Sorters manually remove unwanted materials from a conveyor belt of recyclables inside Eureka Recycling's materials recovery facility. Credit: Dylan Thomas

Sorters manually remove unwanted materials from a conveyor belt of recyclables inside Eureka Recycling's materials recovery facility. Credit: Dylan Thomas

Inside the Zero Waste Lab, a search for the future of recycling

Eureka Recycling completes a major reinvestment in its Northeast facility

MID-CITY INDUSTRIAL — After investing $4.5 million in new equipment, Eureka Recycling has transformed its Northeast Minneapolis materials recovery facility into what the nonprofit is calling a Zero Waste Lab.

The upgrades allow Eureka’s MRF (pronounced “murf”) to handle mixed recyclables collected together in a single-sort system, the kind Minneapolis adopted citywide last year, just months before St. Paul made the same move this spring. But what makes this MRF a little different from scores of others around the state and country is Eureka’s intention to scrutinize what goes into the facility, what comes out and what that means for the environment and the economy.

Tim Brownell, co-president of the non-profit recycler, said they aim to answer a fundamental question: “What really is the best way to handle materials through the entire process, from educating folks to collecting to processing?”

The goal of zero waste is to effectively combine conservation, reuse and recycling so that as little as possible ends up in the incinerator or landfill, and it’s been a core principal of Eureka since its founding in 2001.

Transitioning the MRF to a single-sort from a dual-sort operation that handled paper separately from plastic and glass was a significant investment for Eureka, which Brownell said operates on a roughly $10-million annual budget. But it was necessary for the Zero Waste Lab to produce valuable information, since recycling operations across the country are adopting the single-sort model.

Brownell described Zero Waste Lab as a “feedback loop” for the community, taking in recyclables and spitting out data on the “obstacles and opportunities of getting to zero waste.”

The opportunities include the creation of so-called “green jobs,” like the roughly 40 percent of Eureka employees who work inside the MRF moving tons of paper with front end loaders and sorting recyclables as they speed past on conveyor belts.

The obstacles include an ongoing consumer education drive. For example: Plastic bags are the bane of the MRF’s automated sorting machines, but they keep ending up in residential recycling bins.

The real change happens when consumers think about the full life cycle of the products they buy before they buy them.

“If we just transformed our thinking about that, we would be miles ahead,” said Mayor Betsy Hodges, who toured the Zero Waste Lab during its official grand opening on Sept. 9.

Zero waste was a plank in Hodges’ platform for her 2013 campaign, and in April she hired a policy aide with a particular focus on sustainability initiatives, Stephanie Zawistowski. Actually getting Minneapolis to zero waste, Hodges said, would require collaboration between government, citizens and organizations like Eureka, a hometown resource.

Before donning a hardhat and slipping in a pair earplugs to tour the MRF, she reiterated a campaign promise.

“We will be a zero-waste city, Minneapolis, if I have anything to do with it,” Hodges said.

 

Mayor Betsy Hodges toured Eureka Recycling’s Zero Waste Lab in September. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Lessons

Eureka’s MRF, located in Northeast’s Mid-City Industrial area, processes recyclables for St. Paul and the suburbs of Roseville, Lauderdale and Arden Hills. Although it doesn’t have a recycling contract with Minneapolis, it serves commercial customers within the city. It also accepts materials from about a dozen third party or independent haulers.

In all, about 200 tons of waste per day arrives at the Northeast Minneapolis facility to be sorted into 17 different products that are then resold. Processing roughly 50,000 tons of material each year, Eureka’s Zero Waste Lab is a small- to medium-sized MRF within the context of the entire industry, Brownell said.

“We’re at a size that really allows us to look at those materials and not be overwhelmed by the flood of materials coming through our doors,” he said.

One set of materials they’re taking an especially close look at is a small pile remainders on the MRF floor. Less than 2 percent of what arrives at the MRF is discarded, either because it isn’t recyclable or there just isn’t a market for it, Brownell said.

That includes categories of difficult-to-recycle materials, like polystyrene (no. 6 plastic) and polyvinyl chloride (no. 3 plastic, also known as PVC), as well as specific products like Capri Sun juice packets, a “multi-material” that contains several types of plastic plus aluminum. Unless someone invests in machinery to break that multi-material down into its constituent parts, Eureka won’t be able to sell it, Brownell said.

The solution to keeping those items out of the landfill or incinerator may be advocating for brand owners to change the types of packaging and materials they use, or launching a education campaign that convinces consumers not to buy those products to begin with.

“This is about engaging the community in behavior change and really rethinking their relationship to products and packaging,” he said.

 

A pile of paper products inside the MRF. Photo by Dylan Thomas

The “big picture”

Minneapolis made the switch from a multi-sort recycling scheme to single-sort beginning in 2012 and took the program citywide in the spring of 2013. So far in 2014, the amount of recyclables is up by about 429 tons per month over the previous year, said David Herberholz, director of Solid Waste and Recycling.

That translates to an increase of about 105 pounds per household per year, and Herberholz suggested people are recycling more largely because it’s just easier. (Herberholz will have updated figures in October when he next reports to the City Council.)

While single-sort is easier for household recyclers, it makes things more complicated inside a MRF like Eureka’s or the nearby Waste Management facility on Broadway Street that handles Minneapolis’ residential recycling. Cross-contamination — a bit of glass in the paper or plastic in the glass — reduces the quality of the product and ultimately what Eureka and other recyclers can sell it for, and that’s another test for the Zero Waste Lab.

“It really is about fine-tuning how you run your system, and really it’s trying not to run materials through it too fast where either you’re overwhelming equipment or you’re overwhelming the people there to assess the material and pull off contaminants,” Brownell said.

Herberholz said Minneapolis residents, trained for years to carefully sort their recyclables into multiple paper bags, are producing “one of the cleanest recycling streams” that enters Waste Management’s MRF. Single-sort also streamlined recycling collection, and that’s translated into lower injury rates — fewer slips, falls and sprains for collectors — and reduced the number of trucks trawling Minneapolis alleys by more than half, he added.

Minneapolis’ march toward a zero waste future continues with the expansion of organics recycling; in addition to the city’s pilot collection program, a third organics drop-off site will open this year. And a new education effort will target specific neighborhoods where recycling rates are lower, Herberholz added.

What Eureka learns in its Zero Waste Lab may shape how Minneapolis moves forward.

The nonprofit’s perspective on waste reduction strategies, Herberholz said, “is kind of the big picture: economically, environmentally and socially.”