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Taking a trip through the Rapid City recycling center and reconsidering my choices in NA beer

The city’s Regional Recovery and Landfill Facility is on the southeast edge of Rapid City
Kevin Woster
The city’s Regional Recovery and Landfill Facility is on the southeast edge of Rapid City

Lucas Hartshorn and Ria Hannon prior to my tour at the recycling center
Kevin Woster
Lucas Hartshorn and Ria Hannon prior to my tour at the recycling center
Lucas Hartshorn oversees the tipping floor at the Rapid City Regional Recovery and Landfill Facility
Kevin Woster
Lucas Hartshorn oversees the tipping floor at the Rapid City Regional Recovery and Landfill Facility

The best news I got during my tour of the Rapid City Materials Recovery and Landfill Facility was about aluminum.

It’s the king of recycling.

“Oh, we love aluminum. You can actually recycle it forever,” said Ria Hannon, solid waste education and outreach coordinator for the city. “If you recycle it today, it’ll be back on the shelf in another aluminum can in like 60 to 90 days. So it’s very, very fast. And it never loses the quality.”

Which is really good news for those worried looking for ways to live more sustainably in a world of finite resources and limited landfill space. It’s also a world of recycling opportunities, constraints and complexities, depending on what you want to recycle and where you happen to live.

That’s why I sent an email to Darrell Shoemaker, communications coordinator for the city of Rapid City, asking who could answer some questions about the recycling process in our town. Darrell referred me on to Hannon. And a couple of weeks later — it takes me a while these days of semi-retirement to follow up — I was strolling through the city recycling center with her and Lucas Hartshorn, materials recovery facility supervisor.

Between the two of them, they know just about everything I needed to know about what we throw away in the dark gray garbage bins and, especially, in the blue recycling bins that stand side by side along the curb each week waiting for city crews to pick them up.

Those bins themselves eventually get recycled, by the way, when they start to fall apart and need to be replaced. And near the end of our tour of the city facility I saw a large “bale” of compacted city garbage and recycling bins.

“We recycle all of the broken garbage and recycling bins that we go through,” Hannon said. “That is colored No. 2 plastic.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself, and the tour. Our first stop at the facility was a sort of control room with windows overlooking a large indoor work area with big entrance doors. It’s called the tipping floor, which makes sense since that’s where trucks full of materials meant to be recycled unload.

Somebody seriously thought that could be recycled?

There a worker in a big front-end loader was separating as much as possible the most obvious materials that can’t be recycled and feeding the rest into the conveyor system

Most of the materials are from curbside bins and remote collection sites around town. But the city landfill also takes recyclables from other sources in the Black Hills region, including national parks and Sundance, Wyo.

The tipping floor is a place of many objects of many sizes and shapes, color and materials. It’s where the process of sorting the cast-offs of our society begins.

Some city residents seem to have an odd and not-well-informed idea of what can be recycled.

“What you’re seeing out there, with those piles and all that material spread out, he’s picking up the unwanted stuff, like maybe a vacuum cleaner or garden hose, sharp pieces of metal, Christmas lights, stuff like that,” Hartshorn said.

It’s stuff that can’t be recycled but could clog up the recycling machines.

“And camping chairs,” Hannon adds. “We’re been seeing a lot of them lately.”

Let’s stop here for an important recycling tip: no lawn chairs, no garden hoses and, for heaven’s sake, no old vacuum cleaners.

But it gets worse at the first station along the conveyor belt, where human beings enter the process, with gloved hands on.

“I would say that the most common contamination item we pull off in the first pod is dirty diapers,” Hannon said. “That’s a tough one.”

May I stop here and say: “Come on, people. Dirty diapers? In the recycling bins? Yuk!”

Workers at the first pod of the conveyor belt remove trash from recyclables
Kevin Woster
Workers at the first pod of the conveyor belt remove trash from recyclables

Considering of plastics and far-away markets

But the dirty diapers aren’t nearly as big of a deal to me as they are to the people who work on the first pod. Gloved up and wearing hard hats, two men were doing the dirty work while we watched — deftly nabbing things that should not be on the belt and throwing them in trash bins below.

Workers at the second pod on the conveyor grab different kinds of recyclable plastic and drop them in bins below
Kevin Woster
Workers at the second pod on the conveyor grab different kinds of recyclable plastic and drop them in bins below

“They’re pulling off all the garbage from the belt,” Hannon said. “They are pulling off all the plastic bags that were holding the recyclables and anything else that has been placed inside of the recycling bin that isn’t supposed to be there.

Including things like, well, you know, we’ve already talked about those things.

But outside of ridiculously unsuitable items that are placed in recycling bins, there are legitimate questions about what is and what isn’t recyclable. It’s not always easy to know.

