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Recycling route: Grand Forks produced 2,215 tons of recyclables last year

In a beige-paneled warehouse northwest of the city, Grand Forks' recycling makes its last stop before heading to Minneapolis. On Thursday, the center was busy with activity. A giant truck hauling bundled cardboard dumped its load across the concr...

Russ Troemner on Friday tosses recyclables from a curb in Grand Forks into a Waste Management Inc. truck as he and Raymond Aguilar work a route. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)
Russ Troemner on Friday tosses recyclables from a curb in Grand Forks into a Waste Management Inc. truck as he and Raymond Aguilar work a route. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

In a beige-paneled warehouse northwest of the city, Grand Forks' recycling makes its last stop before heading to Minneapolis.

On Thursday, the center was busy with activity. A giant truck hauling bundled cardboard dumped its load across the concrete floor. Nearby, a semi packed with recyclables was readied for its trip down the highway - a tarp thrown over its heap of goods which, before long, will be something else.

Grand Forks recycling has grown significantly in the past decade and a half. Today, there are "drop sites" around the city where residents can leave their recyclables for pickup, and residents have had curbside recycling service since 1990.

In 2003, the city rolled out a "single-stream" recycling option, which allows local residents to drop off their recyclables all mixed together at the curb - without sorting it first.

LeahRae Amundson, the city's public works operations director, said in a little more than 10 years, the program more than doubled the amount of processed recyclables - going from 1,431 tons of recycling in 2003 to 2,866 tons by 2015. Last year, the total amount slid back to 2,215 tons, which Amundson said is part of a broad trend in lighter packaging materials.

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"The tonnage trends kind of down now in the industry," she said. "(But) people are still interested in recycling."

And it does come at a cost. The city budgets for $641,000 and contracts with Waste Management Inc., which covers drop sites, curbside pickups and an annual electronics collection event.

Heavy lifting

And right now, all of that curbside pickup is collected by hand. On Friday, Russ Troemner hopped in and out of a green Waste Management truck, chucking load after load of recyclables in the truck before driver Raymond Aguilar rolled onward. It looked like exhausting work.

But there's room for change.

"The city continues to receive requests for an increased level of service-wheeled, lidded containers for automated recycling collection," Amundson said. "As is done annually, staff will brief the mayor and City Council during budget discussions ... as to general costs associated with pursuing this option in the future."

Amundson said it's possible the total amount of recycling could go up anywhere from 15 percent to 25 percent in the first three years of such a program, growing on an already favorable amount of recycling. Grand Forks now has a "set-out rate" of roughly 36 percent to 40 percent, meaning that many households offer materials to be recycled.

"(That's) at or slightly above the national average for similarly sized cities with curbside programs," Amundson said.

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Grand Forks leaders have considered plans that would have expanded recycling coverage in the past-but the City Council voted it down, citing high program costs.

A second life

City Council member Bret Weber has visited the end of the line for Grand Forks' recyclables. It's a giant facility in Minneapolis where the piles of plastic and glass and paper land to be sorted and redistributed. From there, the materials go elsewhere to find new life. Sorted plastic, for instance, might be shipped to a plant to be fabricated into floor tile.

"It was fantastic," Weber said of his tour. "Through a series of blowers and mechanical rakes, they just threw in large piles of recyclables, and within a few minutes, plastics, glass, metals and paper was all separated out."

It's unclear what the future of Grand Forks recycling holds. As far as automation goes, City Council President Dana Sande said he's wary of the city paying for any upgrades to Waste Management vehicles, which also was requested in the upgrade discussed several years ago, he said.

Sande also said he would prefer to see a recycling system that distributes the cost of recycling more fairly.

Right now, he said, less wealthy Grand Forks households recycle less than more affluent ones, which means less wealthy residents are subsidizing the service for others.

But Sande said he sees value in it nonetheless. It can be a pricey service, but it's one that helps model the importance of taking care of the world - especially for Grand Forks' youngest residents.

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"To me, that's probably the biggest benefit of our recycling program," he said.

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