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Efforts aim to improve Minnesota’s recycling rate

Workers hand-sort recyclables at Waste Management's Materials Materials Recovery Facility in Minneapolis. Jeffrey Thompson | Minnesota Public Radio

By Stephanie Hemphill, MPR News 91.3 FM

As the Legislature begins a new session, Minnesota’s moribund recycling rates are likely to be a target of new laws.

Recycling is not only better for the environment; it’s an integral part of a growing economic engine in the state, and experts say people are throwing away resources that those businesses need.

Minnesota was an early leader in recycling, but in 2008 the recycling rate flattened out at 41 percent of waste discarded, and that rate has even started to decline in the last couple of years.

The decline can be explained partly by a shift to lighter products: smaller newspapers, and food in plastic jars rather than glass.

The overall recycling rate includes industries and stores, which are responsible for about three-quarters of all recycling.

Household recycling rates are tricky to calculate, but in rough numbers they range from about 12 percent in Bemidji and 14 percent in Moorhead to 20 percent in Minneapolis and St. Paul, 26 percent in Rochester and 30 percent in St. Cloud.

At the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, which serves Duluth and nearby communities, household recycling is not counted separately from commercial, but the district says more than 2,500 tons of material that could be recycled is instead thrown away each year.

There’s a lot of room for improvement. One study showed the average household throws more than 400 aluminum cans and 400 plastic bottles in the trash every year.

That’s a waste, said DFL state Sen. Katie Sieben of Cottage Grove, who plans to revive a proposal that has languished in the Legislature for years — a container deposit bill.

The details are still under discussion, but it would require a few cents’ deposit for beverage cans and bottles, which would be refunded when people return the containers.

Sieben said it’s not a partisan issue.

“I think it’s more an issue that relates to helping legislators see that it will increase recycling, not hurt, and indeed help in some cases with job growth, and be beneficial for the environment, too,” she said.

States that require container deposits, including Iowa and Michigan, recycle twice as many or more cans and bottles compared with Minnesota.

That’s actually raw material that’s useful to a growing number of Minnesota businesses. About 200 companies in the state use recycled materials to make new things.

That’s an $8.5 billion industry with 15,000 workers, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Fifty of them work at an Allied Waste materials recovery facility in Inver Grove Heights.

Trucks dump recyclables onto a conveyor belt that rattles along through various kinds of separators.

At the first sorting point, cardboard rides up and over a set of rotating disks while everything else drops beneath them. The cardboard lands on the baling floor, where it is pressed into bales for shipment.

Next, a fan flings the aluminum cans off to the side, while a giant magnet grabs the steel cans.

Then the belt passes under optical sensors that can recognize different types of plastics. As plant manager Erik Schuck explained, a computer tells the machine to shoot puffs of air at No. 1 plastic, like pop bottles.

“So, as any piece of water bottle or any No. 1 plastic comes across this line, like that Coke bottle right there, ultimately you saw that get blown down,” Schuck said. “With the puffs of air, it’s going to grab every single one of those bottles.”

Meanwhile, a worker is grabbing No. 2 plastic containers — milk and juice jugs — and tossing them in a bin.

Everything ends up compressed: bales of No. 1 plastic, No. 2 plastic, aluminum cans, steel cans.

Many of the bales are delivered to other Minnesota companies, including:

— RockTenn, a 100-year-old firm that makes cardboard.

— Strategic Materials, a new business that uses optical sorters to separate different colors of glass, which are made into bottles at Anchor Glass in Shakopee.

— By the Yard, a family-owned company that turns milk jugs into lawn furniture.

— Gerdau Steel, which turns auto hulks and tin cans into rebar, some of which supports the new Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis.

With the growth of businesses that depend on recycled products, too much valuable raw material is getting buried in a landfill or burned, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency officials say.

According to surveys, people who do not recycle say they don’t mostly because of a lack of opportunity or because it is inconvenient, said Tina Patton, the MPCA’s solid waste planner. Rural areas do not have curbside pickup, and people might not know about drop-off locations.

“And, understandably, people also have said things like they just don’t have the time,” Patton said. “They have lots of kids, they work two jobs, out of all the things in their life, it gets down in totem pole of priority.”

Governments and industry are constantly working to make recycling more convenient, Patton said, citing an example of recycling bins shaped like big pop bottles placed at gas stations.

In addition to a container deposit bill, the Legislature is likely to consider something called product stewardship or extended producer responsibility. It would require manufacturers to manage their packaging when consumers are finished with it.

The idea is to push companies to redesign their products to make them less wasteful.

Patton said it worked with old-fashioned cathode ray tube televisions.

“Cathode ray tubes were banned from the landfill, and then the e-waste bill went in effect where the manufacturers had to help pay for the recycling at the end of life of those products,” she said. “You don’t see a lot of cathode ray tube TVs for sale anymore.”

Waste managers are also tackling the organic material that is thrown away.

Experts say between 20 and 30 percent of what goes to landfills could be composted. Pilot projects for organized organics collection are popping up all over the state.