By Leah Call  

For most people, recycling is second nature. We want to do our part to save the planet from a mountain of waste. In a public place we look for the recycling containers to throw away a soda can or plastic water bottle. At home we toss recyclables in the proper bin. On recycling pickup day, we set them out on the curb. But what happens to those recyclables after they’re picked up? Let’s take a deep dive into the world of recycling in the Coulee Region. 

  • Source-separated = Recyclable plastics, glass, metal, aluminum, paper and cardboard are separated into individual containers prior to pickup.
  • Single-stream = All recyclable material is thrown into one bin or cart to be separated after pickup at a material recycling facility (MRF). 

Laura-and-Bill-Meeks“Single stream recycling has been shown to improve or increase recycling rates over source-separated by 30 percent or more,” says Bill Meeks, owner of Southwest Sanitation in Viroqua. “So if a community were to change from source-separated to single-stream or commingled, the rates would go up.”

Why do recycling rates go up with single stream? It’s easier. Single-stream recycling also requires less space to store recycling containers, since everything is thrown into one container.

While tossing everything into one container is easier for individuals, it’s also easier for those handling the recyclables, and it’s safer.
In municipalities with source-separated recycling, collectors often separate recyclables into appropriate containers as they pick them up off the curb. “That is dangerous—doing it out in the elements and out in the street,” says Meeks. “In a sort center it is done inside, in a process that uses magnets and different infrared optical sensors and eddy currents … It’s a whole lot more efficient.”

Southwest Sanitation switched to single-stream in 2011. The impact of that switch was significant, both in terms of the increased rates of recycling and efficiency, cutting their pickup time by about an eighth. “With single stream all you do is grab it, dump it and go.”

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The city of La Crosse and city of Onalaska switched to single-stream pickup in 2014 after conducting a study to reduce recycling inefficiencies. “We had a UW-La Crosse intern, Shelby Jacobson, do a study on the recycling. We figure the rate went up by 120 percent. We are pretty proud of that,” says Nick Nichols, sustainability coordinator for La Crosse County.

Once those recyclables are picked up, they go to the Harter’s MRF (Material Recovery Facility) Green Circle Recycling. The Green Circle MRF serves 15,600 households in La Crosse and 6,700 Onalaska households. At the MRF, the glass, metal, aluminum, tin, cardboard and plastics are separated, baled and distributed to different end users.

La Crosse and Onalaska also upgraded to automated collection of trash and recycling. “Instead of having a guy on the back of the
truck, picking up containers and dumping them into the truck, Harter’s now has a truck that has an arm on it that will pick up the container and dump it and set it back onto the curb. That created a huge amount of efficiency,” notes Nichols.

Before automated pickup, 500 households were served in one day by a single truck. Automation doubled that. “And Harter’s also purchased compressed natural gas vehicles,” adds Nichols. “Natural gas is a much cleaner fuel, and it’s cheaper.”

Each municipality in the county is considered a Responsible Unit (RU). Each RU creates and monitors its own recycling program. Supporting efforts of the municipalities, the county is in charge of the landfill, following the credo reduce, reuse and recycle. The process of composting and turning waste into energy also contributes to the ultimate goal—keeping waste out of the landfill.

Approximately 6,500 tons of asphalt shingles are recycled annually to help meet that goal. The county offers reduced fees as incentive to separate asphalt shingles from other garbage. Those shingles are then ground up and sold to Mathy Construction, who mixes the material in road paving asphalt.

“We also incentivize the separation of wood waste, which we grind up and sell to Xcel Energy,” adds Nichols. “They burn that along with refuse-derived fuel to create enough energy for over 10,000 homes in the area, and that keeps over 18,000 tons of coal from being imported into our community.”

“A good chunk of the residential garbage goes to the waste-to-energy facility,” adds Nichols.

That material, referred to as refuse-derived fuel, is separated and burned along with the wood waste. Xcel’s waste-to-energy plant burns over 70,000 tons of garbage annually, extending the life of the county landfill. 

