Two big waste haulers accept plastics numbered 3 through 7 in what's termed "a game changer."
Two heavyweights in the metro-area recycling industry have begun collecting new lines of plastics that will eliminate mountains of consumer waste from landfills.
In their biggest recycling initiative in years, Allied Waste Services and a regional competitor, Waste Management, now are accepting in curbside pickups the multitude of plastic products familiar to anyone who has ever bought groceries -- ketchup bottles, margarine tubs and laundry detergent containers, to name a few.
"We think it's a big deal. We think it's a game changer," said Rich Hirstein of Allied Waste. "It's just going to change the way that people perceive recycling."
At Waste Management, spokeswoman Julie Ketchum described the decision to collect plastics numbered 3 through 7 as a milestone for Minnesota's recycling industry. "I think you're going to have citizens more interested in recycling," she said. "It's been a bit stagnant. Recycling frankly needs a shot in the arm."
The staggering popularity of plastics in the United States -- billions of water bottles alone are manufactured each year -- has raised serious concerns about their environmental legacy because most plastic products are discarded after a single use and never recycled.
While plastic products have advantages over traditional glass containers, such as lower shipping costs because of reduced weight, they're also made from petroleum at a high energy cost. Some also take centuries to decompose.
Both Allied Waste and Waste Management now have found markets for all plastics numbered 3 through 7, shown in a recycling triangle printed on products. Until January, they had accepted only 1 and 2 plastics, such as water bottles and milk jugs.
Combined, the companies command most of the metro-area recycling market. Each serves dozens of cities through municipal contracts and competes with several smaller companies. Recyclables the two big companies sort and bundle at their Minneapolis plants are hauled to manufacturers in Minnesota and elsewhere that make products from recycled materials.
"Some of this can be made right back into what it was before," said Hirstein, shouting above the clatter of machinery in Allied Waste's processing plant in Minneapolis recently. "We sell it to local markets whenever possible."
Hirstein predicted that Allied Waste's processing plants will see huge increases in activity as more customers recycle plastics numbered 3 through 7.
"We're adding second shifts, third shifts, because the volume of material we're bringing in is extraordinary," said Hirstein, the company's area municipal services manager. "The yogurt cup and the margarine tubs are huge because those are things people use all the time."
Through city contracts, Allied Waste also has added 80,000 customers in the past few years and expects many will contribute to the recycling stream, he said.
Both Allied Waste and Waste Management plan to install infrared "optical sorters" at their Minneapolis plants that will read the resin types on various plastic products and sort them accordingly. The Allied Waste's second plant at Inver Grove Heights already has the new technology, Hirstein said.
On a recent Monday, workers at the Allied Waste plant in Minneapolis plucked at recyclables streaming past them on conveyer belts. Their arms churning like windmills, the workers pulled everything they could grab that machines had failed to sort. The plant has an optical sorter for 1 and 2 plastics but workers will sort 3 through 7 plastics by hand until new technology is installed.
Newer plastics will trickle into the plant until consumers realize how many types of products they now can save from landfills, said plant manager Scott Moening.
"It's going to be a learning curve to people to be recycling those," he said.
Ketchum predicted consumer awareness of 3-7 plastics recycling will gain considerable momentum by spring -- much as "single sort" recycling led to a 15 percent increase in volume from customers a few years ago. That change allowed consumers to drop all their recycling products into a single bin instead of sorting them into separate containers.
The plastics boom represents the next generation of recycling in Minnesota, giving consumers one more reason to carry used products to the curb, said Ketchum of Waste Management.
"Adding these recyclables is huge and well received," Hirstein said of the customer response at Allied Waste. "We're hoping to tip the scale and make people aware that this is an environmentally responsible thing to do."
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles