SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – Plastic bags have been banned from being recycled in Sioux Falls for more than four years, but that hasn’t stopped them from hindering the recycling industry that is fighting to improve stagnant recycling rates.  

Millennium Recycling, which has operated in Sioux Falls since 1999, plays a key role in recycling for Sioux Falls and the surrounding community. Shannon Dwire, Millennium Recycling President, said plastic bags have never been friendly to the recycling industry. 

“We’re still having problems with that. We get a lot of bags still,” Dwire told KELOLAND News. “We are encouraging people to quit using bags. Haulers to quit bringing bags.” 

Alongside issues of plastic bags, data from Sioux Falls commercial garbage haulers in 2022 showed the overall recycling rate was 18.7% short of the recycling goal of 20.5%. 

Five years ago, Sioux Falls area haulers reported a 23.4% recycling rate. The national average recycling rate was 32% in 2022, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.   

“With a population increase, we noticed that recycling has been going down the last few years,” Dwire said. “That was a red flag to us that maybe we need to do a little better.” 

Dwire is a member of the city’s solid waste planning board and the city’s recycling task force. She said too many people don’t understand or consider where garbage and recycled material goes. 

“I think the misconception is that once it’s in the bin, it’s just gone,” Dwire said. “It comes to this facility. Everything that we take in, we are very responsible, we are very careful to make sure that the material gets recycled and very little of it goes back to the landfill.” 

More education on recycling is being planned in the 2024 city of Sioux Falls budget. 

Josh Peterson, the city’s environmental services manager, told city council members messaging from the city has been unified to match the same messaging from Millennium Recycling. 

“I want to see a real good, consistent education plan out there,” Dwire said. “Something that is promoted, something that’s in the schools on a regular basis. People need to know and understand where their waste goes and where the proper places are to take it.”

Dwire highlighted how recycling is a valuable resource that puts back materials people use every day. Some examples include recycled cardboard that comes into Millennium Recycling and is then bought by a paper mill that creates more cardboard for area businesses. A business in Worthington, Minnesota takes some of the recycled plastics and builds lumber and other building materials from it. 

“We’re always looking for good markets, consistent markets, ones that will last a long time,” Dwire said. “Most of our material actually stays in industry in the Midwest. We do have some that are across the United States and very little export.”  

Millennium Recycling pointed Sioux Falls residents to learn the city recycling guide, report to the city if recycled materials are being taken to the landfill, avoid bagging recyclables and use BINfluencers or help and spreading awareness. 

Workforce challenges, robots 

A robot used to find black bags at Millennium Recycling. Photo from Millennium Recycling.

Like many area businesses, finding workers continues to be a challenge for Millennium Recycling. 

Dwire said many employees come through second chance programs with people on parole or living in a half-way house. She said Millennium Recycling has about 20 employees right now and she’d like to be at 25 employees. 

“We have invested in robots. It’s not taking away any jobs but it’s helping with the lack of people that we have here,” Dwire said. “We have great entry level positions that are always available.”  

Dwire said two robots are assisting workers pulling black bags. There’s also machines that sort materials by imagery.   

“The goal is to make sure that our community is doing the best it can for this, to make sure that we are responsible for our landfill and for the costs that people incur,” Dwire said. “Recycling does affect the economy and it does affect the community. It is a valuable resource.”