Like many business leaders, Kate Davenport and Lynn Hoffman sent home employees in March if their jobs could be done remotely, put strong physical distancing measures in place for others and reluctantly said goodbye to team-building potlucks. Then the co-presidents of Eureka Recycling in Minneapolis geared up for a major challenge: managing the inevitable surge in recycled material coming from homes and apartments now doubling as offices, day cares and retreats for returning college kids. The recycler processes 400 tons of material a day from across the Twin Cities. Here they talk trash, explain the benefits of their unusual nonprofit status and share a few unexpected COVID realities.
Q: When was the COVID-19 moment that signaled a big change for your business?
A: Honestly, our understanding of how things are changing is still evolving. I don't think anyone fully understands what the long-term impacts are going to look like, so we are doing our best to plan for as many scenarios as we can foresee, and working to stay nimble and resilient through it all.
Q: What's been the most dramatic change in day-to-day operations?
A: Recycling collection and sorting has always presented safety risks, so we have strong safety protocols already baked into the way our team runs Eureka. Whether it's hazards on the sorting line, or icy alleys, or a virus in the air, safety is always our top priority. Our staff in the sorting facility have always worn gloves, and gloves have always been available to our drivers. We've also increased mandatory hand washing and sanitizing, and temperature checks, and masks are now mandatory for everyone on-site.
Q: With everyone home in March, were you caught off guard by how much more recycling you processed?
A: We expected an increase in tons of recycling, but there have been interesting challenges that we didn't fully anticipate, such as more parked cars on streets and in alleys that our drivers need to navigate around since people aren't driving to work.
Q: In a typical month, how many tons of recycling might you process? Compare that, if you will, to April or May.
A: Overall, we saw a 60% decrease in "commercial" tons (from businesses and restaurants), which is picking up again, and as much as a 10% increase in residential tons as more people are home all day. But those numbers are shifting again as things reopen, and we expect it to continue to fluctuate as our economy responds to the pandemic.
Q: Not to be a voyeur, but is there a certain recycled item or two that seems to be popping up more?
A: We've seen a lot more aluminum cans with the bars being closed! Other recyclers report that they have seen more COVID-related items like masks and gloves, but thankfully we haven't seen that. Our community seems to understand those belong in the trash.
Q: Is your nonprofit status unusual?
A: There are really only three other nonprofit recyclers with zero waste missions in the country and we work closely with them as members of the Alliance of Mission-Based Recyclers. There used to be hundreds of community-based, grassroots nonprofit recyclers, which is where recycling was born, but there's been massive consolidation in the industry over the past few decades. Our model gives us flexibility to model the best that recycling can offer. We take the lessons we learn running our operations and use them to create education and advocate for policy changes that support a just transition to a waste-free future where people and the planet can thrive.
Q: What's your favorite recycling transformation?
A: We get most excited about innovations that generate less packaging by creating reusable or refillable options. Recycling more is good, but reducing our consumption and use of single-use packaging is so much better.
Q: What percentage of your collected material can't be recycled?
A: About 8.5% of the material we collect or that gets dropped off at our material recovery facility (MRF) has to leave as trash and goes to Hennepin Energy Recovery Center or a landfill. Most of that is material that isn't recyclable and is mistakenly put in the carts. So, 91.5% is sorted into about 13 categories and sold to be made into new products. All of our material stays in North America, 90% stays in the Midwest, and about 83% stays in Minnesota.
Q: What's the biggest mistake people make when recycling?
A: The most problematic materials for us are plastic bags, batteries — especially lithium, which are a terrible fire hazard in recycling facilities — and any metal that is not a can, things like frying pans, pieces of plumbing, etc., that damage MRF equipment. Also propane tanks are an issue both because they are a fire hazard and because they are metal but not a can. There are some drop-off locations for recycling plastic bags and batteries, but those cause huge problems in MRFs.
Q: Now that it looks like COVID will be with us for a while, what's the best way to recycle to really make a difference?
A: The most important thing is to be sure that you know what is accepted in your community. When in doubt, find out! It's different from program to program because of varying equipment in MRFs to sort and proximity to markets that will use the material to make something new. The best thing to do is to check your city's website for details. Communities that we serve can utilize our app (search app store for Eureka Recycling) to find out what's accepted and get updates.