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Rest easy Minnesotans, your recyclables are not going to the landfill

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Contents of a recycling bin
Contents of a recycling bin at the Casella Waste Systems depot are seen in East Montpelier, Vt., March 1, 2012.
Toby Talbot | AP 2012

About half of the materials recycled in the United States end up in China. But China has placed restrictions on what they'll accept, causing a backlog of product.

"One of our largest exports to China is recycling," said Public Radio International reporter Jason Margolis.

Margolis reported earlier this month that piles and piles of recyclables are ending up in the parking lots of the businesses that process them.

"It's astonishing," he told host Tom Weber.

China wants their imports to have less cross contamination. Now, a shipment of recycled paper can only contain .5 percent of other materials, like plastic, as opposed to one or two percent. It takes time and money for a paper plant to sort out plastic bags and bottles. 

However, .5 percent is a difficult standard to reach said Kate Davenport of Minnesota's Eureka Recycling.

"We have a certain economic model that is based on running material at a particular speed ... and to meet that contamination level is a complete change in the economic model of recycling," she said.

The good news is Eureka sends most of its materials to local businesses, not China. Davenport said that 90 percent of what they sort stays in Minnesota, and 85 percent of that stays in the Twin Cities. 

Minnesota statute states that recyclers must ask permission from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) before they can dump excess material into landfills said Wayne Gjerde of MPCA. 

"We've never given that permission. We're a long way away from getting to that point," he said.

 To hear more about recycling in Minnesota use the audio player above.