It is no secret that trash and recycling are hot topics in Columbia. While there are a lot of opinions about how our solid waste and recycling should be collected, we also hear a lot of questions regarding our current recycling services. Why do we separate the material into two categories? Where does it go after being collected? How do we process the material?
There are two recycling systems commonly used in the United States: single-stream and dual-stream recycling. This refers to the level of sorting done by the consumer, and there are tradeoffs to consider when choosing between these options. You might have noticed that many cities, including Jefferson City and St. Louis, now have one recycling bin for all types of recycling – this is known as single-stream recycling. In Columbia, we still operate a dual-stream system, and residents are asked to separate their recycling into two categories: mixed fiber (paper products) and mixed containers (plastic, metal and glass). This extra step is often considered less convenient and usually decreases recycling participation. However, a dual-stream system does improve the quality of our recycling because we do not have shredded paper in the aluminum cans or plastic straws mixed with newspaper. The improved quality, compared to single-stream recycling, means that it is easier for us to ensure that the material actually gets recycled.
For the past three decades, the city of Columbia has continued to focus on quality over quantity and residents have been asked to separate their recycling before placing it on the street curb. Mixed fiber was stuffed into a cardboard box or paper bag, and mixed containers were placed inside a blue bag that the city provided. The material was then collected by either a rear load truck or a split hopper truck with one driver and one or two workers on the back of the truck.
All solid waste and recycling trucks eventually take the material to one property in northeast Columbia. This property includes a landfill, compost operation and the Material Recovery Facility. The facility is where our recycling gets sorted and compressed into bales. This facility is specifically designed for dual-stream recycling, so the mixed fiber is unloaded on one side of the building and mixed containers on the other side.
The mixed fiber line starts with one-to-two workers who separate large cardboard from other mixed fiber. The remaining fiber is then manually separated into marketable commodities: office paper, newspaper, cardboard and mixed paper. The mixed container line starts with one-to-two workers who break open the blue recycling bags and deposit the loose material onto a conveyor line. The mixed containers are then manually separated as #1 plastics, #2 plastics and #3-7 plastics. A magnet is used to separate steel and tin cans, and an eddy current separator pulls out the aluminum cans by repelling all nonferrous metals. The remaining commodity — glass — drops onto a smaller conveyor line that exits the facility to an outdoor bunker. Any nonrecyclable material that is found during this sorting process will be manually removed and placed in a trash bin.
All commodities, except glass, are then moved to a centralized pit and conveyor line to be baled at the north end of the facility. Each bale is about the size of a small couch and weighs 800 to 1,600 pounds, depending on the commodity. Once we accumulate at least 40,000 pounds of a single commodity, a manufacturer or broker will send a truck to haul the material away.
The future of our recycling, at this point, is somewhat unknown. The benefit of selling directly to a manufacturer is that we know exactly where the material gets recycled. However, it is often easier to use brokers and let them make the most economical decision for their business. It would not make sense for them to buy our recycling and then pay to send it to a landfill, so there is a strong financial incentive to make sure that everything gets recycled.
Recycling markets are very complex and often shrouded in rumors and myths. It is important to focus on information specific to your region rather than the national headlines. For this reason, we can provide a separate article on recycling markets in the near future. We know that many Columbia residents are avid recyclers and no one should be discouraged by misinformation. Please visit the city of Columbia website or download our phone app, COMO Recycle and Trash, for more information.
Ben Kreitner is the Waste Minimization Coordinator for the city of Columbia’s Office of Sustainability. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Missouri Recycling Association (MORA).