What actually happens to recycling at SDSU


Waste is a funny thing. We toss an item into the recycling bin, but don’t think about where it goes after it leaves our hands. However, when you think about it, there must be a process behind placing an item in recycling and turning it into a new product. And indeed there is. 

At South Dakota State, the process starts with a recyclable item being placed in a recycling bin. 

Next, facility workers empty the bins. As they do so, they look to see if the recycling bag contains any contaminants — another word for trash. If there aren’t any contaminants, the bag goes to the recycling dumpster. If there are, the bag goes to the trash.

Next, Brookings Dumpster Service empties the dumpsters. Upon arrival, they also look for contamination. If the bin has no contamination, they start emptying the dumpster into the truck. If there is minimal contamination, they try to hand pick it out before dumping. If the dumpster is highly contaminated, they won’t even empty the container. Instead, a trash truck hauls it to the landfill.

SDSU is then charged the trash fee as opposed to the recycling fee. As workers empty the dumpster into the truck, they continue to assess for contamination using the same process as above.

Once the recycling truck is full, Brookings Dumpster hauls the materials to Millennium Recycling Inc. in Sioux Falls. Here, through a series of steps and machines, the products are sorted by type. Rotating blades place cardboard and paper in separate piles. Then, a magnet removes any steel cans before sorting out aluminum cans by an eddy current (an electric current conducted by varying magnetic field). 

Finally, plastics are separated by type by an optical sorter. Last but not least, glass is collected throughout the process as it is crushed. Once all items are separated, they are compacted and baled before shipping off to various companies to be made into new products.

In this process, it’s important to note the ways any trash in the recycling affects the process. Its harm can include the environmental impact of a dumpster load going to the landfill, instead of being recycled, as well as the health impact of workers coming into contact with harmful items, such as medical needles and other forms of hazardous waste. In addition, it lowers the value of the materials sold to manufacturers.

As you can see, the recycling process starts with us. We can make a huge impact by just ensuring we only place recyclable materials into the recycling bins. 

During the waste audit conducted this fall, university staff found that around 40 percent of what is placed in the recycling bins is actually trash. Imagine if we could reduce that number.

This year will be SDSU’s seventh year partaking in RecycleMania, a nationwide recycling competition between universities that works to reduce waste and increase recycling.  

RecycleMania is a great time to start thinking about what you put in the recycling. Check out the in-depth recycling guide on SDSU’s sustainability website. The RecycleMania competition dates are Feb. 5 through April 1.


Jennifer McLaughlin is the sustainability specialist and can be reached at [email protected]