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County Connections: Cook County Recycling Program growth and challenges

Jan 31, 2020 05:43AM ● By Editor

By Tim Nelson, Land Services Director, Cook County MN - January 31, 2020

Much like every community across the country, Cook County has experienced many ups and downs in recent decades, and the Cook County Recycling Center is no exception.

The one thing that has never changed, however, is our community’s desire and commitment to promoting the three “R’s” of reduce, reuse and recycle. What started out in the 1980s as an initiative that processed less than 300 tons of materials annually and generated slightly less than $15,000 in revenue has grown into a program that processes 1,100 tons of materials annually and generates over $170,000 in budget shop sales, materials redemption and state grant fund income.

In addition to the main facility located in Grand Marais, the program also offers six drop-off sites that host recycling trailers in remote locations, providing as much opportunity to recycle as possible. Two of the sites are located up the Gunflint Trail, two sites are located east of Grand Marais towards Hovland and Grand Portage, and two sites are located towards the west end of the county in Lutsen and Tofte. The specific locations can be found on the Cook County website at www.

Once the recyclables come into the main facility, the staff processes each material individually to remove as much garbage and other contaminants as possible. The materials are then pressed into bales and transported to a centralized broker in Proctor, Minnesota, for re-distribution and further processing.

The initial processing is labor-and time-intensive; therefore, the facility operates during the early morning hours but is closed to the public. These morning hours provide the time needed to process the materials that have come into the facility, either directly or through the remote trailers, and make space for “new” drop-offs.

Balancing this need for processing time with public accessibility has always been a challenge. To provide greater convenience to the public, the recycling center’s drop-off hours were expanded a few years ago. The facility now opens to the public at 9:00 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday and stays open until 6:00 p.m. Thursday. Drop-offs are also accepted from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Saturday.

In the past, the program experienced ripples in the markets, such that we had to stop accepting green glass and sit on magazines until those markets rebounded. Currently, pretty much all U.S. recycling programs are facing serious challenges in marketing collected materials, which impacts the amount of redemption revenues generated. The largest challenge is that China, which had been a leading end market for recyclable materials, has decided to stop accepting recyclables from the U.S. This has generated a huge surplus domestically, which in turn reduces the value of the materials being collected.

As a result of this materials surplus, it has become increasingly important that the recyclables we do ship to market are as clean as they can be. Over the last few years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of foreign items mixed in with the recyclables we receive, both at the Grand Marais facility and at our remote trailer sites. One factor has a significant bearing on this issue: if you drive past one of our sites after-hours, you may have noticed the increasing piles of recyclable materials that are being left outside. These materials are oftentimes impacted by weather and/or mixed with garbage and must be cleaned up by county staff at the taxpayers’ expense. Any amount of trash or prohibited items mixed in with the recyclable material not only increases the amount of time and staff resources needed to clean up, but it also directly reduces the value of each load shipped.

Recycling continues to serve a dual purpose by reducing the amount of waste going to our landfills while also providing the opportunity to reuse materials. It is important that we all help maintain as clean a flow of recyclable materials as possible. To that end, please try to remove all waste from your items before you bring them in for recycling. If you have questions, you may contact the Solid Waste Office at 218-387-3630.

County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information 

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