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Recycling: How much of what's in the bin actually gets recycled?

You dutifully put your recyclables in the bin. You remember to haul it to the curb. The truck comes and picks it up, leaving you with just one question: does it ALL really get recycled?

Watch part 1: Single-sort recycling: What exactly belongs in your bin

How much of what you put in the bin really gets recycled?  

You dutifully put your recyclables in that plastic bin. You remember to haul it to the curb. The truck comes and picks it up, leaving you with just one question: does it really all get recycled?

"Yes, it does,” says Wayne Gjerde with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Okay, that’s the easy answer from the guy that works with Minnesota companies to take your recyclables and turn them into something else. Turns out Minnesota is actually pretty darn good at this.

"We have 18 thousand jobs and over 200 companies that use recycled materials either to make the initial product or to make product out of that product,” says Gjerde.

More on that in a moment. But first, let’s get a better answer to your recycling question. How much of what we put in those bins really gets recycled?

“In 2019, that material that you put in, if you're putting the proper stuff in there, it goes to a proper market and it gets recycled,” he says.

That's the key phrase: "if you're putting the proper stuff in there." Some of what we toss in either should be thrown in the trash, or there's just not a big enough market to make it worthwhile. So, final answer from the MPCA? Five to 10% of what you think you're recycling does end up in a landfill, but in other states, it could be as high as 25 percent. Not all our recycling stays in Minnesota, how much gets shipped out? We were told it's too hard to track at this time, but the rest of the stuff? It really does get turned into something else.

“We have good market for glass. We have a good market for mixed paper,” he says. “Cardboard? Your box? Amazon box goes to WestRock or Liberty Paper up in Becker, Minnesota,” Gjerde explains.

They turn it back into boxes. Office paper? That goes to USG up in Cloquet. They turn it into commercial ceiling tiles. Number one plastic? Your pop bottles and water bottles, some of those reinvented into other packaging at Advanced Extrusion in Rogers. Number two plastic, your milk jugs and detergent jugs, are a big one. Bedford Technology in Worthington, Minnesota makes plastic lumber out of them. Avon plastics in Paynesville makes everything from decking and fencing to plastic tiles and garden edging. And, for 25 years in Jordan, they've been making outdoor furniture from recycled plastic lumber. By the Yard makes over 400 products built to last for generations. The less often you have to replace it the better it is for the environment and at the end of its life, the product itself is 100% recyclable. 

“Not only do we use recycled material in our products, we also are a zero waste company, so every scrape down to the smallest shaving is recycled and made into poly lumber again,” says Nina Ribar with By the Yard.

Aluminum Cans? We do that here too. And tin? More important in its second life for sure.

"Gerdau Ameristeel, here in South St. Paul, takes steel cans off your curbside and auto hulks from your junkyards, shreds them all up, and makes rebar. So, the 35W bridge had about 3500 tons of rebar that came from Minnesota material or regionally,” says Gjerde.

So, we are making a difference by keeping things out of the landfill, but here in Minnesota more than 60% of what we toss in the trash could be recycled or composted.  We definitely have room for improvement. 

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