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Where your recycling goes when it leaves the curb

mr bag it
City of Columbia

This week, it's a story you might have heard before, but with the answers you never got: Where, exactly, does your recycling go when it leaves the curb? 

A plucky listener asked us to figure out what exactly happens to our recycling here in Columbia and if we could break it down resource by resource.

We are nothing, if not helpful, so without further ado, here’s how it works:
Your recycling gets picked up in a truck by city employees.  They take it to the Material Recovery Facility (MRF) located on the the city's landfill site northeast of town. There, your recycling gets separated, compacted and stored until there's enough of a certain type to sell to brokers or manufacturers.

It's true that the city won't recycle every kind of recyclable.  That's because buyers don't want mixed product. They'll only buy one type at a time (aluminum, steel cans, #1 plastics, etc.) and they only want it if there's a "truckload" available. One "truckload" is 40,000 pounds. Columbia's population is just over 100,000 people and only about 32% actually take advantage of roadside recycling. You don't have to do the math to realize that it takes a while to gather up enough of each resource. It takes a month to get a truckload of cardboard. Maybe three to get a truckload of plastics. If it takes much longer than that, the city won't recycle it and it'll go in the trash. Styrofoam and yogurt containers are examples of that. Also, the plastic bags you buy your groceries in won't be recycled, even if it has a little recycling sign on it.

When there's a truckload of material, the buyers will come. We asked Waste Minimization Supervisor, Layli Terril, who buys all the stuff. Buyers will not come regularly, and they often change, but here are some of the companies the city has dealt with in recent months:


  • TABB Packaging will purchase our #1 and #2 plastics. Examples of those are water bottles, milk jugs and detergent bottles. TABB is based in Plymoth, Michigan and they'll turn our bottles into "Post Consumer Resin"--little pellets of recycled plastics. Those pellets will be sold to other manufacturers to create thing like food-grade bottles.


  • This goes to a local company called Cellpak. They make the kind of insulation that you pump into attics and walls with a machine.

Cardboard and Office Paper

  • Marck Recycling is a company based right here in Cassville, MO. We emailed Rhonda Brattin over there who told us where the next step is. She said our paper will get shipped to a paper mill in Cascades in Memphis, Tennessee and our cardboard will go to Arkansas Kraft in Morrilton, AR. At these mills, the fiber products will get smashed into little bits by a giant pulping machine, then they'll add water and chemicals to the mix and flatten out the stuff into thin sheets of real paper. But the paper will eventually go to other plants where they'll be turned into things like boxes.


  • Novelis is based in Atlanta but they've got plants all over. They turn aluminum into these giant sheets of shiny metal rolled into coils. They look pretty cool. This stuff gets turned into cars, pop cans, and parts of electronics like cell phones and computers.
    stacked coils
    Credit Novelis
    Stacked coils of Aluminum from Novelis


  • Glass used to go to a company called Strategic Materials in St Louis. More recently the city's been dealing with a buyer called Ripple, from Kansas City. The glass they buy from us will get turned into Boulevard Beerbottles. Kansas City doesn't recycle glass in their curbside pickup, so that helps bring the business over here.

So there you have it: resource-by-resource. Listen to the program above or subscribe to us on iTunes to hear the rest of the story. We'll talk about this amazing jingle, Columbia's recycling mascot Mr. Bag-it, and just what in the world a Bio Reactor landfill is and why it's a game-changer for Columbia recycling.

A major h/t to Reddit user iendandubegin for suggesting this show idea! And major apologies for referring to you as a guy on the show! Ms. iendandubegin set me straight on Reddit and the mistake will not be made again.

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