Did You Know?

The city of La Crosse has a yard waste drop-off site, Isle La Plume Brush & Yard Waste Site, at 2000 Marco Drive. You must be a resident to use the site. Food waste such as fruit and vegetable material, flour and grain waste (bread, pasta, rice), and coffee grounds and eggshells, can also be dropped off at the site. The yard and food waste is composted along with leaves collected in the city and reused as gardening material.

An effort that both reduces waste and encourages reuse is the Reuse Room at the La Crosse County Landfill office adjacent to the Household Hazardous Materials Facility (HHM). The Reuse Room is one of only four facilities of its kind in the state. Individuals and businesses can drop off materials such as herbicides, paints, stains, automotive products, insecticides and more at the HHM facility. HHM staff inspect the items and store acceptable items in the Reuse Room, where they are then available for reuse by others—and it’s free.

“Last year they put over 70,000 pounds of material in the reuse room that’s estimated to be worth over $140,000 to the community that people can take home,” says Nichols. “That saves us over $40,000 disposable costs, so we are saving taxpayer dollars.”

The city of La Crosse recycles about 130 pounds per capita per year, which ranks it in the middle of recycling rates throughout Wisconsin. “That doesn’t take into consideration the things we recycle here at the landfill or the material that gets pulled out at the waste-to-energy facility,” notes Nichols.

Brandon Shea, recycling coordinator for the city of La Crosse, calls recycling all-around good for the environment. “People don’t understand that we pay for trash and recycling through a cart-based service. There is a different price for the recycling cart that is actually cheaper than the garbage cart. The more recycling we can do, the better rates we are going to get.”  

Electronics Recycling at Dynamic

Lifecycle Innovations (formerly Dynamic Recycling) in Onalaska specializes in recycling, recovery, refurbishment, and remarketing of IT, electronics and nonferrous metals for businesses throughout the U.S. and internationally.

“We work directly with larger organizations, usually 2000 employees and up,” says Miles Harter, co-owner of Dynamic Lifecycle Innovations. “We take in all of their electronics. We first take and separate anything that can be reused, then we separate the rest to be recycled and send that to our other division.”

Dynamic refurbishes and reuses whole units—computers, laptops, servers, networking equipment, storage. “Pretty much any type of electronics we can reuse and refurbish in-house,” says Harter.

The company also recycles outdated electronics through disassembly and automated processing. “Most of that business comes from residents throughout the U.S.,” says Harter. “We get stuff mostly from the Midwest, but we have recently started to get electronics from states on both coasts.”

“A lot of states enacted programs that mandate no landfill and mandate OEMs to pay for part or all of the recycling costs,” Harter adds. “So we work with a lot of OEMS throughout the U.S.”

Electronics such as printers, stereos, fax machines, VCRs and DVD players, as well as components such as power supplies, disc drives and hard drives are disassembled and sent to Dynamic’s brokerage and recovery area. “We bring them down to base metals, like steel, aluminum, copper, circuit boards that contain precious metals, and plastics. Those get sent back to mills or smelters or plastics processors,” says Harter. “We are also developing another line where we can process solar panels and process circuit boards further down.”

The company’s brokerage division buys circuit boards from throughout the U.S. and the world and then sorts, segregates, processes and sends them out for precious metal and nonferrous recovery. “We also buy nonferrous metals, process them and send them back to scrap yards or direct to mills,” says Harter.

Dynamic operates facilities in Tennessee and Minnesota and recently completed construction of a 140,000-square-foot materials processing and recovery facility at its headquarters in Onalaska. Employing a total of 270 people, this innovative recycler has a goal of recycling 100 million pounds of electronics in 2019. While Dynamic is keeping e-waste out of the landfill, it continues to create jobs in the region. Harter anticipates hiring over 100 people within a year.

