Several counties in northwestern Minnesota are betting that recycling more and burning any remaining trash will be cheaper in the long run than burying everything that’s thrown away. Polk County is handling refuse for five other counties at its Materials Recovery Facility, which recently got an $8 million equipment upgrade to sort and pull cans and plastic containers out of garbage faster.
The equipment uses an optical scanner that can determine types of plastic within a millisecond, as well as conveyor belts with magnetic fields to attract metal and push aluminum away. The county sells the sorted, recycled materials and incinerates what’s left, using the leftover ash in road construction or dumping it in a landfill.
“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 Jon Steiner, who manages the operation as Polk County’s environmental services administrator.
The county has been burning trash for decades, but the new sorting equipment increases the amount of material that’s removed from garbage. With more recycling, it’ll be easier to manage air pollution from the incinerator, Steiner said.
Incinerator ash is also much less reactive than buried garbage, and it’s unlikely to contaminate groundwater in the future, said Sigurd Scheurle, solid waste planner for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Beltrami, Clearwater and Hubbard counties have trusted Polk County with their recycling and garbage because officials believe the process will save money in the long term. The counties pay fees for each load of garbage.
Unfortunately, it’s cheaper and simpler to just dump all trash in a landfill, Scheurle said. “The problem is that as the years go by we don’t stop paying for landfills,” Scheurle said. “They have to have perpetual care, and unfortunately many of them leak, and so they put our groundwater at risk.”