Keeping items clean equals more green

By Denise Lana,

Pictured from front to back, George Grosz, Meg Storkamp and Steve Lennon, all employees of WCRC, are constantly moving and sorting by hand hundreds of pounds of plastic and metal that are received every day at the center. (Driftless Multimedia photo by Denise Lana)

Picture it: Decorah 2024. 

You have been hired by the city to collect “gizmos” and are paid $90 for every 2,000 gizmos you find. After finding 2,000 valuable gizmos, you place them in a container to keep them safe and clean. You are proud of your hard work and accomplishment, knowing you are helping your city! 

When time comes to turn in your gizmos and get paid, you are shocked to discover the container was infiltrated by the foul and impure “widgets”, and your gizmos have been soiled and polluted, rendering them worthless. 

Not only do you not receive your $90, but you also have to pay $74 to have your gizmos disposed of properly. How did those widgets even get into your container of gizmos?

A silly story, yes. But in reality, this is what happens every single day at the Winneshiek County Recycling Center. 

Not gizmos and widgets, of course, but with assorted recycling materials. 

Recycling containers designated for paper are polluted by bags of garbage. Buyers of bulk paper who purchase from the recycling center don’t like polluted loads, so now, the garbage paper is worthless. The recycling center, which makes anywhere from $75 to $90 per ton of paper, has now lost that revenue, and instead has to pay a garbage hauler to transport most of the paper-turned-garbage to the landfill, which charges $74 per ton to dispose of the waste – all because garbage was carelessly put in the wrong bin. 

On average, the Winneshiek County Recycling Center (WCRC) amasses 10 cubic yards of non-recyclable items every single day. A cubic yard can weigh up to several hundred pounds, and with the landfill charging $74 per ton, that could easily add up to a revenue loss up to $74 per day. That might not seem like much loss, but when it is multiplied by the number of workdays each year, the loss becomes much larger. If one took 251 work days (weekdays minus holidays) and multiplied that by $74, that comes out to a revenue loss of $18,574. Now these calculations are not official numbers from the WCRC, but as a conservative estimate, that’s still a lot of money lost to carelessness. 

Evan Neubauer, Waste Reduction and Recycling Educator with Winneshiek County Conservation, discussed the rising issue with cross-contaminated recycling. 

“We’ve mainly been seeing things like trash getting thrown into bins – a few days ago, someone threw several trash bags in the center’s cardboard bin at the drop-off shed.”

“Trash, especially food waste, can contaminate an entire load of recyclable material, and the buyers don’t want that load,” Neubauer stressed. “Paper is also really easy to contaminate when paper products containing food are put with regular paper waste.”

Many people aren’t sure what items are acceptable and how to transport or prepare those items. Other people find themselves in a hurry and dump their entire lot of items in one bin, figuring it will be sorted out at the end. And a few folks are just downright lazy and treat the recycling containers like garbage and compost bins. 

Oftentimes, items are left outside of containers that are full, or hazardous items are tossed willy-nilly into bins. 

“Recently we had someone put a large metal filing cabinet in the center’s paper bin, and when we unloaded that bin, we were expecting paper to come out and the filing cabinet came tumbling out! Not only do we have to pull random items out, but they also could be a safety hazard,” explained Neubauer. 

One common misconception, called “Wish-cycling” by Neubauer, is when people feel guilty about throwing things in the trash, so they place random assorted items, most of which is garbage, in recycling bins, hoping they can get recycled. But like contaminated cardboard, garbage has a price. The center has to transport any garbage to the landfill and pay to have it dumped. 

“Every item placed in a container is touched by the recycling staff,” Neubauer emphasized. 

“The team has to sort through each item in 

a bin, so think about that – don’t recycle diapers! Not only can one diaper contaminate an entire load of paper or cardboard, but people have to handle that diaper.” 

With all the current environmental concerns and the rising cost of living, people want to be known for being sustainable. But those people must be vigilant about more than just recycling items properly, they need to consider purchasing items that use containers that can be recycled locally. 

For example, a new packaged plastic shower curtain may have a recyclable triangle symbol on it, but the package does not define what is actually recyclable. Is it the plastic shower curtain? The paper label? The cardboard insert? Or maybe only the metal grommet? Neubauer said he can’t stress enough that folks need to check with their local recycling facility first!

Small changes can make big differences

According WCRC employee Lonnie Pierce, items like shredded office paper are huge cash items for the center. But if the shredded paper is dumped loose along with regular paper items, that value is lost, because regular paper recycling is not worth nearly as much on the current market, Pierce explained. 

Shredded office paper needs to be bagged separately and transported to the center and given to personnel directly. 

Pierce stressed, “If a bag of shredded paper is put with regular paper and we don’t catch it before it gets unloaded, that bag goes up a conveyor belt and could get ripped open and go everywhere!”

Neubauer wants stories like this to not scare people or dissuade them from recycling, but rather, feel driven to be more aware of the negative impact of improper recycling habits. 

“We have very dedicated recyclers in our area, and they do a fantastic job!” Neubauer declared. “Most people have been doing a fantastic job sorting their material.”

“However,” he continued, “It is important for the public to know they have some skin in the game!” Neubauer exclaimed. “Whenever residents do something that doesn’t follow the rules, it really costs them.” 

Pierce added, “If we have a good year and prices are up, we’ll give a large portion of our budget back to the county. It saves the taxpayers huge! We’re not in the business to make money, but it doesn’t hurt to offset our costs! The main purpose is to keep stuff out of the landfill!”

With recycling questions, contact the Winneshiek County Recycling Center at 563-382-6514 or visit

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