“One thing that really separates us is the rate at which we change and innovate,” says Harter. “It’s a great place where people can dive in and make a difference. That’s something we really pride ourselves on locally from an employment standpoint.”

The Only Mattress Recycler in Wisconsin

7 Rivers Recycling on Industrial Boulevard in Onalaska has the unique distinction of being the only mattress recycler in Wisconsin. In fact, it is one of a small number of mattress recyclers in the nation recognized by the International Sleep Product Association. In operation since 2014, 7 Rivers received the 2018 Sustainable Processor Award from the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council.

7 Rivers co-owner Brian Tippetts estimates the business will recycle around 10,000 mattresses in 2019. The mattresses come from throughout the region, state and beyond.

“The biggest suppliers of mattresses are the city of La Crosse with their large-item collection in the spring, and Houston County with their drop-off sites and various mattress stores,” says Tippetts.

Individuals can drop off mattresses at Hilltopper Refuse and Recycling Services, Inc., located at W6833 Industrial Boulevard in Onalaska, between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays and between 8:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Saturdays. The cost is $15 per mattress. La Crosse County also charges $15 for mattresses that are dropped off. Once mattresses are dropped off, they are added to a container that is taken to 7 Rivers to be recycled.

Tippetts advises consumers to ask retailers what they do with old mattresses that are hauled away after delivery of a new mattress. If they’re not sending them to 7 Rivers, they are likely being refurbished, not recycled. It is illegal to refurbish mattresses or sell refurbished mattresses in Wisconsin. And it’s kind of gross, when you hear about the potential for bedbugs, MRSA and various sketchy things you might discover in a used mattress.

“On Oct. 13, 2018, a woman from Rockford, Illinois, drove up here just to make sure her mattress got recycled. We get a fair amount of personal drop-offs,” says Tippetts. “She got on the internet and found us. She called some others who said they recycled mattresses, but she didn’t believe them.”

While 99 percent of a mattress can be recycled, the process is very labor-intensive. “We take a mattress and we fillet it like you would fillet a fish. We cut around the outside edges and pull back the layers,” explains Tippets. “The top layer is the ticking or spread. Into it is sewn foam. We have a market for that. Underneath that is this polyurethane foam and we have a market for that. Below that is what is called a mattress felt. The industry does not have a market for that, but we are finding repurposed uses for it.”

The mattress felt has been used as a mover’s blanket, contractor’s tarp and as weed guard or landscaping fabric in projects throughout the region. The felt is available at the 7 Rivers facility, and it’s free. “We are trying to get it used, or else it ends up in the landfill,” says Tippetts.

Mattress springs are taken to a scrap yard where they are melted back into steel. Finally, the wood frame is ground up and used
as mulch.

“By volume the things we recycle and have markets for are about 90 percent, by weight maybe 85 percent,” says Tippetts. “There are some weird things in there that we are struggling to find uses for.”

The weird things include a fluffy cotton batting and a coconut coir, both found in some older mattresses. Both materials are baled and kept at the 7 Rivers facility awaiting a future use.

Tippets hopes the hundreds of bales of fibrous coconut fiber might find a use in the horticulture or nursery industry. “They are probably worth $40 each if used in baskets [for plants], and we just want a couple bucks for them,” he says. “It is kind of word-of-mouth, we have this really cool stuff and we’ll sell it for cheap. We just don’t want to put it in the landfill.”

Keeping mattresses out of landfills is the primary mission of this award-winning recycler. Mattresses take up to 40 cubic feet in a landfill and have the potential to damage heavy equipment. They are also a safety hazard for landfill workers and a fire risk.

The typical charge to landfill a mattress in the La Crosse area is $15—the same as the cost to recycle it. Tippets would like to see that change. “It is expensive to landfill mattresses, and recycling them is the right thing to do. I would like to see landfills surcharge the burial of mattresses appropriately, which would drive the economics to recycle them. Do the right thing. Don’t bury recyclables.”