IN-DEPTH: Recycling a messy business: Markets threaten worth of earth-friendly efforts | Regional news


The Columbia County Recycling Center in Pardeeville is as clean as it can be — which is not very.

But the problem is not the staff or the equipment, it’s the trash that people mistakenly put inside their plastic carts. It is a problem both deliberate and inadvertent. It is responsible, at least in part, for the lack of markets for the items that should be yielding revenue, but are actually producing much less income than they did in the past.

Eventually, recycling may cost taxpayers instead of easing their tax burden.

The problem is easier to diagnose than to correct.

“Everybody assumes everything is recyclable,” said Greg Kaminski, director of the Columbia County Solid Waste Department. He has been in the garbage and recycling business for 30 years, and has been working with Columbia County for the past 6½ years.

“People think that because something is plastic, it’s recyclable. As a result we’ll get toys. We’ll get plastic CD cases, VCR tapes. In the meantime the tape comes out and wraps around our machines and then it all gets treated as garbage. People’s perceptions create some big issues for us.”

Collection varies widely

Trash and recyclable collection in the area varies significantly from city to city.

Baraboo runs its own collection service, employing drivers to collect the city’s waste, which is then transferred to a private Waste Management site.

“Recycling rebates and grants are still active and pursued by the city of Baraboo,” said Tony Gilman, Baraboo’s streets superintendent. “The recycling grants through the state of Wisconsin do assist with the funding of our recycling program and are applied for on an annual basis. The rebate values vary from month to month, but in general are fairly beneficial to our overall program costs as well.”

Portage, and most of Columbia County, hires Columbia County Solid Waste, which sorts and markets its own recyclables. It transfers its garbage to the Advanced Disposal Glacier Ridge Landfill near Mayville.

Much of Dodge County’s waste is collected by Advanced Disposal and also goes to its Glacier Ridge facility. Some of its recyclables are sorted and sold through the Columbia County facility.

In most cases, trash and recycling hauling is negotiated by the city, with businesses and industries making their own deals with haulers. Contracts are often multiyear deals, with adjustments for the price of gas, recycling costs and revenues and usually an annual increase built in.

An example of the complicated nature of waste disposal and recyclable processing is that Mayville — within sight and occasionally smell of the Glacial Ridge landfill — does not contract for trash and recycling collection. Homeowners choose their own haulers and competing haulers pass each other on the streets on Monday and Tuesday collection days.

Advanced Disposal recycling used to go to a nearby processing facility that was closed years ago. Recycling facilities in general have become fewer ever since their profitability has waned.

Shrinking markets

As far as recycling is concerned, the largest challenge is lack of markets. This has become especially acute since China has ceased to purchase recyclables, and pays significantly less for materials that meet its stringent 0.05% or less contamination requirement.

“The domestic market has been flooded because of China’s refusal to buy our materials,” Kaminski said. “It has affected our revenue here and how we operate. Markets are getting harder and harder to find.”

One example is cardboard, which yielded about $150 a ton three years ago. Today, sorted and bundled, it sells for $35 to $40 a ton.

“That’s a big decrease,” Kaminski said. “Now we charge for some of the recycling that’s coming in here. It’s as expensive to recycle as it is to get rid of the garbage.”

The Columbia County facility at W7465 Highway 16, Pardeeville, has been semiautomatically (using both machines and personnel) processing recyclables since 2015. It processes about 800 tons of recyclables each month, of which about 200 tons is trash. The facility ships out about 600-700 tons of processed recyclables (with 3-4% contamination) each month for whatever price they can get.

Kaminski recalls that the county’s move to collect its own trash and to operate its own recycling facility was, in part, to control costs.

“We were collecting single stream (in one cart) recyclables and sending them off to another processor,” Kaminski said. “We decided five years ago to process our own material here and in theory open another revenue stream by marketing what we were recycling. That’s what we do now.”

He continued, “When we first started the markets were really strong. We got good pricing for our cardboard and our paper — everything. Now that China has placed a lot of restrictions on what it is taking the market has become really depressed; depressed to the point where we’re having real trouble moving some of the material such as newspaper and cardboard. We’re getting a fraction of what we were getting a couple of years ago. It has really had an impact on our recycling here.”

The facility has to pay to get rid of glass, and metal yields about half of what it did in the past.

Recycling a dirty business

Recycling is anything but clean, contaminated with food, beverages not drained from containers, a huge volume of non-recyclable items and even garbage.

“If you have half a bottle of soda or a container with ketchup or mayonnaise, it gets everything sticky and contaminates all of the other recyclables that were prepared correctly,” Kaminski said. “That 20 percent of contaminants has a much bigger impact than you might think. That’s one-fifth of everything that comes here, which is really significant. That means there are several people on the line who are just pulling out garbage.”

Contaminated materials are treated as trash.

“We do receive feedback regarding compliance when we drop off at the transfer station,” Gilman said. “They notice if the program is improving or degrading and keep in constant contact with us. They occasionally suggest ways which our program could improve and offer assistance in the form of literature that can be provided to the residents. They also have a website ( available that outlines what is and isn’t allowable for common recyclable materials.”

All containers are supposed to be emptied and rinsed. A Columbia County flyer suggest that bottles be rinsed and their caps be attached to prevent liquid contamination of paper and cardboard, which must remain dry.

All of this is a challenge for “single stream” carts, which are the preferred method of collection.

