Wisconsinites: What Happens To Your Recycling Once It Leaves The Curb?

Jan 8, 2018

Greenfield resident Anah Radatz has been religiously recycling for years, and has wondered what happens to her empty milk jugs and newspapers. So, she reached out to Beats Me.

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“The main thing I wanted to know is do people handle this? [Is it] all conveyer belts or [do] people put plastic gloves and handle it?” Anah adds, “Because I’m really good about rinsing out everything.”

Her question lead WUWM’s environmental reporter Susan Bence to Johns Disposal Services in rural Racine County. That’s where Anah’s recyclables land. Johns handles up to 200 tons of material a day.

Trucks deliver load upon load of recyclables that get fed onto a conveyer system – one funneling cardboard, the other everything else that is recyclable.

Manager Erick Bourgeois walks amid the maze of technology. “All the metals and plastics are sorted into separate conveyer. Cardboard is on this side and… on the other side, it’s all paper,” he says.

Large wheel loaders feed materials to conveyer system - one for single-srteam and a second for cardboard loads.
Credit Susan Bence

Cans, Paper, Plastic, Glass - Recyclables Galore

A 25-person crew is strategically positioned throughout the system using their hands, gloved of course, to further separate metals. “Aerosol cans, regular aluminum with food and cat food cans, we’ll separate out from aluminum can cans,” Erick explains.

Aluminum cans are a valuable commodity, but over time Johns has received fewer and fewer them. What Johns does get goes to Tennessee, where the Alcoa company manufactures new aluminum cans and wheels.

Buyers of paper and cardboard are as close as Iowa and as far away as China.

A group of workers spend the day separating plastics.
Credit Susan Bence

Several workers bend over a sea of plastics.

“The optical sorter’s going to kick all the number ones to him. Anything that’s not number one, he’s going pull out, put back on the belt for everybody else to sort.” Erick adds, “Right there, they’re doing nothing but milk jugs all day.”

The type determines plastic’s next life. For example #2 colored, “I sell it directly to a guy in Cedar Rapids and he’ll take it and make into agricultural drain tile,” Erick says.

No one here lays a finger on glass. “This is our glass breaker. When it comes through the glass will come straight down and get crushed and then go outside. We’re not hand separating glass,” he says.

When it leaves Johns, the crushed glass doesn’t travel far. Forty miles southwest, a company in Delavan sorts and sells it both to bottle makers and to fiberglass insulation fabricators.

There’s a market for glass and it represents almost 20 percent of Johns load, but you might be surprised to learn glass isn’t a money maker at this end of the process.

“We pay to get rid of it,” Erick says.

Wishful Recycling

Despite people’s best intentions Erick says there’s a certain amount of wishful recycling going on. He points to a blanket that ended up in one of the loads trucked to the plant.

This crew member is dedicated to extracting plastic bags from the line.
Credit Susan Bence

“People are not quite sure, they would rather err on the side of recycling, so it all goes in the recycling bin,” he says.

Wishful recycling adds up – sometimes to as much as 30 tons a day. Johns compacts it and disposes it to the nearest landfill.

The plant also has to deal with other items that don't belong among the recyclables it processes. This includes plastic bags.

One line worker stands atop a riser, reaching out to pluck plastic off the line. He’s surrounded by bags of every imaginable size and color.

While rules vary by municipality, including whether recyclables can be placed in the curb in large plastic bags, Erick says any bags that intermingle with the conveyed recycling stream wrap themselves around equipment and bog down the system.

"Two things you'll learn by the time you leave here: Never use a plastic bag and drink your beer in cans," Erick says.

Anah Radatz and a bag that she made out of plarn.
Credit Susan Bence

Greenfield resident Anah Radatz says she rarely buys beverages in glass, and is trying to help drive down the bag problem creatively.

“You make plarn. It’s plastic yarn,” she says. Anah is a weaver and has begun turning her plastic bags into yarn. “It keeps it out of the oceans and the landfills so I hope they find more and more uses for recycled products.”

Maybe it’s time to think outside the recycling box.

Speaking of boxes, Erick Bourgeois from Johns Disposal says please flatten yours before throwing them into the bin.

Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.

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