Next phase of new equipment almost ready for testing, then another phase will commence
With a discussion underway in Crookston about the City potentially expanding its recycling program by picking up blue bins twice a month instead of the current once per month practice, it’s spurred some chatter about Polk County Environmental Services and the county’s conversion a while back to a “single-stream” system that doesn’t require that recyclables like plastic, glass and aluminum be separated.
How does it all work? How can people just throw all of their recyclables into one place and it all gets recycled?
Well, spending an afternoon at the Polk County Solid Waste Management facility in Fosston earlier this week with Jon Steiner, manager of Polk County Environmental Services, and it becomes clear how it’s all possible: It takes a massive amount of equipment housed in a huge facility that’s home to a garbage operation, a recycling operation, a packaging operation, a drop-off and distribution operation, and an incinerator where heat from burned trash is converted to steam and sold, and the resulting ash is used by the Minnesota Department of Transportation as a base material in highway projects in this area.
The recycling operation is run once a week and takes a couple of days. When recyclables aren’t being processed from the six counties that utilize the facility, the facility processes and burns garbage. This past Tuesday, in the midst of this week’s recycling run, all of the facility’s conveyor belts and machinery were running at full power and it was so loud that Steiner had to yell at the person standing next to him in order to be heard. And at various stations scattered throughout the facility, where were staff members manning various conveyor belts, separating acceptable recyclables from unacceptable recycles. Some of the conveyors moved by in relatively slow fashion, while others zipped by in rapid fashion, and all the while the employees who know what they’re looking for, reached in and out, separating what can be recycled from what can’t be recycled.
Perhaps most convincing of all for the skeptics who wonder how all of this can possibly work is the fact that right next door to this enormous operation, a new building has been constructed and, inside, workers are putting the finishing touches on assembling newer, bigger, faster and more technologically advanced to receive, process, package and distribute all of this material. Millions of dollars in state funding are making it possible, but local dollars are also required to make everything add up, and Steiner said the revenue boost that will come from increased efficiency and increased output once the new system is operational will make it possible to pay off the bonds that are helping to finance the multi-phase project. (Another component of the state/local funded project involves the construction of a new Polk County Transfer Station in Crookston, which is poised to commence after the current facility is demolished this spring.)
Started in 2011
The current system at the Fosston facility dates back to 2011, Steiner said. Recyclables are run through the facility each Tuesday, a process that typically wraps up at some point on Wednesday. Then, garbage is run through the same facility. Steiner said the fact that the current operation processes both recyclables and garbage is the likely reason why some people are skeptical over how it all works, but he said it does in fact work.
Attempts are even made to collect recyclables that are simply tossed into the garbage by residents of the six counties who use the Fosston facility, although Steiner said the success rate of that venture is only in the 15 to 25 percent range, typically.
“The rate is low because, chances are, if you throw cardboard that could potentially be recycled into your normal garbage, chances are it’s going to come in contact with other things and get wet,” Steiner said. “Then it’s too heavy and it will go through our process as garbage.”
It’s a similar story with, for example, a bottle of Gatorade that isn’t entirely empty. While as a recyclable material it will likely be squished and lose the liquid and added weight, if it goes through the Fosston facility as garbage, it will be too heavy and be processed as garbage.
“People who don’t recycle, those materials get another chance here,” Steiner explained. “If it’s a nice, clean, empty bottle, chances are we’re going to be able to get it out of the garbage stream.”
Equipment added in 2013 makes the county’s Fosston facility the only one in Minnesota with the capability to separate recyclable plastic from garbage.
As for recyclables that are hauled to the facility and processed, he said around 85 to 95 percent of the materials are actually suitable for recycled. Whether it’s cardboard, aluminum, glass, tin or plastic, Steiner said the processed and packaged recyclable materials are sold to various markets to be reused. The rates those purchasers pay are constantly changing and the Fosston facility frequently changes vendors; it all depends who is paying the most at any particular time.
“People will just call us and say, ‘Hey, we’ll give you this much for that,’” he explained.
For example, the aluminum market is lagging a bit right now, with payment in the 60 to 65 cent range per pound. Asked where aluminum leaving Fosston typically goes, Steiner said he expects most recycled aluminum in the country finds its way to Anheuser-Busch eventually.
Perhaps the most depressed market right now is for recycled glass, he said. But even in that case, efforts are made to put it to good use. Currently, Steiner said, recycled glass is being brought to the Polk County Landfill for use as a cover material.
New equipment nearing completion
The first half of new equipment next door, after the building to house it was constructed last year, is nearing its first test runs later this spring. The technology is vastly improved upon what’s currently taking place next door, such as new optical sensors that came from France and Germany, and conveyor belts are wider to move more material through in a shorter amount of time. It significantly improves the technology to sort cardboard as well, taking over some duties currently performed by hand, Steiner said.
After the testing and subsequent “bugs” are worked out, Steiner said the new system should be operational by late April. Then assembly will begin on the next phase of new equipment, featuring new sorting magnets and balers.
Making people aware
Steiner said he looks forward to any opportunity to inform the public of the comprehensive operation underway every day in Fosston, and how the constant goal is to reuse as many materials as possible, whether it’s recyclable materials, heat that’s converted to steam and sold, or ash that’s used in road projects.
The incinerator in Fosston is the smallest of its kind in Minnesota, Steiner said. But while other incinerators similar in size have closed down over the years, the innovative ways Polk County uses its incinerator and the materials it produces keeps it viable.
“Most people probably aren’t really aware what goes on after they put out their garbage or have their recyclables picked up, or maybe they just don’t care what happens after that, which is fine, too,” Steiner said. “But this is a huge operation and in some ways its fairly unique or one of a kind, and it’s used by a lot of people. The successes we’ve had are the only reason we’re able to do all of the new things we have going on.”