“They increase our efficiency because they’re faster to collect, but they are responsible for a lot of contamination,” Kaminski said. “Unfortunately, if people throw garbage in there or materials that aren’t recyclable, you can’t see it when you’re dumping the cart.

“There are a lot of trucks that come in and you can’t tell whether it’s garbage or recycling because it’s so contaminated. We see everything on the line, including diapers, used clothes, rodents. It’s amazing.”

Single-use plastic bags are about the biggest challenge, since many customers like to place them in their recycling carts, despite warnings to the contrary.

“They’re our biggest issue because they get wrapped around our conveyors and our screens and jam them up,” Kaminski said. “They get contaminated easily and are really not recyclable. Plastic bags are definitely a big issue. They’re more of a nuisance than anything else.”

Volume is not great enough for the center to collect bags and recycle them, even if there were a market. The trend of some states banning single-use plastic bags could be seen as a positive thing for the recycling business.

“We’d be for it because of the issues that it creates for us,” Kaminski said. “Whether that will happen here or not, I can’t say.”

Residents can help

Columbia County recycles only #1 and #2 plastics, which include such things as water and soda bottles, milk jugs, laundry detergent jugs and other containers. Plastics #3-7 are not recycled due to lack of markets.

The narrow selection of plastics may frustrate those who want to recycle more, but is justified by the lack of markets. According to Kaminski, costs far outweigh return.

The county continues to process aluminum beverage containers, food cans, and beer, wine and other glass bottles.

Education remains a high priority for success.

“We need to see a change,” Kaminski said. “It’s going to take some time to educate people and to get them to understand what we can and cannot accept — what’s recyclable and what’s not. That’s the big challenge.”

Mark Nighbor, director of marketing and sales for Advanced Disposal, is well aware of recycling’s challenges. His company operates 42 landfills in 16 states and the Bahamas.

Advanced Disposal transports eight or nine semi loads of trash per day from Columbia County Solid Waste to the Glacier Ridge Landfill. The company sends the recyclables it gathers to the Pardeeville facility, or to its own sorting and processing facility in Germantown. It also offers drop-off centers where customers can leave sorted recyclables that are transferred to appropriate locations.

“People tend to over-recycle,” Nighbor said. “If it looks like metal or plastic, they think it can be recycled, and we have to pay to dispose of it. Unfortunately, what’s happening with single-stream collection is what we call ‘wish-cycling.’ What people are saying is ‘I’m not sure if it’s recyclable, so I’ll just throw it into the recycling bin.’ What they don’t know is what they’re doing is causing more harm than good. They’re contaminating the valuable commodities that are inside the container.

“The key rule to follow is ‘If it’s in doubt, throw it out.’ That’s the best rule I can suggest when people have a question.”

As an example, he explained that cardboard has value, but if a dirty pizza cardboard enters the recycling stream, it will make a cardboard bale worthless, and only fit for disposal.

He indicated that his company is primarily in the business of collecting and disposing of solid waste, and then sends most of its recyclables to third-party facilities that sort materials and market the items that can be sold after they are processed — such as the Columbia County facility.

Recycling has a future

Nighbor sees a much broader picture for recycling in the future.

“I wouldn’t blame China,” he said. “I see them as a catalyst, because they consumed an enormous supply of recycled materials. In 2017 and 2018, they said they were going to enforce contamination rates — in essence to improve the quality of the material. They said, ‘We’re done taking the world’s trash.’”

Much of the United States’ recyclables are contaminated up to 40%, Nighbor said.

“Our local managers in Wisconsin are saying that they believe single-stream (mixed) recycling has helped recycling rates over the past 10 years,” he said. “The tricky part is that participation rates increase with single stream, but so does contamination.”

As for markets, they will continue to change.

“The mixture will continue to evolve based on what the markets are doing,” Nighbor said. “Right now, there is no market for glass. Clean cardboard is the most valuable. As for mixed paper, nationally it’s at about $3 a ton. A year ago, it was $31 a ton. With that kind of market volatility, it’s really difficult to determine contract amounts. If we could fix the contamination issue, that would help tremendously for everyone involved.”

The future of recycling probably involves more automation, due to the tight labor market. Kaminski is always looking for help. The starting wage at the Columbia County facility is $12 an hour, for what is by its nature dirty work. And he said that means even further reducing contamination.

Communities committed

Despite the challenges, Columbia County remains committed to recycling as a means of controlling its waste volume — for which county taxpayers must pay.

“We recycle everything we possibly can, try to find markets and get whatever we can for it,” Kaminski said. “The last two years have been really difficult.”

Gilman, the Baraboo streets superintendent, has had similar experiences, but thinks there is value to be found in continuing the struggle to make recycling work.

“We want our recycling program to be very efficient and effective because it saves money on our operating budget and saves money for the taxpayers that fund the operating budget,” he said. “Waste Management also wants our recycling program to be very effective because it reduces their costs at the transfer station and at their sorting facilities.”

“Our Glacial Ridge manager believes that education efforts in schools are having an impact,” Nighbor said. “In Wisconsin, people are very proud of their resources, so they tend to be more in tune with what is and is not recyclable. Improvement needs to be made, however, both in Wisconsin and throughout the United States. That’s the biggest challenge we face in making recycling work.”

“Baraboo will continue to educate, influence, and encourage our residents on proper recycling procedures,” Gilman said. “The better our program functions, the better it is for our community and the environment, and the more cost effective it will be for our tax base.”

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