Green living: After changes at county, recycling may be a little simpler

Published 10:50 am Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Freeborn County solid waste officer is informing residents of updates to the county’s recycling technology. Now, caps don’t need to be removed  from plastic bottles, but all bottles must be empty.

The Freeborn County solid waste officer is informing residents of updates to the county’s recycling technology. Now, caps don’t need to be removed from plastic bottles, but all bottles must be empty.

Randy Tuchtenhagen is the first to say recycling is an ever-changing industry.

Between technological upgrades, policy changes and the growing value of recycled materials, the Freeborn County solid waste officer has a lot to keep track of. Some of those changes affect the way residents need to prepare their recyclable goods.

For example, residents previously had to remove lids from containers because they tend to be made out of a different material than the rest of the object.

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Now that’s a step residents can skip. The plastics industry has a high demand for recycled materials, and now has the technology to sort types of plastic, Tuchtenhagen said. For example, a No. 4 plastic will float, while a No. 2 plastic will not, and processors can use this to sift No. 4 plastics off the top of a pool of water.

Almost all lids are recyclable, but allowing the lids to stay on containers does not make leaving liquid or other materials in the container acceptable, Tuchtenhagen said. Contents left in a container create a health and safety issue for the operator of the chipper, who could be sprayed by the remnants when a bottle gets torn up.

“Make sure when you put the lid back on that the container is empty,” he said.

Freeborn can handle Nos. 1-7, excluding No 6. These are typically food and beverage containers, Tuchtenhagen said.

“All plastics are made with a crude oil base,” he said. “Different chemicals are added to it to give it different characteristics.”

In terms of paper, residents should take care not to let it get soaked before pickup. While wetting recyclable paper with water and chemicals is part of the breakdown process, that much moisture creates problems during transportation.

“It falls apart before it gets to the paper processor,” Tuchtenhagen said. Wet paper also weighs more, making it harder to transport efficiently, he added.

Five years ago, Freeborn would have rejected paper that was damp around the edges, Tuchtenhagen said. Now, the county considers it OK, because the demand for recycled materials is so much higher.

“We want paper that bad,” he said.

Recycled commodities bring good money on the market and are bought and sold on the Chicago Board of Trade. Freeborn County contracts out the curbside collecting, processing and marketing of its residents’ materials to a vendor, which takes care of the costs of pickup and accounts for the fluctuating value of recycled materials.

“We are getting a rebate when the prices are over a certain amount,” Tuchtenhagen said.


Saving money

The recycling trend is growing in Freeborn. In January 2012, for example, recycling trucks made 6,356 stops and collected about 130 tons of material. Two years before that, there were only about 5,000 stops, with about 100 tons of material. Tuchtenhagen said there’s a clear reason for the growing number of participants.

“People can’t afford to pay the price of garbage hauling,” he said.

State law mandates haulers offer volume-based fees. If a resident can cut the amount of trash they put out on the curb down from a 60-gallon container to 32-gallon container, they will lower the amount they pay for pickup.

In contrast, the county charges a flat fee of $30 a year to all residents through property taxes as a “solid waste tax,” which includes recycling pickup. That amount has only grown by $6 in the 23 years the county’s program has been in place.

The more a resident recycles, the less trash they accumulate, and the more money they save on trash pickup. Minnesota households have a 9.75 percent tax on garbage, and commercial businesses have a 17 percent tax. There is no state tax on recycling.


Going forward

Tuchtenhagen said the county now is looking at ways to upgrade its service to residents.

“We’re looking at making some real positive changes to our recycling program here in Freeborn County,” Tuchtenhagen said. “How can we make it more convenient for people to recycle?”

One possible idea is to implement single-stream recycling, wherein residents could combine all of their recyclables into a single bin. Another idea would be to find a way to include No. 6 plastic — typically found in the clear lids on a pie from the grocery store or the white styrofoam under slabs of meat sold at the grocery store — in the list of acceptable materials for recycling. If the county finds a feasible and affordable way to bring about the upgrades, they could take effect before the end of the year.

Automated recycling pickup from a truck-mounted mechanical arm is another possibility for future improvement. The mechanical arm would pickup and empty residents’ bins without a worker needing to lift the container. Tuchtenhagen estimates it could allow for 200-300 more stops a day with the savings in time and workman’s comp from lifting injuries.


For more information on the county’s recycling guidelines, visit