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Greater capacity, greater good Recycling up 10 percent

Recycling is on the increase in Becker County.

In 2010, county residents recycled more than 9,000 tons of various commodities, from paper, plastic and cardboard to metal, glass and electronic, to florescent bulbs, paint and batteries, among other items.

Last year, those numbers grew by nearly 10 percent, and the county is expecting more growth this year, said Sandy Gunderson, recycling coordinator for Becker County.

That's partly due to the greater capacity offered by the large blue metal recycling bins that have replaced recycling sheds across Becker County.

The recycling sheds could hold 7 cubic yards of recyclables. The blue metal bins have 40-50 cubic yards of capacity.

And the increase is also partly due to the county accepting more types of recyclables.

Until the past few months, the county only accepted No. 1 and No. 2 plastics -- pop bottles are made from No. 1 plastic, milk jugs from No. 2 (you can see the numbers stamped on the bottom of plastic containers.)

But now the county also accepts plastics with numbers 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

"We didn't used to have markets for it -- now we do," Gunderson said.

No. 3 plastics (vinyl or PVC) are found in window cleaner and detergent bottles, clear food packaging, siding, windows and piping.

No. 4 plastics (low density polyethylene) are found in squeezable bottles and frozen food containers.

No. 5 (polypropylene) is found in some yogurt containers, syrup bottles, ketchup bottles, caps, straws and medicine bottles.

No. 6 (polystyrene) is found in disposable plates and cups, meat trays, egg cartons, carry-out containers, aspirin bottles and compact disc cases.

No. 7 plastics (miscellaneous) include 3- and 5-gallon water jugs, sunglasses, DVDs, iPods and computer cases, signs and displays and some food containers.

These items can be put into the big blue bins located at 43 sites throughout Becker County.

There are a few things that cannot go into the big blue bins -- plastic bags, plastic film/wrap, Styrofoam, motor oil bottles and pesticide containers.

Don't recycle plastic carry-out containers until they're clean -- one container with food can contaminate an entire bale of plastics, causing thousands of recyclables to go to a landfill instead of being recycled.

Also new at the Becker County Courthouse is a secure pharmaceutical receptacle, so you can recycle unused prescription medication.

Just go to the lobby window at the sheriff's department and let the dispatcher know you have something to drop off. The drop box will accept unneeded over-the-counter medications, prescriptions and narcotic drugs.

Gunderson also wants to make rural residents aware of the dangers of using burn barrels to dispose of household garbage. Burning trash in the backyard -- whether done in a traditional burn barrel, wood stove or at the cabin -- is far more harmful to people's health, and the environment, than previously thought.

That's because today's garbage contains some types of paper, plastics and other packaging waste that when burned release a hazardous mix of carcinogens and other toxics, such as lead, mercury and arsenic.

Backyard garbage burning increases the health risk to those directly exposed to the smoke, but it goes beyond that, by spreading dioxin into the food supply.

Dioxin is a potent human carcinogen and endocrine disrupter and it can have significant impacts on human immune, developmental and reproductive systems. It is especially harmful to children, pregnant women and the elderly.

Minnesota health officials are especially concerned about dioxin, since a recent survey shows that 45 percent of rural residents still burn their garbage.

Because burn barrels are more common in the rural, agricultural areas of the state, officials are worried about high levels of dioxin settling on crops and in streams and lakes -- and eventually winding up in the food supply.

Burning garbage produces dioxin that ends up on plants that are then eaten by animals -- and is then absorbed by humans when they eat meat and dairy products.

In fact, 90 percent of human dioxin uptake comes from meat and dairy consumption.

While dioxin levels in humans have dropped from 55 parts per trillion in the 1980s to 25 ppt in the 1990s, health effects are detected at levels below 1 ppt.

In the future, Environmental Services Director Steve Skoog said the county hopes to have a larger facility for processing recyclables.

Unfortunately a $2 million earmark in the Minnesota House bonding bill for the project has been stripped out along with other local projects across the state, he said.

The county would like to start recycling the plastic wrap used for hay bailing and other agricultural uses, but lacks the space in the small building that now serves as its recycling processing center, right at the entrance to the transfer station.

"We just don't have the facilities to handle increased production," he said.