what it did a year ago. Aldrich said that part of the town's budget has some flexibility for now.

“I think we are still comfortable with funding the program at this point,” he said. “It will certainly be something we discuss and study in greater detail when we go through our budget process beginning in July.”

Bloomington Public Works Director Jim Karch said the days when municipalities could make money recycling are long gone. But Karch said recycling it still cheaper than hauling it to the landfill. The city pays $45 per ton for recycling and about $53 a ton for trash.

Karch said it's a challenge to encourage more people to recycle, but not haphazardly.

“It’s been hard over the years to encourage the right type of recycling,” he said.

Karch said about 80 percent of residents recycle something, but he'd like to see those who do recycle to do more.

“Much of the material in your home, about 70 percent of what you take in can be recycled,” Karch explained. “There really are a lot of opportunities if people are willing to put in that time to try to reduce the materials that go to the landfill.”

ISU's Bennett offers a word of caution. He said before you toss something in the recycling bin, make sure that's where it should go.

“We really do have to train the consumer, 'When in doubt, throw it out.' Contamination is the biggest thing,” Bennett said.

If residents don't get smarter at recycling, municipalities may one day have to decide whether they can still afford to pay for recycling when the county no longer has its own landfill. The county's trash is now being taken to Livingston County.

Bloomington, Normal and Ecology Action Center each has specifics on how and what to recycle on their websites. Bloomington residents can also get more information on the Recycle Coach app.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.