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Problem plastic plagues Fargo’s recycling efforts

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Jen Pickett, Fargo’s recycling coordinator, says plastic bags, Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastics seen here Wednesday, Aug. 22, can foul an entire bin and divert it to the landfill instead of the recycling center. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 4
Jen Pickett, Fargo’s recycling coordinator, shows several examples of recyclable plastics Wednesday, Aug. 22, with a reminder that the containers should be rinsed out first. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor3 / 4
Several examples of non-recyclable plastics are pulled from a recycling bin Wednesday, Aug. 22, in Fargo. Workers try to remove these items, but they sometimes compromise the entire load, causing it to be sent to the landfill instead of the recycling center. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor4 / 4

FARGO — When someone dumps a bag of household garbage into a recycling bin at one of the city's drop-off sites, a little detective work begins.

Either the recycling truck driver who's emptying the bins or Fargo Recycling Coordinator Jen Pickett herself will search through the waste for a mailing address.

If they find one, she takes a photo of the garbage load and sends it, along with a reminder letter, to the offender, saying in essence: Don't put your garbage in the recycling bin.

Pickett may wish she had that same option when it comes to people putting non-recyclable plastic into the bins at drop-off sites.

Every day, recycling crews find items like kiddie pools, shower curtains, garden hoses and large plastic totes in the bins, meaning a worker has to fish them out.

"Essentially, it's more work at every step in the process," Pickett said.

Lance Volk, a Fargo recycling equipment operator, said a large plastic item can get wedged in the bin, keeping the proper recyclable plastics from flowing out and creating a hazard for the driver when they try to free it.

In some cases, they have no choice but to have a garbage truck pick up the load.

"For the people who are trying to do good, one person spoiled that entire container and now that will end up at the landfill," Volk said.

An even more common problem is people throwing plastic bags into the bins, which creates issues later in the recycling process. Sometimes, people will haul appropriate plastic items to a drop-off site in a plastic bag and dump the whole thing in, bag and all.

"What we need to do is just empty this out," Pickett said, as she tried to pry open a bag plump full of bottles. The plastic bags can be thrown into another container on site, marked specifically for that purpose.

'Contamination' low, but could be better

Fargo has about two dozen recycling drop-off sites scattered throughout the city. A recent audit found up to 10 percent of what ends up in the plastic recycling bins doesn't belong there.

By industry standards that's low, but there's always room for improvement, Pickett said.

Those unacceptable items, referred to as "contamination" in the industry, also plague workers later down the line. At MinnKota Recycling, where loads from the Fargo drop-off sites end up for further processing, plastic bags are their nemesis.

Production Manager Mark Laufenberg said the bags get caught in conveyors, pulleys and chains, wrapping up tight like a rope. At times, they have to shut down the operation and cut the bags out of the equipment.

"A lot of down time, a lot of extra work," Laufenberg said.

Plastic items that are appropriate for recycling are marked on the bottom with a No. 1 through 7 and are in the form of bottles, tubs and jugs. Anything that doesn't meet that criteria needs to go into the garbage, Pickett said.

If people have large plastic items that don't fit in their garbage can, they can arrange for the city's solid waste department to pick them up.

Pickett offered other tips to make the plastic recycling process cleaner and more efficient:

• Give containers a quick rinse and put the lid back on them before recycling.

• Squeeze plastic jugs if you can to reduce their size and make for more space in the bins.

Anyone looking for more information about recycling in Fargo can visit