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With F-M's no-sort recycling, the sorting is shifted to someone else

FARGO — Fifty tons of recyclable material from homes all over Fargo and Moorhead have been coming to Minnkota Recycling's facility near downtown each day the last couple of weeks.

That's a threefold increase from before, when the two cities required recyclables to be sorted by glass, metal, plastic, mixed paper and cardboard, according to Sales Manager Mary Aldrich.

"We are extremely happy with the amount of participation that we've seen and the volume of recyclables," she said, though these are still early days and participation may shift.

Public works officials in Fargo and Moorhead echo her assessment.

Experts have long predicted that the convenience of the no-sort recycling program would result in an increase in volume, and that appears to be the case. And volume is the name of the game for the recycling industry because while recyclables can be sold to manufacturers as a substitute for raw material, sorting and cleaning recyclables to the point where they are useful is costly.

Fargo and Moorhead residents are saving time sorting recyclables by paying businesses with specialized machinery and people to do it. West Fargo residents have done the same with a no-sort program that started in April 2015.

Currently, that means hauling the recyclables 250 miles away to the Twin Cities, where there is enough volume to support the big processing facilities.

Aldrich said Minnkota may be able to handle it here one day if the volume can sustain it. "This is really a short-term solution as far as baling and shipping the material."

Starting at the curb

Recyclables from Fargo and Moorhead start their journey in the big blue cans that most households recently received. Moorhead apartments also have received either blue cans or Dumpsters.

For city workers, this is a more efficient way to collect recyclables because they use a robot arm to pick up one can at each home instead of getting off the truck and emptying several paper bags of sorted recyclables at each home.

Minnkota receives and bales recyclables from both cities before hauling them to a "materials recovery facility" in Shakopee, Minn., owned by Dem-Con. The MRF, which rhymes with "Smurf", has a listed capacity of 20 tons of commingled recyclables per hour.

Waste Management, which has West Fargo's recycling contract, has a MRF in Minneapolis, which Waste Management spokeswoman Julie Ketchum said is the largest in the five-state region. If the plant had two eight-hour shifts each weekday, it could handle an average of 50 tons per hour.

Men and machines

According to Dem-Con President Bill Keegan, machines do 90 to 95 percent of the sorting at his firm's MRF, but the rest must be done by a crew of about 20 workers. Some things are either too difficult or too costly for machines to do.

Here's a closer look at how the MRF works:

Loading: The first step is for loaders to break apart the bales, which must not be so tight that recyclables are wrapped around each other. Waste Management opts to not bale for that reason.

Pre-sort: As the stream of recyclables go past on conveyors, four workers remove trash and recyclables that are too large because those can damage the machinery.

Cardboard: After pre-sort, the recyclables go over a series of discs spaced widely enough that everything but big flat pieces of cardboard will fall through. The stream of cardboard is inspected by one worker who removes contaminants before the material is sent to a storage area to await baling.

Glass: Beneath the discs are more tightly-packed discs. Falling glass containers break against them and are crushed while other material are pushed along. Glass shards are hard on machinery and are removed early.

From here the shards go to a system that uses magnets, air and vibration to remove small pieces of stuff that isn't glass, before ending up in a storage pile. Dem-Con will sell the glass to another firm with the equipment to sort them by color.

Mixed paper: At the next station, rotating star-shaped disks arranged in an incline grab the remaining paper. The slope causes three-dimensional items such as containers to roll off. The mixed paper stream is inspected by six to eight workers before going to storage.

Steel: What's left should be plastic and metal containers, which are inspected by two workers.

The stream of containers pass through a drum magnet, which picks up ferrous metal, such as soup cans, and sends it to a storage silo.

Plastics: A scanner automatically detects what is known as PET plastic by looking at how the material absorbs wavelengths of near-infrared light. A jet of air flips PET containers onto a conveyor leading to their silo. This is the most common kind of plastic and can be identified by a triangular marking with a No. 1 inside.

Eight workers sort the rest of the plastic. They know just by looking at each item what kind of plastic it's made of. Specifically, they want HDPE, or No. 2 plastic — common in milk jugs and detergent bottles — polypropylene, or No. 5 plastic — common in ketchup bottles and medicine bottles — and aseptic containers — plastic coated paper such as milk cartons. Each go in its own silo.

The remaining plastic, called Nos. 3-7, are sorted into one silo.

