What goes on beyond the bin?
After one year on the job, Jason Slinker offers a glimpse of the life of your recycling
Standing on a raised platform, Jason Slinker looks into the conveyer belt carrying plastics to be sorted at the regional recycling center. He pulls out one item that pretty obviously doesn’t belong here — a used syringe.
“We all wear cut-resistant gloves,” Slinker said.
On any given day, the workers at the North Central Iowa Regional Solid Waste Agency recycling center are hard at work sorting the glass, plastic and paper that roll in from 42 towns around the area — and picking out the things that don’t belong.
“I feel there is an assumption out there that it is all handled by automation when, in fact, most of it touches human hands,” Slinker said.
Slinker has been operations manager of the recycling center since May of 2017. In the intervening months, he’s learned a lot about what can be recycled, challenges to the recycling economy today, and just what happens beyond the bin.
“It’s been interesting,” Slinker said. “I didn’t have any background in this industry before. Before here, I worked in retail for 17 years. It’s just about managing people and learning the process.”
Syringes are an obvious no, but there are other items that shouldn’t end up in the recycling stream as well — for instance, vinyl.
There are eight workers in the recycling center who go through the recycled cardboard from the large rolloff bins to make sure things are acceptable.
“The cardboard, we have to pick out if there are straps. People sometimes inadvertently put in wax cardboard, and we have to remove that,” Slinker said. “The tape and stuff, we don’t, but definitely little plastic straps, or any plastic bags that were inside there. Packing materials, we also have to remove.”
Workers also commonly have to remove salt softener bags.
“The salt residue itself is just bad on the equipment processing the materials,” Slinker said. “Same with motor oil containers. Those should be landfilled.”
Styrofoam can’t recycled here, although there are a few places in the world where it can be, with the use of specialized equipment.
“Is Styrofoam recyclable? Here, no,” Slinker said. “That mostly goes down to weight. Weight and volume. You look at the carbon footprint.”
Why is wrapping paper so easy to tear? Often because it’s made out of paper that’s been recycled more than once already, Slinker said. That means the fibers are short and it can’t really be recycled another time.
“It doesn’t have that structural integrity to it. So the next time around, trying to do it again would not be a good product,” he said.
Dog food bags are also no good — they have a mesh that can’t be shredded.
In fact, anything made from multiple materials can’t really be recycled, according to Slinker.
Fort Dodge’s residential recycling program allows residents to put all their recycling in one bin without sorting it. That’s called single-stream recycling.
What’s best, Slinker said, is make sure the recycling materials are loose — not in bags.
Single-stream recycling isn’t sorted at the Fort Dodge collection center; it’s baled and sent to a facility in Le Mars that has complicated machinery.
“There is some manual sorting up there as well, but it does go through a lot more automation to help separate that,” Slinker said. “I’ve been up there once. It’s quite a bit bigger, and has a lot more machines.”
Materials “bounce” through machines and pass through screens, he explained. If those items are stuck in a bag they won’t be separated.
“When it’s in a bag it doesn’t get spread out, so a lot of times it gets misidentified as trash and will be thrown out,” he said. “All your work at home was for naught. You want to open stuff up, let it be loose, so it can make it through the different screens.”
Lately, Fort Dodge has been leaving recycling behind if there’s something not recyclable in the curbside container, Slinker said. He’s gotten calls about that, even though that’s handled through the city’s central garage, not Slinker’s office.
“So I say, that’s the central garage, but while I have you on the phone, what did you have in the bin? Then, well, unfortunately that pool liner or that garden hose you put in, that’s not a recyclable item. That’s probably why it got left,” he said.
“And I have been getting more feedback and more questions. That’s good,” he said. “I say questioning is caring, so I like when people reach out, because it means they’re actually stopping and thinking before they throw it in the bin.”
It was toward the end of 2017 when China made major changes to what recyclable items it would accept in response to poor quality product it was getting from the U.S., according to Slinker.
That’s led to a need for higher-quality recycling material throughout the stream.
“China has shut the doors down pretty much on a lot of recycling and scrap in general,” he said. “They reduced the contamination threshold to half a percent, which is extremely hard to obtain. Essentially, not entirely shutting the door, but pretty much.”
That means that plastics that were going overseas have now moved to new end users.
The point of recycling is to keep things out of the landfill, Slinker said. But if there’s garbage in the recycling, that ends up in a landfill anyway. And if that recycling is sent to China, it’s sending waste into China’s landfills.
“In the end, you may be keeping it out of our landfill, but you’re filling up wherever this product is going, and you’re also burning that bridge if we’re not giving them a good product. Now China has woken us up on that — we need to take care of the problem at the source, which is you and me,” he said.
“We have to do a better job. You can’t just pass the buck. It becomes someone else’s trash until it becomes their trash, and they called us out on it.”
Today, only about 65 to 70 percent of the material in the single-stream recycling is actually good recycling material, he said.
“If we’re consistently giving them a bad product, and the markets are down, we could jeopardize the whole single-stream/curbside program.”
With China mostly out of the picture, where does the paper, plastic and cardboard go after passing through the recycling center?
Cardboard loaded into the bins around the area is likely to be made into liner board.
Paper is made into egg cartons and drink holders for fast food restaurants at a facility in Cedar Rapids.
“So we can use newspaper and office paper. They don’t require a high quality, whereas I’ve been told years ago we had to separate the clean office paper from newspaper. That’s a little more labor-intensive,” Slinker said.
Plastic in the roll-offs goes to a facility in Quincy, Illinois. Those items go through an automatic optical sorting process, using lasers to separate plastics into seven specific densities.
Glass is sent to Le Mars.
Most metal goes to salvage places like Frank’s Auto and Truck Salvage, which is located near the landfill, Slinker said.
The regional recycling center processes about 22 tons a week of single-stream recycling, Slinker said.
As far as sorted items, Slinker’s facility sees around 100 tons of cardboard a month, for example.
Global changes have led to a tight market, but not across the board.
“The markets are tight right now. A year ago, for cardboard we were getting over $100 more per ton. That was one that probably fell out the most,” Slinker said. “But on the other side, our plastic has gone up a little bit.”
On the other hand, it seems there are more steel plants either starting up again or being built, Slinker said, which may be a benefit of the scrap ban.
When plastic bags are packaged together, they aren’t a problem.
When they get loose, or when they’re used to keep recycling from being easily sortable, they are a major irritant, according to Slinker.
“We do bale them and process them. When they’re isolated it’s not that big of a problem. When people leave stuff in it, we see a problem with it,” he said.
In the end, though, the biggest issue is to just get them recycled somewhere.
“They’re flying around everywhere. They get caught in our equipment. They get caught in the fields over there by Target and Walmart, or the fenceline by the post office,” Slinker said.
It’s best when consumers can take their bags back to the stores, he said. Most major retailers in town have recycling bins for old bags near the door.
“If there’s something we could change in the culture, it would be — you take your old bags with you,” he said. “Take them in, get your new ones.”