The recycling market is still in the dumps, leaving waste managers scrambling to find more markets and better ways to sort recyclables, including artificial intelligence robotics and optic scanners.
"It's not getting any better, but the good thing is it's stable. The domestic markets in the U.S. have stabilized," said Don Williamson, owner of West Central Sanitation, which collects waste and recyclables in Mankato, North Mankato and other local areas.
The main problem was a decision by China, long willing to buy even our most contaminated recycling, to reject some types of plastic and paper and to reduce its acceptable contamination levels for other material to half a percent.
"They haven't let up. They want .005 impurity or less to accept any baled stocks. That is achievable but not without high costs," Williamson said.
The horrible recycling market is also made worse by low oil prices.
"As long a oil is down, the price of (making) virgin plastic resin is less than buying recyclable plastic. The price of oil has always dictated the recyclables market," he said. Virgin resin is made directly from petrochemicals.
Al Christensen, director of Nicollet County's Tri-County Solid Waste office, said the advent of single-stream recycling, which allows people to drop all kinds of recyclables into one bin, has been a double-edged sword.
"Single stream does capture more materials; it's made it easier for people to recycle. But there are problems with contamination and devaluing higher-valued commodities."
He said single stream has helped push the recycled paper market down. "People used to have newspaper and office papers separated and they were clean and easy to recycle. Now with single stream we have this large mix of paper, which brought the value down."
He said there's occasionally talk of going back to having people sort more of their recyclables at home, but the discussion doesn't last long. "There's no way of turning back from single stream."
Williamson, who's been in the business for 40 years, said one recyclable market that has been the most stable is cardboard. "Prices fluctuate but there has always been a market for cardboard. That's always been stable."
What has changed is where they are picking up used cardboard. It used to mostly be collected from retail stores.
"Now we get a lot of cardboard from homes because of Amazon. During Christmas some of our trucks were were filling up because of all the cardboard Amazon boxes."
Christensen said some but not all plastics still have a decent market.
"1s, 2s and 5s plastics are still in demand and have value." Those are containers such as pop bottles, yogurt containers and ketchup bottles. The other four types of plastics generally have little to no market.
And glass has become worthless as a marketable item.
"What's sobering is that some counties are dropping glass (collection) completely," Williamson said. "Glass is the easiest and best recyclable, but it's heavy and there just isn't a market for it."
He said he's promoted another use for glass to keep it out of landfills.
"I think we should use crushed glass in building roads. We've done some and it works great, but it's hard to get people to accept the idea," Williamson said.
Christensen and Williamson said that sorting facilities will need to continue finding better ways to sort to produce clean recyclables at a reasonable cost.
Recyclables from area counties take a variety of different routes to several different sorting facilities, but a couple of them — Dem-Con, a Shakopee company, and a Waste Management facility in the Twin Cities — end up with a lot of the sorting duties for south-central Minnesota.
Both facilities use optic scanners that detect different colors of glass and differentiate between plastic and glass to speed sorting. And both are using artificial intelligence arms and other robotics to aid in the sorting to save on labor costs and speed the process.
"Dem-Con has a plant that's only 5 years old, but they spent $2.5 million last year on robotics," Williamson said. "There's more robotics and optics coming."
Christensen said producing cleaner recyclables at an efficient cost will help the recyclable markets. On the demand side, he thinks manufacturers will need to be coaxed into using more recyclable material in the products they make.
"I think we'll rise to the occasion and find some answers," Christensen said.
Tri-County is a waste and recycling partnership between Nicollet, Le Sueur and Sibley counties. Waste to be landfilled and recyclables are picked up by various haulers and go to different facilities.
"We have a very high recycling rate in my three counties and in Blue Earth County. We should be proud of that," Christensen said.
He said even though the recyclables market is having some problems, people should keep recycling.
"Metals, aluminum, tin, steel all save energy recycled compared to new, so it's important people continue to recycle."
He said rural townships are increasingly interested in having easier access to recycling. Nicollet County has collection bins at all of its county highway shops so people can drop off their recycling 24/7.
"Folks love them and feel good about recycling."
He said that while most take care to not contaminate the recycle-bin contents, some do dump in garbage. "People are pretty responsible, but there's always maybe 10 percent who like to muck things up."
He said Sibley County is working with Waste Management to create a drop-off system similar to Nicollet County's.
A few rural townships, especially those with more residents, pay for waste haulers to stop at each residence to collect garbage and recyclables, but the cost can be relatively high.
Granby and Nicollet townships teamed up to contract with LJP to have a truck set up once a week in the town of Nicollet so people from the two townships can bring in their garbage and recycling. "Those townships pay for that, they tax for it. It's a neat program."
Christensen said Tri-County also started an "ag bag" recycling pilot program with dairy farmers to collect and recycle the heavy plastic they use to cover silage feed to protect it from the elements. The program won accolades and went statewide.
"Farmers really want to recycle and do the right thing. They felt awful having to bury or burn it," he said.