What happens to my recycling?

You put your jars and cans and paper on the curb ... then what happens?

Katie Venit

Trash haulers must accept items that counties decide should be recycled. In Eau Claire County, that’s clean glass jars, aluminum, steel, paper, cardboard, and all plastics except those labeled No. 6 (which is very hard to recycle). When the garbage trucks pick up your garbage, they flip a switch and put your recycling in a different compartment from the trash in the same truck, saving the need to have separate trucks going to the same locations.

The trucks bring their loads to Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) in the Twin Cities where the items are sorted. Glass, steel, and aluminum are all recycled in the same basic way. Impurities, like ink and labels, are removed by washing the products and using high heat to remove paint. This gets the trash to be as close to the raw material as possible. Then it is melted and reshaped into something that manufacturers can use, like flat sheets. Before glass can be processed, it must be sorted by color then broken into tiny pieces.

Paper isn’t melted with heat, but it is turned into a liquid. It is treated in a chemical and water bath that turns it into a pulpy soup. Staples are removed with magnets, and other filters remove impurities like plastic windows on envelopes. Ink is washed out with a chemical wash. Then the pulp is rolled flat and turned back into paper.

Unlike the other products, plastic cannot be turned into its raw form because the raw form of plastic is oil. So recycled plastics are turned into something new. After being sorted by type and color, plastic is melted into tiny pellets or turned into fibers. This plastic can be turned into fleece jackets, construction materials, furniture, or insulation.

As important as recycling is, it’s also important to follow the rules of what can be put in your bin. “Wish-cycling” is when people put things in the recycling bin that they hope can be recycled but aren’t sure. If a bin has a lot of material that can’t be recycled, trash haulers will dump that bin in the trash side of the truck rather than risk contaminating the recyclables. For the same reason, it’s important to wash recyclables: Items that are too dirty contaminate the batch.

Contaminated batches can also have consequences down the line that make it difficult for MRFs to stay in business. A bale of plastic that has a high level of contamination will be sold to manufacturers for much less, for example. Remember: When in doubt, throw it out.

In 2017, 7,618 tons of materials were recycled in Eau Claire County, either from curbside pick up or drop sites. That’s a lot of material that was kept out of landfills and given a new life as a different product.

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