Turtles are not recyclable.
If you take nothing else away from this, please remember to keep living, breathing turtles out of your recycling bins. Because turtles are not recyclable — and neither are tons of other random nonsense that Twin Cities residents optimistically drag to the curb every week.
Christmas lights. License plates. Lawn chairs. Tires. Plastic bags. Straws. Sporks. Pots and pans. The black plastic tray from your microwave meal. Your misplaced wallet. None of this belongs in the recycling bin.
Miriam Holsinger, Eureka Recycling’s vice president for operations, pulled on a hard hat and safety goggles last week and walked briskly into the company’s Minneapolis materials-recovery facility.
Eureka offers tours to give the public a glimpse of mountains of paper, glass and plastic that won’t end up in a landfill — and smaller mountains of unrecyclables that will.
Visitors can watch backhoes shovel through piles of newly arrived recyclables; follow the cat’s cradle of conveyor belts that whisk materials off to get sorted; and watch as shredded wisps of plastic bags wrap around and around the machinery like a garrote.
Holsinger estimates Eureka workers spend six hours a day untangling plastic bags from the equipment.
This is where the turtle enters the story, jumbled in among the 400 tons of regional recyclables that come to Eureka every day to be sorted, squished and sent off to become tomorrow’s cereal boxes and beer bottles.
One day, a truck dumped its load of cans, bottles, cardboard and turtle, and a maze of conveyor belts began sorting the contents by weight and worth.
As a river of trash sped by, magnets, wind tunnels, lasers and sharp-eyed workers sorted things into their proper places — aluminum, glass, turtle …
Turtles, while not recyclable, are durable goods. This one survived the ride in the recycling truck and the slalom down the conveyor. A worker snagged it to safety before it got to the point on the line where some material gets crushed into cubes and the rest gets run through an industrial shredder.
Later, Holsinger reports, Eureka got a frantic call from a someone looking for a misplaced turtle.
If Minneapolis doesn’t erect a statue in honor of this turtle rescue, it’s only because then they’d have to erect statues to all the employees who’ve saved discarded kittens from the recycling, recovered watches and wedding rings, and opened at least one cardboard box to find a very agitated chicken inside.
The chicken was relocated to a Eureka employee’s backyard coop.
Since we can’t rely on Eureka’s line workers to save us from all our garbage recycling habits, Minnesota towns have launched Recycle Smart campaigns. The smartest thing we can do, they say, is to stop wish-cycling.
The recycling bin isn’t a magic portal to a world of zero waste.
Eureka can recycle objects only of a certain shape, weight, size and use. Not too bulky, not too lightweight. Not much bigger than a sheet of paper. Not much smaller than a fist.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m in a Goldilocks deal. Is it too large? Is it too small? It’s got to be just right,” Holsinger said.
Scrap metal is too big for the equipment and too dangerous to the workers who have to haul it off the line. Flimsy things, like plastic bags and shredded paper and drinking straws, get mixed in with other recyclables, reducing their usefulness.
It can get confusing, so Eureka built a free app that lets people look up objects before they toss them in the bin.
Yogurt container? Recycle away.
Black plastic? Sorry, the optical scanners on the machines can’t see or sort black plastic properly.
Kris Hageman, recycling programs manager for the city of St. Paul, estimates that real recyclables make up a full 90% of the stuff in the city recycling bins.
The last thing the city wants to do is discourage people from recycling, or give residents the impression that recycling is harder than calculus.
So every month, St. Paul public works breaks off a little piece of the wish-cycling problem and offers a friendly Recycle Smart reminder: Please don’t put kitchen knives in the recycling. No egg cartons. No wire hangers. No pots from the garden center. No garden hoses.
Turtles aren’t on the list, so one more reminder: Turtles aren’t recyclable either.
Your hometown public-works department has more information about what’s recyclable and what’s just wishful thinking. To tour Eureka and see its heroic turtle-rescuing workforce in action, go to eurekarecycling.org.