Polk County’s operation takes an innovative approach to dealing with trash. It handles refuse from five other counties, and in addition to sorting waste that residents have recycled, it also pulls recyclables out of waste they haven’t, and turns garbage into energy. “Between what gets reused and what goes to market to be recycled, you’re looking at about 20 to 25 percent of the material that comes in the door gets used again or recycled,” said Steiner.
It’s one of a handful of similar collaboratives around the state, and the counties involved are betting it will be cheaper in the long term to recycle more — and then burn the remaining trash — rather than simply burying everything that’s thrown away. A recent $8 million upgrade to the operation’s equipment has allowed it to speed up its process and pull cans and plastic containers out of garbage. Steiner said it’s the only facility in the state that uses the same equipment to sort recycling and garbage.
The recycled materials are sold, what’s left is incinerated, and the ash that remains is used in road construction or dumped in a landfill. The incinerator part of the process isn’t new. It’s been burning trash for decades — and generating steam that’s sold to businesses in the Fosston industrial park, who use it to process vegetables or heat buildings.
But adding the new sorting equipment is a step that will increase the amount of material pulled out of the garbage. More recycling will also make it easier to manage air pollution from the incinerator, Steiner said, because the remaining garbage burns cleaner. And it’s nearly all automated, from the optical scanner to the conveyor belts that use magnetic fields to attract metal and push away aluminum.
Along the way there are humans, too. They remove unexpected trash that might damage the equipment, like bowling balls or plasterboard. And they do quality control, catching any mistakes the machines make. The sorting equipment might run material from recycling bins for a couple of hours, sorting the cardboard, paper, metal and plastic into bins where it’s baled for sale to companies that reuse the material.