Rapid City offers help on its “What Can I Recycle” webpage at

There you’ll be informed that you can put glass, aluminum, steel and plastic bottles No. 1-7 in your recycling bins.

But that’s just a start. Because while you can put plastic bottles 1 through 7 in your recycling bins, only 1s and 2s can be recycled through the Rapid City program. And even then, they’re not recycled here in town, or anywhere nearby.

“Essentially, there’s nothing local that we can send them to,” Hannon said.

The recyclable plastics are sorted and crunched into large “bales” weighing 1,300 pounds or so. And recycling businesses from other states come pick them up.

“They go to like KW Plastics or Evergreen Plastics over in Minnesota or Iowa, or Ohio,” Hartshorn said. “They’re got their mills. Where they go depends on which plant needs it. They go to truck and trailers, 53-foot trailers.”

And when there’s glass, an even bigger challenge

Rapid City’s location on the edge of the beautiful Black Hills is delightful for tourism and for our quality of life, but it’s not so great for recycling options. When you get past Nos. 1 and 2 in plastics, 3 through 7 cannot be recycled through the city. The markets are just too limited, too far away and too expansive in transportation costs.

So the 3 through 7 materials end up in the landfill.

Sioux Falls has better options, because of its location near the Iowa and Minnesota borders, on two interstates and closer to population centers and recycling plants in other states.

“They’re closer, so they can get rid of their plastics for recycling a lot easier than us,” Hartshorn said.

Rapid City faces geographic challenges on the recycling of glass bottles and jars, too. There’s a recycling market for them elsewhere, but not here, and not anywhere near. Once again, location, location, location matters. Glass is heavier than plastic and more complicated to handle and ship.

So while the glass bottles and jars that end up in the recycling bin go through the city recycling center, they aren’t actually recycled in the traditional sense. And they aren’t shipped anywhere.

“We do have (geographic) limitations. And, of course. there’s always shipping costs. That’s a big reason why we don’t recycle glass,” Hannon said. “The cost of shipping a semi load full of glass is just crazy. So we are pretty far away from a lot of resources.”

The city does, however, find a use for the glass, out in the landfill, where it is used as something called alternative daily cover.

“At the end of each day, we have to cover what’s up on the landfill with materials that helps keep things from blowing away. It keeps out the animals, that kind of thing,” Hannon said. “Then once a week we cover it with dirt.

“So with the glass, we use that as an alternative cover to weigh down the materials. So, yes, it’s going into the landfill. But it does have a use.”

That use has value, no question. And I’m glad they have it. But it’s not like uses that are found for glass bottles and jars in some cities, the ones with or closer to recycling centers. Which is too bad, because most glass jars and bottles can be recycled, again and again.

Depending on their type and condition, some are used to make new glass bottles, or fiberglass. Lower quality glass might be used for tile, paving materials or certain composite countertops. There are no recycling options for other types of glass, such as broken windows or ceramics.

But what about my favorite NA beers?

Maybe someday Rapid City will reach those recycling markets for glass, or the markets will reach us. For now, the city does what it can to make the glass useful.

The glass discussion got me thinking, by the way, about the glass bottles I buy most frequently: the ones that hold non-alcoholic beer. I’m a big NA guy. My favorites are St. Pauli NA, Corona NA and Stella Artois NA.

At this point, those beverages come only in glass bottles. No aluminum cans. And a cold brew just tastes better out of a bottle than it does out of a can. To me, at least.

I brought that up to Ria.

“So I like my NA beer in glass bottles. And some of the brands I prefer only come in glass bottles, I said. “But I should be buying aluminum cans instead?”

She paused, smiled slightly and said: “That’s the most sustainable way to go, is the aluminum.”


There aren’t any canned NA beers that I like as well as those big three. But Heineken 0.0, which comes in both bottles and cans, comes pretty close. There are some fun craft NA beers in cans. And there’s an order-by mail NA called Atmosphere that’s pretty good, too, and in cans.

I guess I’ll have to buy more of the canned NA and cut back on the bottled NA.

But enough of my NA habit. Back to Hannon and Hartshorn and my tour of the recycling center at the Rapid City landfill on the southeast edge of town. Even indoors, it’s an earthy, gritty place, with the musty smell of refuse in the air.

Lucas Hartshorn and Ria Hannon walk around compacted bales of recyclable materials outside the facility
Kevin Woster
Lucas Hartshorn and Ria Hannon walk around compacted bales of recyclable materials outside the facility
A bin full of recyclable plastic bottles
Kevin Woster
A bin full of recyclable plastic bottles
A bale of compacted city garbage and recycling bins
Kevin Woster
A bale of compacted city garbage and recycling bins

Still a throw-away society, with lots of work to do on recycling

Which is, of course, the smell of civilization. We buy. We use. We discard. And sometimes we recycle. The more we reuse and recycle and the less we discard the better our city and state and nation and world will be.

