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FOX 11 Investigates recycling costs, falling profits

Tri-County Recycling Facility in Outagamie County (WLUK/Mark Leland)
Tri-County Recycling Facility in Outagamie County (WLUK/Mark Leland)
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OUTAGAMIE COUNTY (WLUK) -- When you recycle, do you know what to keep out of the trash? It can be confusing. And if it’s not done right, it can cost money. Taxpayer money.

In Wisconsin, it has been the law to recycle since 1990. Bottles, cans, most plastic, and paper products are in fact banned from going into the landfill. And yet look in the trash -- you’ll find plenty of items that should be recycled according to state law.

FOX 11 Investigates asked Mark Walter, who heads up Brown County's recycling program, what's in the trash bin that should be in the recycle bin?

"A lot of paper, a lot of metal, a lot of aluminum, a lot of other things that we could pull out of that trash that would be recyclable," said Walter. "Every community in the state has a recycling ordinance and says you shall recycle this material."

Local communities pick up recycling bins at the curb. (Property owners are asked to pay for those bins either directly or indirectly.) And in Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago Counties, they’re brought to the Tri-County Recycling facility near Appleton.

Christine Miller is the recycling coordinator for Outagamie County and runs the Tri-County facility.

"Homeowners are a little more responsive to recycling," said Miller. "Apartment building recycling is a big challenge. Multifamily housing is a challenge for recycling."

Why is recycling important? By reusing and repurposing these recyclables, 400 tons of materials a day are kept out of the Outagamie County landfill. In addition to the environmental impact, the three counties that make up Tri-County Recycling make money by selling the stuff they collect. In 2017, the sales of recyclables brought in $10.8 million, saving taxpayers money.

"Our department in Brown County is what we call an Enterprise Fund. We are not a tax supported fund. So all our revenue, everything we do, comes from the sale of materials and fees that we charge," said Walter. If recycling didn't bring in money, ultimately taxpayers would be left to cover the costs.

In Green Bay, Georgia-Pacific buys mixed paper products from Tri-County. As much as it can deliver.

"The Georgia-Pacific Broadway Mill takes in at least 60 to 80 truckloads of recycled fiber every single day, so we turn that into bath tissue and paper towel and into napkins," said Michael Kawleski, Georgia-Pacific Public Affairs Manager.

The company’s Broadway Mill began recycling paper products in the 1930s. At one point, it was the world’s largest recycling fiber plant.

Those napkins at Starbucks? They too come from the Georgia-Pacific plant, made from your household recycled paper.

"Paper’s a great product because you can recycle that fiber three to six times so you get a lot of multiple uses out of that fiber," said Kawleski, indicating the plant can always use more recycled paper.

"We’re always using paper. This is a 24/7 operation here. We have equipment that runs non-stop," Kawleski said.

The price Tri-County, and other recyclers around the country, get for its mixed paper and other recyclables took a hit this past year due to more stringent regulations in China. Prior to January of 2018, China was the largest recycling market in the world, taking up to 60 percent of all recycling material in the United States.

"When the coastal states could not sell their commodities to China, they flooded all markets here in the U.S., which then brings the value down," said Miller.

As a result, revenue earned on recycled material from Tri-County dropped this past year by $2.5 million.

Pound for pound, paper is the number one item recycled in bulk. But it’s aluminum recycling that brings in the most money.

At Tri-County, Miller says aluminum makes up just 3 percent of the items coming in, but it brings in 30 percent of the money being made.

In January, the market for aluminum was $1,300 a ton, compare that to the plastic from milk jugs which sells for $840 a ton, cardboard $60 a ton, and mixed paper $10 a ton. As for glass, it makes up about 25 percent of the items collected, but Tri-County loses $10 a ton on glass.

"Because of the weight of glass, by the time we’d ship it to a recycler, we take a loss on glass. However, it is banned from the landfill," explained Miller.

Miller says extra money could be made if more people would do a better job complying with the recycling law and stop throwing recyclables away.

But there is no indication that homeowners are being routinely fined for not recycling and instead placing such items in the trash.

"Yes it’s frustrating. Enforcement is very lax," said Miller.

Tri-County instead relies on education. Just this month, for the first time ever a flyer was mailed to every home in all three counties to better explain what can be recycled, and how it helps the environment and taxpayers. The hope is it will spur more recycling.

Tri-County budgeted $60,000 to send out that informational pamphlet in Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago Counties, the largest public educational expense to date according to Miller.

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Profits from the sale of recyclables by Tri-County go into covering costs of each county's operation, capital improvements to equipment, and rebates to municipalities to help lower local taxpayers costs associated with recycling.

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