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Tri-County Recycling breaks down holiday recycling hazards

By Erin Hunsader

It’s December – a time when people are making lists and checking them twice.
Still amidst all the hustle and bustle, wrapping and unwrapping, what we don’t see is the work that goes on behind the scenes when all those items like cardboard, Styrofoam, electronics and even Christmas lights are discarded.
Tri-County Recycling specializes in helping their residents in Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago Counties recycle right, from creating entertaining educational videos on their digital media platforms to incorporating a material search tool on their website where consumers can simply type in the item they wish to dispose of, but aren’t sure how, and learn how to properly dispose of it. Because, as Marissa Michalkiewicz, Recycling & Solid Waste Program Coordinator from Outagamie County Recycling & Solid Waste tells us, we have all had those moments of wondering, where does this go?

“We call it wish-cycling. It’s an industry term but it essentially means taking an item, like a strand of holiday lights and saying ‘I would love to recycle these, but I don’t know where or how,’ and then throwing the questionable items in your recycling cart and assuming those who handle the recycling will inevitably find a way to recycle the items. This isn’t always true and disposing of unacceptable items in your recycling carts creates issues for the entire recycling process.” Michalkiewicz said.

And it’s the small things that add up to big piles of misplaced waste, so Tri-County Recycling’s mission is to make it easier for consumers to know where and how to properly dispose of everything from plastic laundry bottles to batteries.
As Michalkiewicz said, most people know the basics of recycling regarding materials like plastics with the numbers 1 or 2.

“#1 and #2 plastics are pretty straightforward to recycle. Those are items like water bottles, milk jugs, and pasta sauce containers but it’s the mixed plastics, #3 through #7 where recycling becomes a bit trickier and education is important,” Michalkiewicz said.
In fact, Tri-County Recycling has a list of unacceptable materials they like to refer to as the ‘Ugly 8.’

These items can pose safety threats to staff, get tangled in the sorting machines, creating unnecessary maintenance and include items that could even ignite.
The Ugly 8 includes:
• Plastic bags
• Shredded Paper
• Yuck (garbage, liquids or items that make it difficult to sort clean recyclables)
• Tanks (compressed gas cylinders that can contain fuel that may ignite)
• Sharps (needles, syringes or lancets)
• Tanglers (materials that can get wrapped up in the sorting equipment like cords)
• Textiles (Clothing, bedding, towels)
• Batteries

The process of sorting clean recyclables begins with all of the items being loaded into a metering bin that spreads the materials out onto a conveyor belt. The materials ride up the convey belt into the ‘Pre-Sort Room’ where sorting staff work to remove unacceptable materials prior to entering the separating equipment. It is essential for the efficiency of the machines and the safety of the workers that only acceptable materials enter the separating equipment.

“The sorting of recyclables at the Tri-County Recycling Facility is done not just by machines, but also by people,” Michalkiewicz said,
which is all the more reason Tri-County Recycling’s mission remains to educate consumers on what to place in that recycling bin. Their updated recycling guide, which is available for download on their website, provides examples of plastic, paper, metal, and glass items that they accept at the Tri-County Recycling Facility.
“Acceptable recyclable items like plastic water bottles will get recycled if they get disposed of in recycling carts and recycling dumpsters, but if you toss them in your trash they get sent to the landfill. Nobody is sorting through the trash carts you set out at the curb.” Michalkiewicz said.

And once in the landfill that is where things stay. The idea Tri-County Recycling promotes is to think beyond recycling.
Recycling is near the bottom of The Waste Hierarchy,
which is a model used to encourage consumers to act in a responsible manner when it comes to the waste they produced. The Tri-County Recycling Waste Hierarchy consists of the 7 R’s:
• Rethink
• Refuse
• Reduce
• Reuse
• Repair
• Rot
• Recycle

By reusing, or repurposing, there is simply less waste needing to be recycled or land filled. It also allows for a more informed consumer.
“Be mindful of what you’re buying,” Michalkiewicz said. “Ask yourself simple questions like, ‘do I need this?’ ‘What is it made of?’ and ‘how will I dispose of this when I’m done using it?’”

Things that can’t be broken down, often children’s toys, are difficult to dispose of. Another reminder Michalkiewicz shared was to be mindful of guidelines to properly dispose of recyclable items.
“Our sorting staff sees all sorts of unacceptable items come through the Tri-County Recycling Facility. During the holiday season we receive an abundance of cardboard boxes from all of the holiday shopping. Remember that cardboard boxes should be no bigger than 2 feet by 2 feet when you put them in your recycling carts and dumpsters. If they are bigger than that, say from a large TV box, cut it down to size, otherwise the oversized cardboard gets jammed in our sorting equipment and balers,” Michalkiewicz said.

She also said that packaging materials made from Styrofoam that comes in boxes with electronic items is an unacceptable material at the Tri-County Recycling Facility.
Tri-County Recycling serves a majority of Northeast Wisconsin, but Michalkiewicz said that recycling guidelines vary depending on what facility receives your recycling. She said to always check with your local recycling provider to see what items they accept in their recycling program and how to dispose of other items like hazardous chemicals and electronics.

Tri-County Recycling also found a creative way to answer questions consumers may have about recycling by sharing videos that Outagamie County Recycling & Solid Waste post to their Tik Tok and Facebook accounts. They feature Outagamie County Recycling & Solid Waste employees that go by their character names Philthy Philm, Hey It’s José and Dan the Loader Man.

So when the gifts are unwrapped
and you don’t know what to do with all the paper and bows, or tree lights that don’t work, remember that there is a place for all of those things. It just might take a little more work to find out where that place is but Tri-County Recycling’s mission is to, not only educate consumers, but to help us reduce our carbon footprint which makes for healthier communities.

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