Injuries down, recycling up in Mpls. under new single-sort program

  • Article by: EMMA NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2014 - 6:17 AM

The single-sort system is easier on workers but has room for improvement.

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The single-sort recycling system in Minneapolis will have its one-year anniversary this summer. So far, city data show that recycling worker injuries have dropped since the system started, saving the city about $250,000 so far this year. Last winter, a dozen workers were injured on the job, compared with one so far this year.

Photo: Photos by Richard Sennott • richard.sennott@startribune.com,

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Marge Mollers heaved recycling bins out of knee-deep mounds of snow early Thursday morning, her breath freezing in the subzero air and a layer of frost blanketing her hair.

The job of a Minneapolis recycling worker is especially tough in this Minnesota winter, but it’s a far cry from previous years under the multi-sort system of hauling several bins of glass and other recycling to the truck, then dumping them into different compartments.

Under the new single-sort system, fewer workers are being injured lifting bins, falling or getting cut by glass, recycling is up and the city is saving money.

“It’s been a great success,” said Dave Herberholz, the city’s director of solid waste.

Last winter, a dozen recycling workers were injured on the job, compared with just one so far this season. The city has saved more than $250,000 on workers’ compensation since implementing the system, and workers say their jobs are easier and safer — though employees agree there are still improvements to be made.

“We’re probably not where we’d like to be at,” general foreman Sheldon Swensen said at an employee safety meeting Thursday, though he said he thinks they’re moving in the right direction.

The program had a long rollout, with the new bins first distributed in November 2012 and all of them in place by July 2013.

Under the new system, workers roll a single cart back to the truck and hook it up to a mechanized arm that dumps out its contents.

That’s been a huge improvement from the multi-sort system where workers “had their hands full” carrying bags from curbsides and alleys back to the truck, Herberholz said. Slips and strains — and the resulting knee and shoulder injuries — were common.

They carried the bags to the truck, which had an attached trailer and compartments for each item, and dumped them in by hand.

The truck had space on top for cardboard, making that part of the job one of the most difficult and dangerous. Workers had to toss the cardboard up about 9 feet to the roof, then climb a ladder on the side of the truck and secure the load with a tarp.

“For us short folks, that was a drag,” said Mollers, 53, who’s been in her job since 1997. One man was injured falling off a truck when a rope snapped as he was attaching the tarp.

With multi-sort recycling, the truck’s glass bins filled up quickly, so workers broke bottles to make more space.

Cliff Johnson, 53, said he once broke a champagne bottle and a piece of glass flew back and landed in his arm.

“Now you don’t have to worry about any of that stuff,” he said.

Volume is up

City data on single-sort recycling, from the number of worker injuries to the total recycling rate, won’t be complete until this summer.

  • related content

  • City data show that recycling has increased in Minneapolis since the single-sort system started, to 23.3 percent in 2013, up from 17.4 percent in 2012.

  • Jon Mollers, who has been working in recycling for 27 years , wears a high-visibility jacket and earplugs. Eye goggles are optional, and workers are encouraged to wear ice cleats when warranted.

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