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Collection system undercuts recycling

Tom Meersman and Karen Youso,  Star Tribune

Half of the glass that a recycling firm collects in 63 metropolitan-area cities is ending up in landfills for the most ordinary of reasons: The empty bottles and jars are getting broken.

The company, Recycle America Alliance, a unit of trash-hauling giant Waste Management Inc., breaks large amounts of glass during collection and processing. The leftover shards of mixed-color glass can't be sold for new bottles because no nearby glass companies want it.

Instead, the recycler takes much of the broken glass to three of its Minnesota landfills, where it is used among other things to cover other debris each day to keep it from blowing away, according to Julie Ketchum, a regional government affairs manager for the Houston-based company.

State law doesn't allow collected recyclables to be put in landfills. Yet the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) says that Waste Management isn't breaking the law.

The reason, said Jim Lungstrom, statewide solid waste permit supervisor for the agency, is that recyclable glass is transformed into an unmarketable waste when the glass breaks and the shards can't be separated by color.

The unmarketable glass represents 2.5 percent of the 13,000 tons of waste the company collects monthly in the region, Ketchum said. That works out to 325 tons of glass per month that isn't being recycled into new bottles and jars.

"What they're doing is not breaking any rules or statutes or MPCA policies, but we would encourage them to try to raise the percentage of the glass that is recyclable," Lungstrom said.

That is turning out to be difficult for the recycler, which ended up with lots of unmarketable glass after it shifted to a new, simpler collection method in many cities in 2002.

In Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Lakeville, Woodbury and other communities, residents can avoid sorting recyclables. Paper, plastic, cans and glass all go into a single collection bin or cart. The so-called single-stream recycling is less expensive for haulers, popular with consumers and safer for workers, who do less lifting, Ketchum said.

This method of recycling also has at least one shortcoming. Compared to other recycling methods, it results in more collected glass breaking as it is compressed in garbage trucks or processed at separation plants, state and industry officials say.

A $9 million plant that Waste Management built three years ago in northeast Minneapolis processes single-stream recycled material from around the state and western Wisconsin. Yet half of the glass it receives ends up broken and the plant can't separate it into different colors, which usually is required by glass factories, Ketchum said.

One customer, Anchor Glass Container of Shakopee, which melts down recycled glass to make bottles, says it is getting much less recycled glass in recent years. The company needs almost all of the glass to be separated by color.

"We were getting 85,000 tons a year of recycling glass, and now we're lucky to break 40,000 tons," said Kyle Fiebelkorn, supervisor of mix and melt at the plant. He said he believes much of the glass is going to landfills.

Anchor has had to use virgin materials -- which requires more energy than used glass -- to manufacture beer and other bottles, Fiebelkorn said.

Waste Management says the broken glass isn't exactly wasted at its landfills in Glencoe, Burnsville and Elk River. Ketchum said the glass also is used in place of gravel to build temporary roads and in environmental projects that collect contaminated water and underground methane gas.

Officials concerned

To avoid wasting recycled glass, some recycling operations use machines with optical scanners to automatically separate the glass shards by color so the material can easily be sold. The expensive technology is not being used in Minnesota, however.

State officials who monitor waste and recycling programs met in February with Waste Management officials to express concern about the wasted glass.

"We've got an issue that's being revealed to us and we need to sit down and figure it out," said Dave Benke, strategic directions manager for the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance.

Ketchum said that Waste Management is looking for solutions, and plans to begin shipping some of the glass waste to a plant it owns in Chicago. It has optical scanning equipment to separate broken glass by color.

Eureka Recycling, a nonprofit recycler that operates in St. Paul, has avoided big problems with broken glass by requiring residents to put out paper separate from plastic, glass and metal, said Susan Hubbard, chief executive officer. Her company has competed against Waste Management for contracts in several communities.

The broken glass that gets wasted in single-stream recycling is "the dirty little secret that nobody talks about," Hubbard added. "People believe that what they put on the curb is getting recycled into glass bottles, and everybody's getting hoodwinked," she added.

Increasingly popular

Recycling programs with no household sorting are gaining popularity across the nation, even among small firms.

Greg Tennis of Tennis Sanitation, which serves about 17,000 residential households in Ramsey and Washington counties, said his firm needed to make the switch because it was losing too many customers to Waste Management. However, Tennis said his company avoids some broken glass by not compacting the recycled materials too tightly in collection trucks.

Ketchum said the convenience of putting all recyclables into one bin has increased the amount that people recycle and the number of households doing it.

Yet one other shortcoming of this method of recycling is that broken glass can snag in the paper or plastic. This can cause problems for manufacturers who use recycled plastic or paper to make new products.

"On one hand, it's convenient and people recycle more," said Rick Patraw, research supervisor at the state Environmental Assistance Office. "But, on the other hand, there's the question of the quality of the material after it's processed and delivered [to manufacturers]."

Ketchum said that Waste Management has received no complaints about glass contamination from companies that it supplies. "We've only had positive feedback from our end markets," she said, adding that nearly 90 percent of its paper is marketed as the highest grade.

Waste Management also reports that just 6 percent of the recyclables it collects end up in landfills. The unmarketable glass is not included in that figure. It represents another 2.5 percent of recyclables, Ketchum said.

Another big player in the waste industry, Browning Ferris Industries (BFI), now a unit of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Allied Waste Industries, also is moving toward single-stream recycling.

The company plans to renovate its north Minneapolis processing plant to sort the mixed recyclables, but will continue to accept sorted material, said district manager Paul Rosland.

One city BFI serves is Minneapolis, where the top recycling official doesn't believe no-sort recycling would work. The city's recently renegotiated hauling contract allows no more than 0.5 percent of recyclables to be sent to landfills, said Susan Young, the city's solid-waste and recycling director.

"My covenant with my customers is that if you make the effort to recycle and separate your recyclables, they will be recycled," Young said.

Staff librarian Roberta Hovde and news graphics reporter Jane Friedmann contributed to this article.

The reporters are at meersman@startribune.com and

kyouso@startribune.com.