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  • Writer's pictureDiana Dudenhoeffer

Your recycling doesn't end up in the landfill, despite what you may have heard

Photo by Diana Dudenhoeffer

Perhaps a friend or neighbor told you that recycling doesn’t matter. They might have said the whole exercise is useless—because everything that residents sort into recycling bins ends up in the landfill anyway.

This isn’t true. If you live in District O, the recycling you put in your curbside bin or take to a local drop-off facility doesn’t get loaded onto a big truck and dumped into the landfill.

Jim Von Behren has owned New American Recycling with his wife, Becky, since 2004. If you take your recycling to Lone Pine or Franklin Avenue Recycling Centers in Springfield or the Yardwaste Recycling Center in Brookline, your milk jugs, newspapers, soda cans, cardboard shipping boxes and other common recyclables are delivered to this materials recovery facility (MRF) near Chestnut and Kansas Expressways. The City of Springfield contacts with New American Recycling to deliver almost everything gathered at the municipality’s three recycling centers to Von Behren’s facility. (The exception is glass; Springfield’s glass recyclables are sold to Ripple Glass in Kansas City.)

If you have a curbside recycling bin with a Springfield trash hauler, your recyclables are delivered to New American, too.

It’s weird to think about recycling as a for-profit industry because most of us think of empty beverage bottles or last week’s newspapers as trash. However, it’s not trash: It’s a commodity! New American sells most of its collected materials to mills in the Midwest and South (keeping materials within the region means shipping costs are lower), but Von Behren says the income isn’t always stable. Pricing for household recyclables are steered by the market’s fluctuations of supply and demand in different regions throughout the country.

New American’s contracts with trash haulers—which bring between three and five truckloads dropping off residents’ recyclables every day—can be expensive. Von Behren explained the price of the material doesn’t always cover the processing fee. This is especially true when demand is low and supply is high. As the market fluctuates, the haulers are required to pay a tipping fee to MRFs.

It’s a lot of coordination, effort and energy to get your recycling to manufacturers who make new products from the materials—in short, the recyclables don’t go to the landfill.

Photos by Diana Dudenhoeffer. Click the image above to view full-size gallery photos from the June 2022 tour.

Between 500 and 600 tons of materials arrive at New American each month, Von Behren said during a June 2022 tour of the facility. This number isn’t a perfect representation of the quantity of recyclables being processed, however, because the estimate includes both recyclables that New American employees can sort, bale and ship to other processors and manufacturers, plus some non-recyclable materials that make their way into recycling streams.

The most common contaminants New American employees encounter are plastic bags and plastic film. Do not put these items into recycling bins. Some grocery stores accept plastic bags for recycling, but New American cannot process these materials.

What is contamination?

Contamination is a big problem in recycling, an industry helmed by fluctuating prices from third-party demand. When residents aren’t sure what they can put in their recycling bins, good-faith efforts to recycle end up costing local businesses.

Contamination describes a non-recyclable item or the wrong recyclable ending up in a recycling stream, and this can look different depending on the type of contamination. For instance, a shipment of steel that has some aluminum mixed is contaminated. Although aluminum is recyclable, it doesn’t belong with the steel shipment. This can affect the recycler’s ability to properly process the steel.

Contamination can also refer to dirty materials. For instance, a plastic food container soiled with food waste, oil, grease or other substance prevents proper processing and recycling.

A third form of contamination describes items that can’t be recycled at all ending up in recycling systems. Common non-recyclable items that nonetheless end up at recycling facilities include plastic grocery bags, garden hoses, yard waste, personal hygiene products, food waste and Styrofoam. Some of these contaminants can be dangerous or cause problems on the sorting line. Plastic bags, hoses and cords are some of the main offenders because they can get tangled in a conveyor belt. Some of these items can be recycled but need to be directed separately to the proper facility.

Contamination can describe three different conditions: 1. Non-recylables mixed in with recyclables 2. The wrong recyclable item mixed in with a different type of recyclable 3. Soiled recyclables

The contamination threshold for a bale of recyclables may vary, depending on the planned use for the recyclables. In a 1,500-pound bale of plastic at New American, Von Behren estimates around 25 pounds of contaminants sneak their way in, despite both machine and hand-sorting.

Small proportions of contaminants don’t usually cause problems as collectors, mills and manufacturers sometimes do an additional round of sorting after they’ve received a shipment of materials. Von Behren said he has never had complaints of too many contaminants from the businesses with whom he contracts.

If a MRF sells a buyer a shipment of materials that has too many contaminants for the buyer’s standards, Von Behren said the buyer will sometimes send the whole load back and charge the MRF for shipping, or in some instances where the shipment is very contaminated, the buyer might send the materials to the landfill. For example, a dirty bale of cardboard soiled with food waste is likely to be landfilled.

In a perfect world, every MRF would be supplied with infrastructure to handle any kind of material. But Von Behren said recycling just isn’t feasible for materials that make up only a small percentage of the total volume because they’re not a part of an existing recycling stream.

He explained recycling businesses do their best to collect as much as possible, but most processors are only set up to collect between seven and ten different materials. New American can process eight different materials.

“You can only do so much,” Von Behren said. “You can’t get everything.”

Residents need to be aware of their local recycler’s capabilities to make the process smoother. While a plastic toy or laundry basket is technically recyclable, Von Behren said, his facility is simply not set up to capture those materials.

In general, if you want to keep recycling operations in the Ozarks running smoothly, keep contaminants out.

Quick tips for minimizing contaminants:

  • Don’t recycle paper that’s been stained with grease. Cheesy pizza boxes or oily Big Mac wrappers are landfill waste.

  • Rinse out beverage containers. Make sure plastics are dry before recycling.

  • Recycle only plastics with numbers #1, 2 and 5.

  • Leave the bottle cap on plastic containers.

  • Familiarize yourself with the City’s Recycling & Donations Locations publication. Pin it near your recycling bin or hang it on your fridge for easy access.

  • If you’re not sure if something is recyclable, ask!

  • If you’re unsure whether your curbside recyclables are going to a MRF, contact your local hauler.


About the Author

Diana Dudenhoeffer is a multimedia journalist from Springfield, Missouri. She studied journalism, sustainability and documentary storytelling at Missouri State University. She is the current media intern at OHRD, writing blogposts like this one.


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