It was 1 a.m. and I had yet to fall asleep.
After throwing my covers off in frustration, I headed into the kitchen. With groggy eyes and a head full of thoughts, I sat at the table, poured the remainder of our Raisin Bran cereal into a bowl and scarfed it down. Afterward, in an effort to be a functioning adult who cleans up after herself, I threw the cereal's plastic liner in the garbage and the cardboard box into the recycling.
But where do they go from there?
I've always wanted to know where my trash and recycling end up, so I decided to follow these two items — the liner and the box — through the process. What became of the box? Where did the liner go? And how did they get there?
The answers involved multiple companies in three states, all sorts of loud machinery and, in the case of the box, a potential trade war with China.
This is what happens to your cereal box when you're done with it.
Pick up and first stop
The cardboard box was the first to embark on its journey. On a bright Thursday morning, it got a moment of fresh air as the large blue recycling container opened and a member of Harter's Quick Clean Up dumped it into a truck. A La Crosse-based, family-owned business serving Winona, Fillmore, Houston and La Crosse counties, the company boasts "four generations of talking trash," owner Gary Harter said with a laugh.
After many more stops, the cereal box headed across town to Redbox on West Third Street — a division of Matejka Recycling — and was unloaded, only to be reloaded onto a semi truck a while later.
Then it took a scenic trip down the Mississippi River to La Crosse where it settled down for the night at the Green Circle Recycling's Material Recovery Facility, more commonly called a "merf," or MRF.
The plastic liner, on the other hand, had a shorter trip.
Just before 8 a.m. on a Monday morning, J & J Rubbish worker Mike Patzner drove up to the small red garbage container outside my house and his fellow co-worker dumped the contents into the back of the garbage truck. With the windows open and the breeze gliding through the cab, Patzer continued along his regular schedule of picking up 400 to 500 bins of trash that day. During the trip, the liner was crushed into the front of the truck by a hydraulic press — which, by the way, can smash up to 20 or 30 couches into just one load, Patzner said.
Passing backyard views of gardens, chickens and parked boats, the truck made its way to Miller Scrap, where Patzner drove onto a large scale to weigh the truck and then headed to a pavilion. With dust and dirt flying through the air, Patzner backed up to a mountain of garbage and jumped out of the truck to help unload. Pulling levers and pushing buttons, the truck grumbled and groaned as it pushed out the garbage from its belly. The sound of glass crashed on the floor, followed by an avalanche of bags and random items.
And there the plastic liner spent the night alongside a bicycle tire tube, a broken lamp, and a plethora of interesting smells.
'They can be recycled indefinitely'
The cardboard box at the recycling facility in La Crosse had a full day's activity before it got to rest again in what would be a 1,600-pound bale of paper — similar to a bale of hay.
To explain the process, Harter's Quick Clean Up project manager Matt Harter gave us a tour of the facility and breakdown of my cereal box's adventure.
A cheery man with a shaved face and calloused hands, Matt walked us past tall aisles of categorizes bales — smashed water bottles, milk and juice cartons, detergent jugs, even kids toys. We got to an unloading dock where my cereal box had been dumped in front of a mountain of recycled goods. Somewhere amid the colorful pile of Busch Light boxes, pill bottles, coffee creamer containers, Mountain Dew cans, newspapers and plastic liquor containers was my box.
For many of the items, this wasn't their first trip through a recycling facility.
"(Paper, plastic, and other recyclable goods) can constantly be made over and over," Matt said. "Same thing with tin cans. They can be recycled indefinitely."
Once in the pile, the materials are pushed toward a conveyor belt that grabs the items and carries them up to a sorting station. The items are then pushed through a machine called a metering drum which levels everything out so there’s a steady feed of materials rather than an uneven flow.
Then comes the noisy part. Shouting over the sound of crashing glass and falling items, Matt pointed to a rapidly bouncing machine called a ballistic separator, which shakes the materials. The glass falls through little holes, the heavy items fall off the slanted platform onto a different conveyor belt, and the paper and cardboard float to the top where they travel along a different path.
Since my cereal box had been unfolded and smashed down prior to going into the recycling, it likely made it onto the paper conveyor belt where it traveled by numerous people tasked with picking out anything that wasn’t supposed to be there — things they call contaminants. Then my box got separated into a pile called “mixed paper,” Matt said, which is different from brown cardboard boxes because it had a plastic glossy finish to advertise my yummy cereal.
Then comes the fun part — the making of the bale of mixed paper within a machine called a baler.
“(The paper) drops down into the bale chamber,” Matt explained. “Then there’s a ram in that baler that packs and pushes that paper forward against the previous bale and compacts it into a very dense bale. And then as it’s being pushed out of the baler, straps are wrapping around the bale. Once the bale is completely formed, needles go through and grab wire from the other side and twist them together and make straps to hold it in its compacted form.”
It reminded me of the Play-Doh toy that squished my pink Play-Doh into spaghetti noodles as a kid.
Matt nodded, then walked us over to a 12-foot tall stack of mixed paper bales about 30 feet away. I could see fragments of what the smashed together pieces used to be — newspaper print, a women's toiletry box and a small chunk of a Cheerios box.
As Matt walked away with our photo editor, I hung around the bale desperately searching for the glimpse of a Raisin Bran logo. No such luck.
