July 13, 2008

Where Do La Crosse’s Recyclables Go?

By KJ Lang, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Jul. 13--The sound of tin cans clanking and glass shattering is constant as a front-end loader pushes bottles and other recyclables onto a conveyor belt that moves upward to employees working on a sorting line.

About 600 tons of recyclables per month -- the majority from 15 municipalities in La Crosse County, including the city of La Crosse -- are hauled in to Hilltopper Refuse & Recycling each month, said Larry Hougom, Hilltopper vice president.

Paul Dyer, service associate at Riverfront Inc., has seen mice, snakes and other stuff that doesn't belong on a recyclable sorting line.

But that's just what he likes about his work. You never know what you'll find, he said, like a channel lock wrench in good shape, which was something he needed anyway, he said.

"It's a dirty job and a hot job, but it keeps my attention," Dyer said. "Every batch of garbage is full of surprises, from the smelly to the useful."

While the line is fast at work, tin, plastic, paper and cardboard are bailed into compact cubes and other recyclables of glass and aluminum also are prepared to be shipped off within a 200-mile radius of Hilltopper to be recycled back into the cans and bottles that they once were.

Where they go depends on the market, Hougom said. Currently, everything that is sorted at Hilltopper is shipped off to recycling facilities. For instance, recycled steel cans go to Milwaukee or St. Paul to be turned into new steel cans.

But recyclables don't always go back to what they were. Glass, for instance, can be converted into material used to sandblast a house, Hougom said, or into small pebbles for landscaping. Plastic can become carpeting or even a fleece jacket, he said.

Five frequently asked questions about recycling:

--Why doesn't La Crosse recycle plastic? People who get upset about the city of La Crosse not recycling No. 1 and No. 2 plastics often don't understand these go to the waste-to-energy plant on French Island, not the landfill, said Dale Hexom, city public works director. In a way, they are recycled, he said -- they become a fluffy, burnable fuel at the plant that generates electricity, he said.

--How does La Crosse County recycling rates compare to a similar-size county? La Crosse County recycled 37.21 pounds of aluminum, glass and tin per person per year on average from 2003 to 2006, while Eau Claire County recycled 42.55 pounds per person per year on average over the four years, according to data from Paul Wiegner, DNR recycling specialist for the Department of Natural Resources. La Crosse County's average population was 109,821 over the four years, while Eau Claire's average population was 98,745.

--Is there a better option THAN recycling? There is no "away" in throwing away, said Paul Wiegner, DNR recycling specialist for the Department of Natural Resources. Waste either is hauled to a landfill, incinerator or recycling facility. If it's burned illegally, it goes into the air or becomes ash. Bury it on private property and it might contaminate the groundwater. While recycling seems the ideal way to get rid of waste, it still requires energy and wastes a little, Tippetts said. Therefore, Wiegner and Tippetts agreed, an even better idea than recycling is not to use so much stuff in the first place.

--Are burn barrels bad? Burning waste in as few as two burn barrels emits as many dioxins as a modern waste-to-energy facility, such as the one operated at French Island, Tippetts said. Because they burn at much lower temperatures than municipal incinerators, burn barrels have virtually no combustion air control -- and none of the high-tech pollution filtering that incinerators are required to have, according to www.burnbarrel.org.Tippetts calls burn barrels "one of the most significant pollution sources of waste we have." It is illegal to burn anything other than clean paper and wood in a burn barrel.

--What Is hazardous material, and what do I do with it? Do you have old paint, antifreeze, fluorescent light bulbs or mercury thermometers? These are just a few of the hazardous materials that should never be thrown away, dumped down the drain or poured onto the ground. Exposure to these substances could harm people or the environment, Tippetts said. If they can't be given to someone else to use, they should be taken to the La Crosse County Hazardous Materials Collection facility at the La Crosse County Landfill Complex, 6502 Hwy. 16. The facility serves all of La Crosse County. Still-usable products go into a room at the facility where others can take it for free. To learn more about what are considered hazardous materials and how to dispose of them, go on the Web to www.lacrossecounty.org/hhm or call (608) 785-9999.

KJ Lang can be reached at (608) 791-8226 or [email protected]


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