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DECATUR – As a mother stands at the garbage can holding an empty milk container, she contemplates whether to throw it in the can or walk a few extra steps and toss it in the recycling bin. She knows the right thing to do, but questions if the plastic container will really be recycled or if it will end up in a landfill.

“We don't want to lose any recycling if we can help it,” said Todd Shumaker, director of sales and procurement for Midwest Fiber Inc.

The professionals who make recycling a business reassure customers their recycling is not garbage. Within 24 to 48 hours, most the material has been collected and separated.

“A couple of days after you've put it in your recycle bin, its already been sorted and shipped out,” Shumaker said.

In most communities, customers are able to discard all of their recycling materials into one container provided by their garbage hauler. Decatur began the process, called single-stream recycling, four years ago. This new way of recycling has benefited the garbage haulers as well as the customers.

But to customers, many questions, including how is cardboard separated from cans, remain.

The process begins after the haulers pick up the recycling. The trucks return to a central location with all of the materials in one truck. For Decatur residents, the material is collected at the Hubbard Street plant.

According to Ron Shumaker, the president of Midwest Fiber, the company will receive several trucks from different recycling haulers. “Then we load it in to a trailer and take it to (Normal),” he said.

The Normal plant is the only single-stream recycling facility in Central Illinois.

Before Decatur accepted single-stream recycling, haulers would travel to St. Louis or Chicago to unload the material.

When the semitruck arrives at the Normal facility, it unloads all of the material into a warehouse. The material needs to be dry for the separating machines to work properly. “This is where everything starts,” Todd Shumaker said. “The tip floor is where the material is tipped out of the trucks.”

All recycling material is shoveled into a metering bin with a backhoe. It then flows on to a conveyor belt where plastic bags are manually taken from the pile. “In single-stream recycling, one of the biggest contaminants is plastic grocery bags,” Todd Shumaker said. “Those bags can cause further contamination through the system.”

The Shumakers stress the importance of removing bags from single-stream recycling. “They contaminate the machinery,” Todd Shumaker said. “They can be recycled, just not in the single-stream recycle.”

The small group of employees also will be picking out larger items too big for the separators. “We get brake rotors, bicycles, computer parts, five-gallon kitty liter buckets, all kinds of stuff,” Ron Shumaker said.

The conveyor belt moves the material to the first separating machine. The first material to be separated is glass. Through the first set of holes, the shafts break the glass. “The intent is to break the glass and get it out of there as soon as possible, so people don't have to touch it,” Ron Shumaker said.

All other materials – plastic, metal, cans, newspapers – will fall through specially designed holes, while the cardboard glides along the top and is discarded into its own bin. “Cardboard is rigid. It will float over the top,” Todd Shumaker said. “Anything that is not, will fall through; newspapers, bottles, anything small in size.”

Throughout the process, the material is separated further by various conveyor belts, magnets, manual labor, optical sorters and other specially designed machines.

After all materials are separated, the facility prepares each for shipping to other businesses. Recycling materials are sold to companies around the world, including Illinois.

“The milk jugs, we sell them to a company in Aurora,” Todd Shumaker said. “They are going to make plastic lumber out of them.”

The colored plastic containers will be made into flexible pipe and plastic paint cans. The color of the plastic will determine where it is sold. “The material goes to areas that have the demand for it,” Shumaker said. “For example, China consumes the most cardboard.”

For this reason, recycling facilities need to provide a quality product. Bottles and cans need to be emptied of liquid and food. “Peanut butter jars are the worst,” Todd Shumaker said. “It needs to be wiped out if possible. Get as much out as you can.”

Those in the recycling business understand the process should be as simple as possible for the customers. The material does not need to be washed and labels don't need to be removed.

“We also ask that people leave their caps on the bottles,” Todd Shumaker said. “They are so small, we can't go grab every cap.”

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"Together Decatur" Columnist and Food and Drink Reporter

“Together Decatur” columnist and food and drink reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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