Minneapolis hopes to double recycling with move from seven-sort to single-sort

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After 30 years of curbside pickup for multi-sorted recycling, the city of Minneapolis is switching to single-sort recycling. On May 25, the City Council and Mayor R.T. Rybak approved a plan to move forward with single-sort recycling by 2013, in hopes of drastically increasing the city’s recycling rate.

Currently, Minneapolis uses a seven-sort system, where residents must separate cans, plastic, glass, paper and cardboard, and magazines into different containers before being picked up by the city. The city then transports that pre-sorted material to a contracted recycling plant where they unload the differing containers separately, without much need to sort through the material.

With single-sort, the material will arrive in one bin, leaving all of the sorting to the plants.

“I’m extremely excited about it,” said Rybak. “For many years we had the right impulse, which is to ask more of our residents. The reality is it’s been clearly demonstrated that we can get dramatically more materials recycled by going single sort, so let’s do what we know is effective.”

For the last decade, Minneapolis’ recycling rate has remained at a stagnant 18.1 percent. The city wants to double that rate to 35 percent by 2015, a goal necessary to continue receiving state grant funding from SCORE, or Support of Competitive Research. According to the city’s study, they believe they can bring that 18.1 percent to 32 percent simply by switching to single-sort recycling. A switch to a dual-sort system would only bring their recycling rate to 25 percent.

While the goals may seem ambitious, they’ve been long overdue says Richard Hirstein of Allied Waste Services, Minneapolis’ main contracted recycling company. Single-sort has become a standard, says Hirstein, and Minneapolis is way behind.

Minneapolis seems especially behind when compared to sister city, St. Paul, which uses a double-sort system. St. Paul currently has a recycling rate of 30 percent, and it doesn’t end there. In 2010, St. Paul began developing an organic recycling program, to further its goal of becoming waste-free by 2020.

“I’m extremely interested in addressing organics,” said Rybak. However, before spending more money on developing city-run programs that would pick up the materials with trucks, he’d like to explore collaborative community solutions, such as developing community compost for community gardens, something the neighborhoods would run, not the city.

Besides the predicted increase in recycling, the switch to single-sort will also save the city of Minneapolis money. According to the Southwest Journal, the switch is estimated to lower the city’s annual net recycling operation cost from $900,000 a year to $717,00 a year. The city will also save $28,000 by being able to utilize its current truck fleet.

“Less trucks too,” said Jeff Jinks with Minneapolis Public Works. When Minneapolis switches over, says Jinks, the trucks will have two-person crews and will be able to combine routes, speeding up the process of collecting recyclables, and therefore reducing the need for more trucks.

“It’s going to definitely increase the amount of recycling collected,” continued Jinks. “We’re going to get more material not going to the garbage, so that’s a huge bonus to this.”

The process will take more time on the sorting end, however, says Jinks. “There will be more time needed to separate out the material.”

The plants are ready for it, according to Hirstein. “It’s mostly done by machine.” The Allied Waste plants house giant conveyor belts with sophisticated methods for separating recyclables, said Hirstein.

For paper, rubber rollers skim through the materials, catching the paper and preventing it from moving forward, what recyclers refer to as “surfing,” said Hirstein. “The rollers catch onto the paper because the rubber is sort of sticky.”

From there they use “eddy streams” to collect the aluminum, said Hirstein, a technique using the polarization of magnets to push instead of attract. An optical sensor then helps detect the plastic from the glass.

The result of the process, said Hirstein, is that the delay will be minimal despite the load coming in mixed.

As for the residents of Minneapolis, the effect is simple: less work. Residents will soon be able to dump all their recyclables into one container, the same way they do their garbage — and like the garbage, it will be picked up quickly, and most likely with a giant fork lift attached to the back of a truck.

“The convenience is going to be really nice,” said Jinks, “for both the customer and the collection.”