During the tour, I got the news I expected on plastics. It’s a tough market, especially here in Rapid City but across the nation in general. Most plastic we buy — and we buy too much — isn’t recycled anywhere. Most of it ends up in landfills or, worse, scattered across the landscape and drifting about in lakes, rivers and oceans.

They are unsightly and unhealthy pollutants, these tossed-away plastics. And in the lakes and oceans, micro-plastics — tiny bits of plastic the size of a pencil eraser or much smaller — enter the food chain in harmful ways.

The U.S. is a relatively small — 4 or 5 percent — contributor to plastic pollution in the ocean, compared to the 80-plus percent from Asia, primarily the Philippines, Malaysia and India. But our part still matters to the ocean health.

It matters even more, of course, to the health of our own lakes, rivers and streams, where our careless handling of plastics has been doing damage for generations.

So, we should recycle as much as we can and promote the development of more and better recycling options. As much as possible, we should also limit our purchases of plastic, which can take hundreds of years or more to break down.

Plastics are amazing. They’re also a problem, one that endures and one that Rapid City is dealing with at its recycling center every day. They’re doing what they can out there, given the limits they face in geography, shipping and available markets.

I had a skeptic here in Rapid City tell me that he thinks a lot of the plastic that is sent off to be recycled centers actually ends up going into landfills elsewhere, or to the ocean. Hartshorn and Hannon said they could assure me that nothing I put in my blue recycling bin will end up in the ocean.

The plastics that can’t be sold go into the landfill here.. The plastics that can be sold are recycled, Hartshorn said.

“The market for 1s and 2s, that’s a recycling market that’s always going to be around. That No. 1 market, that’s your pop bottles and water bottles, all that kind of plastics, when that material leaves our facility it goes to their facilities to be rendered down into more recycled materials, and that becomes your fleece and carpets and other materials.

“That No. 2 plastic, can be turned back into plastic bottles,” he said. “Your natural No. 2s, with no dyes or colorings, that can be made into that same product a couple of times.”

First, though, it has to be sorted and compacted and held for shipment.

Lids, labels no problem, but make sure it’s empty

And you get an idea of the task standing alongside the conveyor belt as it carries a mixture of plastic, glass, aluminum and steel cans toward the next pod of workers standing on either side of the belt.

“These guys are separating the different types of plastics. Two guys are pulling off plastic No 1's — water bottles, soda bottles, etc — and another guy is pulling off cloudy milk jugs and the fourth guy is pulling off colored No. 2 plastics.” Hannon said. “And they’re dropping them into the cages that are below. Once a cage fills up, it’s taken over to the bailing room. They dump it in there and it pops out in bales.”

So there’s plenty of hands-on work along the line. To a casual observer standing next to the conveyor belt, it looks confusing and fast paced. But Hartshorn said that after a couple of months, the workers get so they can quickly recognize what they want to remove as it comes at them on the belt, then remove it.

Breaks are essential, however. And if needed, the speed of the belt can be varied.

And the machinery does its share of the work efficiently, too. It can sense plastic bottles containing liquids and remove them from the line. Only the empty containers can be recycled.

“It’s got to be empty. That’s the only thing we really care about,” Hannon said. “If you want to take the labels out, if you want to rise it out and if you want to leave the lids on, that’s OK. We just care that it’s empty. That’s all we want.”

The machines and the line workers will do the rest.

Another automated function of the machinery is using a magnet to pull off and collect the steel cans, while the aluminum cans — which magnets don’t attract — keep moving.

“We recycle the steel cans,” Hannon said. “There’s a decent market there. We sell quite a bit of that.”

And they are steel cans, by the way, not tin cans, although old-timers like me still slip up and call them tin cans. But steel had pretty much replaced tin for cans by the second half of the 20th century.

The recycling center only accepts steel cans in the curbside bins. But steel in other forms will be accepted if you bring it to the landfill.

“We will get items like fencing, appliances, filing cabinets, bicycles, white goods — washing machines and dryers — brake rotors, and many other items,” Hannon said.

No refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners or other appliances containing freon will be accepted. Those can go to Pacific Steel & Recycling near the landfill, which will take the appliances for a fee.

The suitable steel materials handled by the city go to a processor in Colorado and sometimes in Sioux City, Iowa. It’s good stuff, that steel, with a long recycling life.

“You can recycle it continuously without degradation to its properties no matter what form it takes,” Hannon said.

So, if steel doesn’t quite take the king’s throne from aluminum, it’s definitely a member of the royal recycling family.

Now, if we can only figure out a way to get an upgrade for glass, I can feel better about drinking my favorite NA beers, in bottles.

Meanwhile, there are those other brands, and their aluminum containers.

They taste pretty good, too, especially when you know the cans will be recycled.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.