Your Village: What happens to materials recycled in Iowa City?

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An Iowa City recycling bin. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Where does the recycling go? —Roger, Iowa City, via Facebook

The short answer for Iowa City curbside recyclers is Davenport, and then into the wider world.

City trucks collect curbside recycling and, once full, take the material to ABC Disposal Systems, where it is compacted into bales and then transported to the Waste Commission of Scott County’s recycling facility in Davenport.

“We have a partnership with the Waste Commission of Scott County,” said Jane Wilch, recycling coordinator for Iowa City.

“The material is placed on conveyor belts for sorting,” Wilch explained. “There are magnets that help pull out the metals, and certain air pressure techniques that help blow out the lighter material, like plastics. There are also staff members working along the conveyor belts, sorting different types of materials by hand.”

“The goal at the facility is to get everything sorted by source — paper with paper, plastic with plastic, cardboard with cardboard and so on — and from there we find direct markets for those materials.”

For recyclable items that have to be taken to drop-off locations and can’t be put in the curbside bins — such as glass, scrap metal, electronics and small appliances — the city deals directly with companies that purchase such material. Glass, for example, is sold to Ripple Glass in Kansas City, Missouri.

Ripple Glass was founded in 2009 by KC’s Boulevard Brewing Company, because the folks at Boulevard were concerned about the lack of glass recycling options in the area. Ripple sorts the waste glass, sending green and clear glass to a company that converts it into fiberglass insulation. Amber-colored glass is sent to a company that melts it down and recasts it as the beer bottles Boulevard uses for its own brews.

The overall market for recyclable material regularly undergoes major changes. Two years ago, the U.S. exported a third of the material collected in recycling programs and half of that was purchased by Chinese firms. But in 2018, the Chinese government banned the import of “foreign garbage” as part of a plan to improve environmental conditions in the country, ending China’s decades-old status as the world’s leading importer of paper and plastic waste. That ban inspired Vietnam and Malaysia, both major markets for materials from recycling programs, to impose new restrictions on the import of plastic waste.

Those changes severely reduced the market for plastic waste, which led Iowa City to stop accepting plastic bags in its recycling program.

Of course, in addition to curbside recycling, Iowa City also has a curbside organic waste collection program.

“I know it can be a little strange to think of organic waste as a kind of recycling, but you are giving that material a new use,” Wilch said.

The curbside organic waste program collects yard waste — such as branches, lawn clippings and leaves — and food waste including pizza boxes, paper napkins, uncoated paper plates and cups, as well as any items that are certified as compostable. The material is delivered to the commercial composting facility at the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center.

It takes about a year for newly delivered organic waste to become a black soil compost.

“The beauty of the program is there is very little transportation involved, and it results in a local product,” Wilch said.

The final compost is sold to both companies and residents. Contractors buy it by the truckload for $20 a ton. People with more modest compost needs can get it by the bucketful at the East Side Recycling Center. According to Wilch, a sizable bucketload costs “a few dollars.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 256.