Batteries keep appearing in Rumpke's Columbus recycling facility.

And they cause fires -- seven thus far in 2018, according to James Horrox, regional recycling manager for Rumpke.

>> Scroll down to take a quiz on what's acceptable in Rumpke's recycling bins for curbside pickup <<

In a building with a wooden roof, he said, "we're constantly on the lookout for fire."

Improper recycling practices can have consequences.

The items people choose to discard in their recycling bins affect Rumpke's ability to safely, efficiently and economically process and sell recycled materials, according to company officials.

Battery fires are just one example, albeit a dramatic one.

Horrox said batteries in discarded cellphones frequently are crushed when a delivery truck uses a tipping mechanism to unload recycled materials at the material-recovery facility, often referred to by its acronym, MRF.

Those batteries could spark or leak chemicals and come into contact with recycled paper, he said.

Lithium ion batteries, power tools and laptop batteries also cause fires, Horrox said.

Though employees sometimes can catch a battery smoldering and extinguish it, other times they have to evacuate the plant to find the exact source of the fire, he said.

"That can cause an awful lot of damage," he said.

Safety is Rumpke's first priority, Horrox said, but the fires can cause monetary loss, as well. Evacuating the plant for a fire typically means it is shut down for about 15 minutes, which equates to a loss of about $1,000, he said.

Polluting the recycling stream can be hazardous to team members and equipment and it can cross-contaminate recycled materials, said Rumpke spokeswoman Gayane Makaryan.

To better remove contaminants -- items that aren't supposed to be recycled -- the Columbus plant has slowed its speed by 20 percent and hired more employees, Makaryan said.

Rumpke's Columbus MRF has nearly 100 employees, with 45 to 50 employees scheduled on two shifts, Horrox said.

Over the summer, the MRF added seven to 10 employees to account for new standards regarding fiber quality.

China, which typically received 75 percent of all recycled paper processed in the U.S., announced in early 2018 it no longer would accept scrap paper, Horrox said.

Although Rumpke doesn't sell recovered paper to China, that country's decision caused the price of processed recycled paper to drop dramatically, he said.

Although entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the low price of raw materials to develop paper mills in the U.S., it will take a few years for them to come online, he said.

Thus, recyclers must count the cost.

As the value of processed recycled material continues to fall, the cost of processing it continues to rise, Horrox said. On average, each ton of recycled material costs the plant $90, and the Columbus MRF processes about 10,000 tons of material per month.

"So it's a double-edged sword," he said.

Outreach

Contamination adds costs to the recycling process and diminishes the economic benefits of recycling, said Kyle O'Keefe, director of innovation and programs for the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio.

When recycled products are contaminated, the quality is reduced and additional expenses are created for processors and manufacturers, O'Keefe said.

The less contaminated recycled materials are, the healthier manufacturing markets that use those products will be, enabling them to pay a better price for the processed materials, he said.

One way Rumpke combats contamination is with education.

Makaryan said she is not aware of other facilities in Columbus that process recyclables on the same scope.

Rumpke has an educational specialist who visits students in classrooms, and employees of the Columbus MRF conduct tours and work alongside SWACO for outreach programs, she said.

One component of SWACO's recent recycling campaign is a "microsite" on swaco.org that could be rolled out before the end of the year, O'Keefe said.

The microsite will provide information about the benefits of recycling, what is and is not accepted in household recycling programs and a short video about Rumpke's MRF. Microsite visitors will learn where to recycle specific materials.

"The public, in large part, has a tremendous amount of questions about recycling and reducing waste," O'Keefe said.

The microsite will cost about $60,000 to develop, he said.

The microsite isn't the only way SWACO officials are hoping to educate central Ohio residents about recycling more efficiently.

SWACO will spend about $200,000 on a media campaign that could begin before the end of this year and extend into next year, O'Keefe said.

It also will spend about $100,000 on mailers and educational literature for communities to help them educate their residents about recycling guidelines.

'Wishcycling'

Contamination has gotten worse over time, as new products create more confusion about what can be recycled, O'Keefe said.

But as recycling becomes a more widespread practice, people "wishcycle," or recycle materials hoping that they can be processed, when they actually can't be, he said.

This results in some interesting items appearing at Rumpke's Columbus MRF, which is at 1191 Fields Ave., north of Fifth Avenue and not far south of the Ohio Expo Center and State Fair.

The first time she toured the Columbus MRF, Makaryan said, she saw a set of golf clubs someone attempted to recycle.

Other items that have ended up at the MRF include bowling balls, sports equipment, pots and pans, kitchen appliances and -- during hunting season -- deer carcasses, Horrox said. Some items, like the batteries, can be hazardous to employees and machinery.

When garden hoses, clothing, pet leashes, chains and other similar items get tangled in machinery, the entire plant shuts down, Horrox said.

Plastic bags build up on machinery over time, making the equipment less effective, until the buildup has to be cut out by hand, Makaryan said.

At least two times per week, the MRF plant comes to a halt anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes when employees spot needles, Horrox said.

But despite the challenges, Horrox said, Rumpke remains committed to recycling.

"We know that recycling's not going to go away," he said.

ssole@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSarah

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