Even if I did spot one, there's no way in telling if it was mine. Matt said recycling for his the facility has doubled in the past four years.
“People are recycling more,” Matt said enthusiastically, adding the company is excited to be part of the solution to the world’s garbage problem. “We’re glad to be doing something that’s productive, good for the economy, and good for the environment.”
Off to the landfill
After settling in for a night with its tossed-away companions, my plastic liner sitting in Winona’s Miller Scrap yard would again be uprooted from its resting place to be loaded onto a semi truck.
“Our material ends up in a lined landfill in Lake Mills, Iowa,” Miller Scrap owner Jerry Miller said.
What he meant is that the landfill is lined with material that stops the garbage from seeping into groundwater.
The landfill is a disposal facility owned by Waste Management — a company with more than 240 landfills and nearly 100 recycling facilities in the U.S.
Of those landfills, about 130 of them are specially designed to capture methane gas that’s released from organic materials — like food and wood — which is then converted to energy.
The Lake Mills facility is one of those landfills.
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“That’s considered renewable energy,” said Julie Ketchum, the company’s government affairs manager.
But unfortunately my plastic liner didn’t help the methane capturing process at all. Instead, it headed in on a truck and was taken to its final resting place among piles of garbage from Iowa southern Minnesota garbage, next to something a little more interesting.
“(The area) has been wildlife habitat certified,” Ketchum said. “They’ve added features to attract wildlife to the facility.”
There are pollinator gardens, bird feeders and other features, Ketchum said.
“The Boy Souts have been involved,” Ketchum said. “We’re very active in the community.”
And from the sounds of it, the company is very active in promoting recycling.
Although Waste Management has more landfills than recycling centers, Ketchum spent most of our interview emphasizing the need for more effort from the public in creating a cleaner recycling process by not bogging it down with items that aren’t actually recyclable, which in turn drives up the price of materials because of how much labor is involved.
“It’s important right now to recycle the right material,” she said. “We need to be very careful.”
The reason for being careful is in part due to new trade developments with China that have transpired in the last few months.
From my kitchen to the bathroom
From the MRF in La Crosse, the bale containing my cereal box traveled — or will travel — 200 miles to Green Bay, ending up at the Georgia Pacific Harmon Recycling facility.
“We’ll put it through our processing,” company trader Connie Tease said. “It’ll get dumped into a paper pulper, which breaks it down with water.”
The process washes away all the extra product, leaving only the paper fibers.
“We reclaim the fiber from that cereal box and we’ll use it for our consumer products,” Tease said. “It may end up as a brown toweling.”
That's what we use to dry our hands in public restrooms.
“Or it could be brown napkin,” she said. “Like a fast food napkin.”
Tease explained that nearly every piece of paper is able to be broken down and made into new paper again and again. Only when the fibers have become so small from being broken down so many times will it be washed out during the watering down process.
In our interview, Tease gave some good news and bad news.
The good news? “We are recycling more than we ever have,” she said.
The bad news? “We’re in a market right now that’s kinda tough because China stepped away,” she said. “Especially in the brown paper.”
Tease didn’t want to elaborate much further and instead directed me to an export specialist in the company who wasn’t available for comment.
But that’s where Ketchum came in to explain the situation. It all started last November, she said.
“China, beginning last November, started cracking down on what types of import materials they were getting (from the U.S.),” she said.
It was a move the company saw coming. A while before November, China started limited licenses for recyclable material imports.
“Then on March 1 all materials coming into China had to meet .5 percent contamination level,” she said.
'Recycle often, but recycle right'
What that means is the recyclable materials can’t be mixed with other materials. For example if the MRF in La Crosse tried to send a bale of mixed paper to China, it would have to make sure there was less than .5 percent of accidentally included materials like plastic. So say if I’d thrown my plastic liner into the recycling — like many mistakenly do — and then it got missed in the separating process and ended up in the mixed paper bale, it would be considered to be contaminating the bale.
Back at the La Crosse MRF, Matt had mentioned this new regulation and said it was a big concern because it’s very difficult to get contaminants down to .5 percent.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s really difficult,” Ketchum said. “It slows down that process and drives up the price.”
But then China changed its mind again.
“On May 1, China shut their borders completely until June 1,” she said. “Is it going to be just one month, or is it going to be longer? We’re waiting to hear it.”
Vietnam followed suit, shutting down its borders last week, Ketchum said.
Ketchum wouldn’t comment as to whether the move is due to trade friction with the U.S. after President Trump scheduled to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on China in March. All she would say was for me to look at the timeline for myself and draw my own conclusions.
“It’s kinda clear,” is all she’d say.
The end result is the U.S. and domestic markets are being flooded with recyclable goods — like my brown cereal box tissue paper.
“We don’t have global markets,” she said. “Sometimes we, the recycling facility, are having to pay to get rid of the recycling material.”
Between the oversupply and the fact that companies are having to put effort to dig out the nonrecyclable materials, the situation has turned into a bit of a, ahem, garbage shoot.
“We’re getting hit from all angles,” she said. “It is really important for us to get that message out there to recycle often, but recycle right.”
Because in the end, the power is with the people to clean up the process and drive down the cost so the industry can sustain itself better, she said.
“We really need to be working together in partnership to make sure we’re getting a clean recycling stream,” she said. “But the only way we can do that is to make sure what’s going into the bin is the right stuff.”