Northeast Wisconsin
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • April 2015
Written by 

Recycle more, landfill less — How the Tri-County Recycling Facility is shaping the future of recycling

It’s a simple lesson we’ve all been taught: the more we recycle, the less we put into our landfills. But recycling’s benefit to our planet — and northeast Wisconsin — doesn’t stop there. By using your recycling bin more than your trash can, you’re helping save money, energy and even jobs.

A tale of three counties

What makes recycling in our area distinctive is a truly unique partnership of three counties: Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago. Fifteen years ago, the three counties all had their own individual recycling facilities and landfills. But in 2001, the leadership of the three solid waste departments questioned whether there was a better way to manage the area’s waste.

“It’s pretty rare to have that much infrastructure within a 60-mile radius,” explains Jennifer Semrau, recycling specialist for Winnebago County. The counties realized that they could operate one landfill at a time, with the other two counties transferring their waste to that landfill. This would save money by cutting down on resources, equipment and energy needed to run the two other landfills. The counties also increased the efficiency of their recycling process by combining efforts.

A powerful tri-county recycling team was born. Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago counties committed to a 25-year agreement to share landfill space and coordinate recycling efforts. The Tri-County Recycling Facility, located in Appleton, is owned by all three counties.

And improvements haven’t stopped there.

In 2008, the tri-county partners began to examine whether they could offer single-stream recycling. Single-stream recycling means individuals don’t need to separate their recyclables; instead, all items (paper, cans and bottles) go into one large bin.

“Because the three counties worked together, we were able to invest the necessary capital. The initial cost of the facility was nearly $10 million, so it’s very cost prohibitive for an individual county, but by putting our resources together we were able to renovate the existing Outagamie County recycling facility into the single-stream facility we have today,” Semrau says. “It is actually the largest municipally owned and operated recycling facility in the state of Wisconsin.”

Another aspect about the Tri-County Recycling Facility that might surprise you is that it’s not paid for by tax dollars.

“None of the three counties’ solid waste programs are on the tax levy,” explains Semrau. “They are all independent… and essentially operated as businesses.”

Chris Miller, Outagamie County Recycling Coordinator compares her county’s waste management services to the Outagamie County Regional Airport: “That is also an enterprise fund. No taxes go to fund the airport because they, like us, make their own money.”

So how does the Tri-County Recycling Facility make money? It all starts at the curb.

A surprising journey

When you toss your empty soup can into your recycling bin, your part in the recycling story may have come to an end — but your soup can is only beginning its adventure.

First, the contents of your recycling bin are picked up by a hauling truck. It’s a noisy, but short ride to the Tri-County Recycling Facility, where your soup can and its fellow recyclables are weighed and then dumped into a large room called the “tip floor.”

Next, the soup can travels along a conveyor belt. It’s ignored by the facility’s initial sorting staff, who focus on looking for undesirable materials like plastic bags that can jam the recycling equipment. The staff also removes overly large metal or plastic items that won’t fit through the facility’s equipment.

Once past the sorters, your soup can passes through a series of disc screens which separate the paper from containers. These screens are what make single-stream recycling possible.

“Because paper is flat and two-dimensional, it stays on top of the screen and the containers will fall in between the screens,” Miller explains. “When you take a cup of sand and gravel and you pour it onto a screen, the gravel will stay on top and the sand will fall through. Similarly, the paper will ride on top of the screen and the containers will fall through, get caught on a conveyor belt below and travel to the container line.”

After four disc screens, the paper and containers are fully separated and your soup can, along with empty plastic detergent bottles, soda cans and more travel on to yet another sorting area. There, the sorting staff focuses on just one type of material. One station will grab milk jugs and another, detergent bottles. Meanwhile, a computer eye called an optical sorter works to identify a particular type of plastic; any container with that plastic type is blown off the main conveyor belt by a quick blast of air. From there, it travels along another belt into a storage silo.

Aluminum bottles and cans are repelled off the belt by an eddy current, while a large magnet picks up your soup can, along with other steel-like containers such as coffee cans.

It’s not yet the end of the road for your little soup can. Now it’s ready to begin its new life as a recycled product, and it won’t have to travel too far to do so.

Recycling has a local impact

“All of the materials we collect here get sold to a third party for further recycling,” explains Mark Walter, Brown County Business Development Manager. “It’s a goal of ours to try to sell as locally as possible for the betterment of the Wisconsin and Midwest economy.”

The three counties sell most of the collected paper to local paper mills in Neenah, Menasha and Green Bay. Plastics are sold mostly to Michigan and Wisconsin facilities, while glass goes to a buyer in East Troy, near Milwaukee.

Your soup can will be purchased by a Midwest, family-owned scrap metal processor.

In addition to bettering the local economy, the Tri-County Recycling Facility’s efforts conserve energy (it takes less energy to use recycled material rather than virgin material in manufacturing), save natural resources (fewer trees and land are used to produce items we use in our everyday lives), and reduce landfill space (only 7 percent of the items received by the Tri-County facility are landfilled).

An eye on the future

If your recycling efforts are the star of the show, the Tri-County Recycling Facility and its staff are the supporting cast — and they’re always looking to improve the script.

Just last year, the counties invested another $2 million into the facility to modify it, adding additional equipment and sorting stations, all with the goal of accepting more packaging products, like milk and juice cartons and plastic deli, produce, bakery and dairy containers.

“In the past, plastic recycling was incredibly confusing. Of all the items people recycled, whether or not a particular plastic item was recyclable or not was the biggest question we received, hands down,” Semrau says. “With the investments that we made this past year, we’re able to now say you can recycle all plastic bottles and containers… don’t sweat the numbers, just put all your plastic bottles and containers in your recycling.”

The do’s and don’ts of recycling

Acceptable items:

  • Cartons (milk, juice, soup, wine, etc.)
  • Newspapers, magazines, junk mail and catalogs
  • Cardboard and paperboard packaging (food boxes, soda boxes, etc.)
  • Office, writing and school paper, envelopes
  • Phonebooks, softcover and hardcover books
  • Paper bags, toilet paper cores, paper egg cartons
  • Shredded paper (placed in a paper bag and stapled shut)
  • Plastic beverage and household bottles and jugs
  • Plastic dairy containers (yogurt, sour cream, margarine, cottage cheese, etc.)
  • Plastic produce, bakery and deli containers (berry, donut, potato salad, etc.)
  • Glass food and beverage bottles and jars (all colors)
  • Aluminum, steel, tin, bi-metal bottles and cans (including empty aerosol cans)

Unacceptable items:

Plastic bags — They get caught in the facility’s equipment and slow operations and sometimes even damage it! Instead, bring your bags to your local grocery or retail stores that accept them. The bags are recycled into plastic lumber.

Needles/sharps — These pose a safety and biohazard risk. Instead, take your needles and sharps to a specified collection site, like any local emergency room.


Recycling isn’t just good for the environment; it’s good for Wisconsin’s economy!

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