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Eagle River's Great Green Machine

State of the art sorting technology has arrived in the Northwoods.  Eagle River Waste and Recycling has opened a new facility that sorts different types recyclables locally, instead of having to be shipped far away to places like Whitewater.  

The green and yellow painted machine looks kind of like a playground for recycling:   instead of kids going down slides, it’s flattened bottles and cans headed up and down on conveyor belts.

Jenni Raats is Accounts Manager for Eagle River Waste and Recycling.  She’s giving me a tour of the bells, whistles, clangs and crashes of the recycling sorter.  The first stage is something called pre-sort, where Sean Zimmerman is driving a front loader into a pile of mixed recycling the size of a house. After your recycling gets picked up on trash day, this is where it gets dropped off. 

“I load the recycling that comes in from the trucks. Then I put it in the metering bin. The metering drum breaks it up more.”

The recycling often arrives in compacted, even frozen chunks.  It needs to be broken up before it can be sorted properly, as Jenni Raats explains.

“Shawn picks it up and drops it. What happens is – a lot of things get flattened so much that the machine will think it’s paper, but it’s really a super flat milk jug. So a lot of times Shawn will just fluff and fluff and fluff.”

Once it’s thoroughly fluffed, the recycling gets deposited onto a conveyor belt.  Two workers keep an eye out for the stuff that isn’t going to work in the machine. 

"It’s their job to pick out the garbage, the big things, the bags, any ropes that come through. The weird things.”

And weird things there are.  Here at the Eagle River Waste and Recycling, employees are experts on what is and is not recyclable. Toasters? Yes.  Deer Carcass? No. 

Above one of the conveyor belts is what could be the beginnings of a museum: of nonrecyclable objects that have pulled out of the system.  A bouquet of plastic flowers sits next to a stuffed duck. 

“This is messy because it’s messy. It’s what it is.”

The floor is peppered with bits of glass and shredded paper, but aside from that things look clean and new.  This is clearly no trashy operation.   As the recycling travels through the machine, it gets progressively better sorted.   Blowers blow shredded paper into one area, and an eddy current picks out the aluminum.  Then we come to what could be considered the crown jewel of the operation: the optical sorter, or the Eye. 

“This will identify whatever we have it set at. And a puff of air will blow that particular item over instead of coming through here.”

The eye knows the difference between certain kinds of plastic, and uses a blower to sort out individual pieces. Once everything has been thoroughly sorted, the last stage of the process is the baler.  Here loose recycling gets crushed into a rectangle and tied up with wire.  Tim Crow is moving finished bales. 

“This is the last step of the process before I load the trucks up. The bales come out of the machine and I put em in different spots and categories. So when the trucks do show up, it’s easier to get em out quicker.

The bales get sold to different companies that re-use the old material.  Quality control is key, says Crow. 

“Just keeping the mills happy. If they’re happy, we’re happy. The cleaner the material is, the better material is for the mills and the future products that it’s made into.”

Those future products are what help create jobs, says Raats at the end of the tour.  She says if you take a water bottle and you throw it away, it has a pretty short life:  it gets hauled away and heads to a landfill. 

“If you take that same water bottle, and you recycle it, it benefits the hauling company, it benefits the people that are working on the sort line, it benefits the hauling company that hauls it away from there, it benefits the company that melts it down, and then it goes back into circulation again.”

That's good for jobs because despite all the mechanized technology, hand-sorters, loader operators and bale movers are still a key part of the operation.  The company has already hired 18 people to staff the new facility, with plans to add more shifts.  

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