Mitzi Brunsvold spends her days talking to local residents from grade school children to senior citizens about how to reduce waste.
The Education Coordinator at the Landfill of North Iowa is working to clear up misconceptions about recycling and educate people to be smart consumers.
Although most communities and businesses have recycling programs, recent changes in markets for the material are resulting in more of it ending up in landfills across the country, she said.
“People would throw everything in a bin – like pizza boxes, pieces of plastic – and think ‘it’s cardboard, it’s plastic, so it’s recyclable,’” Brunsvold said.
Recycling centers end up having to sort the non-recyclables out of the loads brought in for processing, and Brunsvold said it costs a lot of money to put people on the floor to get all that stuff sorted.
"It’s not economical to sort out trash," she said. "Plastic bags get caught in machinery all the time.”
Brunsvold said baled material gets brokered to companies to be processed for other uses. She said the majority of stuff was shipped to China and that there was a lot of garbage mixed in there, so China basically said "we’re done taking your trash."
Strict environmental initiatives now have been implemented, resulting in tougher standards about what residents should be throwing in their recycling bins.
Brunsvold said that now the message is "if in doubt, throw it out.’
Adding to the confusion are the many players in the recycling process. Brunsvold said cities in North Iowa either contract with haulers to pick up recycling and trash or have their own sanitation department.
For instance, Clear Lake and Ventura hire Absolute Waste Management of Clear Lake, which take recycling to Jendro Sanitation in Charles City for sorting, according to Brunsvold. She said recycling picked up by Waste Management, another area hauler, goes to Minnesota for processing.
Mason City has its own sanitation department.
The Landfill of North Iowa does not pick up or process recycling, but people in its service area can drop off a wide variety of material at no charge to reduce waste piling up in the landfill.
“We take mixed paper, mixed plastics, aluminum and tin, and cardboard," Brunsvold said. Then we take it to Mason City Recycling.”
Some recycling haulers want the various types of materials separated, while others take it mixed. Distinctions are not always clear.
“I’ve read that plastic containers marked numbers one through seven are recyclable, but some say the containers have to have a neck – but why? It depends on how they’re doing it or what they’re looking for to market their goods," she said. "My feeling is when you have to spend a lot of time doing it, people aren’t going to do it. Make it convenient and people will do it.”
She advises homeowners to check with their community to find out what is being done with residential recycling, what goes in the bin and what doesn’t.
“What we need to emphasize is to reduce that contamination," she said. "The ‘wishful recycling’ is what has caused the current situation we’re in.”
Brunsvold said another misconception about recycling is that it’s a free service. It’s not.
"You pay to have it picked up," she said. "Now there is nowhere to take it or centers are saying it will cost you X amount of money to take it there. Cities don’t want to pay or charge their residents more. So it’s cheaper for them to landfill it.”
She said it’s unfortunate that after so much work to get people to recycle, the system is strugglng. She said the goal is for people to continue to recycle and wait for it to be worked out. But some communities have had to stop because it’s too expensive. It always has been difficult, she said, but now it’s just gotten a lot more difficult.
Brunsvold said it would cost millions to build a modern plant to process recycling efficiently.
“Some very environmental cities are having to landfill their recycling," she said. "When there’s no market for it, eventually it’s got to go somewhere, and it’s probably happening more than you realize.”
Finding ways to use recycled materials hasn’t completely caught on. She said sometimes it’s cheaper for companies to use raw materials to make things than to use recycled.
"You may see paper that says ‘Made with 50% recycled material.’ But some plastic can’t be recycled very many times, while metal can be recycled over and over,” she said.
Solutions aren’t readily apparent. Brunsvold said it would be nice to get all the local players to the table and figure out consistent messaging that benefits all of us so recycling centers are not getting contamination and keeping it out of the landfill.
Brunsvold has a biology degree with chemistry minor from the University of Northern Iowa.
“I didn’t plan on getting into solid waste,” she joked.
Initially, she worked in biotech in Coralville, then moved to San Diego and helped start a facility for the same biotech firm. Later, she brokered hazardous waste.
Originally from this area, Brunsvold moved back here and has been Education Coordinator at the Landfill of North Iowa for the past five years.
Brunsvold serves on the Iowa Recycling Association Board of Directors and is involved in numerous local initiatives working for environmentally-sound practices, such as Earth Day events.
She pointed out the biggest thing people can do is put more emphasis on the first two words in the adage, “Reduce-Reuse-Recycle.”
“The final option should be Recycle," she said. "If you don’t create it in the first place, then we don’t have to figure out what to do with it.
Recycling is a way to feel good about consumerism, but it’s not how we should be thinking, Brunsvold said.
“We Americans are a very consumer-oriented society," she said. "Everybody wants the newest, biggest, best. All of that comes in packaging, and there’s waste when we get rid of something that still works.
“I see a lot of positive things going on. Each person can make a difference by just a little bit they can do."