ANY QUESTIONS: Where do Columbia recyclables go?

Friday, October 11, 2013 | 5:05 p.m. CDT; updated 3:10 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 13, 2014

Have a question about goings-on around town?  This is part of a project called "Any Questions?" that takes on community curiosities and tries to address them. Submit your questions to

If you've ever wondered what happens to your recyclables in Columbia, you're not alone. The Missourian found a user on Reddit asking questions about the topic, and we decided it would make a great "Any Questions?" segment.

In short: There's no easy explanation because parts of the process change every month.

The longer answer: Columbia has a Material Recovery Facility where paper, glass, aluminum and plastic are sorted. The facility doesn't handle trash. So, if you try to recycle something that doesn’t belong and ends up contaminating the recyclables, it all goes in the trash.

After the recyclables are sorted, they are formed into giant bales, which are easier to transport, and sold to the highest bidder. The bidders come from all over the world. Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis has bought recycled aluminum in the past, and other companies have bought bales to turn into cardboard and paper towels.

Because the buyers change month to month, where recyclables end up changes month to month, too — and that makes it hard to say what happens next.

The Missourian and Vox Magazine have reported about recycling myths, how to recycle and what materials to recycle. John Schneller, a Missourian city editor, said one of the most comprehensive stories on recycling he remembers couldn't definitively answer where recyclables go either because, honestly, the rest of that process gets kind of fuzzy.

If you’re still curious about what the Columbia facility does, there's a virtual tour available online.

Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

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