Aluminum: Towards the end of the line is the eddy current separator, which sorts aluminum cans. Aluminum isn't attracted to magnets but does conduct electricity. When a magnet spins very quickly near the aluminum, it causes a current to run through the material, generating a magnetic field. This field opposes that of the magnet and forces the aluminum can to "jump" away onto a conveyor taking it to a silo.

Dem-Con uses two powerful balers, one for paper and one for containers, to pack the recyclables for shipping to manufacturers.

The end market

Besides paper being turned back into paper, aluminum cans into new cans and plastic bottles into new bottles, recyclables can be turned into completely different products.

Minnkota, which has contracts to haul recyclables from businesses as well as cities, sells glass to Glass Advantage in West Fargo for making sand-blasting medium and newsprint to Pactiv in Moorhead for making egg cartons, according to Aldrich.

She said most PET plastic is sold to Mohawk Group in Georgia for making carpet.

Many manufacturers buy recyclables because it's less costly than the equivalent raw materials. For example, refining ore into aluminum takes a lot more energy than melting aluminum cans to make new cans. Refining also releases more pollutants, including carbon dioxide.

The trade-off is recyclables can have contaminants or don't perform as well as raw material.

One of the things that drive the price of paper, for example, is the length of the fiber and that is often tied to how often paper has been recycled, according to Keegan. Longer fibers make for stronger paper, so paper that's been recycled a lot isn't as useful to paper makers. That's why paper napkins aren't worth anything, newspapers are worth less and paper that's never been recycled is worth a lot more.

For MRFs, the trick is to keep the cost of removing contaminants low enough that they can still make a profit.

And here, volume, is key.

According to Keegan and Dem-Con spokeswoman Erin Chamberlain, the firm only uses a machine to sort No. 1 plastic because it's one of the most common kinds of plastic. A machine is too expensive to justify for each of the remaining plastics, which are less common, so workers are hired instead.

Waste Management, which gets a much greater volume of plastic, uses machines to sort all plastics, according to Ketchum.

MRFs also depend on customers to help them keep costs down.

Dem-Con and other MRF operators beg customers to keep plastic bags out not because bags can't be recycled but because they wrap around machinery, requiring workers to shut MRFs down to cut the them off. Consumers can bring the bags to supermarkets, which sell them to more specialized recycling facilities.

Dem-Con also asks customers to not recycle loose plastic bottle caps, shredded paper or anything smaller than 2 inches because they just fall through the machinery and contaminate glass shards.

"Wish-cycling," where customers try to recycle items that they hope but don't know is actually recyclable, is the bane of the industry, according to MRF operators The Forum spoke with. They were at pains to explain that such wishful thinking does far more harm than good because they raise sorting costs and decrease the value of MRFs' products.

"When in doubt, throw it out," Keegan said.

MRFs are also challenged by the mismatch between the supply of recyclables and the demand.

A 2015 study commissioned by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found generally strong metal and paper markets in the five-state region. But there is much less demand for glass and No. 3-7 plastics; Chamberlain said Dem-Con will accept these plastics but don't know where to sell them yet.

Building your own

But, even with a market for recyclables, MRFs wouldn't pay for themselves by just selling the material. Cities like Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo must still pay.

Fargo pays Minnkota $92 a ton while Moorhead pays $95 a ton, which Moorhead Public Works Director Steve Moore attributes to the smaller volume his city can offer.

Waste Management won't reveal details of its contract with West Fargo and the city didn't immediately provide a copy Friday, July 14. But when Fargo sought a quote in 2016, Waste Management wanted the city to pay $161 a ton.

Fargo and Clay County have had separate discussions about building their own MRFs, which they hoped would bring costs down. The city's consultants said it would cost $6.9 million to $9.1 million but didn't calculate the cost per ton of recyclables. Consultants hired by Clay and seven other Minnesota counties said it would cost $9.7 million; under different scenarios, the cost per ton ranged from $24 a ton, if the state paid for half of the construction cost, to $69 a ton.

Moore said the MRF is still under discussion but the key question is how much help the state can provide. He said he's also concerned local governments would lack the expertise needed to navigate the recycling market, echoing Fargo's consultants.

At Minnkota, Aldrich said it's too early to tell if it makes sense to build a MRF like Dem-Con's. "You need a lot of volume to run a single-stream facility."

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