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Trash talk: Recycling at State Fair isn’t as easy as it sounds, but growing

Students from the South Washington County School District 833 (Woodbury, East Ridge, Park and Next Step Transition) sort seemingly endless bags of recycled plastic into 20 foot dumpsters as a part of the State Fair Recycling Project at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights on Saturday, Sept 1. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press) 1 / 2
A woman tosses a corn cob into the large corn cob recycling bin across from the Roasted Corn hut at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights on Saturday, Sept 1. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press 2 / 2

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. — Bryan Schave of Burnsville and Keith Hughes of Minnetonka did their best to recycle while at the Minnesota State Fair. They ate corn. They tossed the spent cobs in a giant box marked for corn compost.

That, and dropping beer cups and soda bottles into bins shaped like actual plastic bottles, was about the extent of their options.

"Recycling's a hard process," said Hughes, 55. "I try to be more conscientious."

It's a sentiment shared by State Fair organizers and officials at Eureka Recycling, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit that collects thousands of tons of Fair recyclables and prides itself on "Zero Waste" policies.

That's "Zero Waste" as in no waste at all — the exact opposite of what happens when 100,000 to 200,000 people per day, for 12 days, travel through a confined area full of quickly consumable and easily discarded one-off attractions, like paper hats in the shape of pig ears.

Fair organizers and recycling advocates have tried for years to expand recycling options at the Fair. As far as their vendors and exhibitors go, they've found plenty of uses for everything from cooking grease to animal manure. But when it comes to everyday food and pleasure items visitors throw away, results are mixed.

The 12-day Fair generates some 900 tons of trash.

"It is a big challenge with that many visitors every day, the crowds and distractions," said Lynn Hoffman, co-president of Eureka. "Public space recycling is always a challenge, and that's the worst of it."

Compostable products too expensive?

Across the country, recycling advocates have urged businesses to consider economies of scale — compostable cups, straws, utensils and take-out food containers are quite a bit more expensive than traditional paper, plastic and Styrofoam, but pooling purchasing power and buying together in bulk could chip away at the price.

Coordinating those purchases is harder than it sounds.

State Fair officials noted in a written statement that 300 of their 1,300 vendors sell food, and requiring them to buy the same compostable products could raise food prices.

According to Fair officials: "We've explored the use of compostable food/beverage service containers and utensils on a couple of recent occasions but have found that their cost is substantially higher than the paper and plastic containers and utensils currently in use — to the point where it would drive up retail product pricing to Fair guests."

They went on to say: "Everyone has different budgetary and operational needs in terms of what they use: lids, straws, boats, tinfoil, wax paper, utensils, plates, bowls, cups, sticks, etc. This is something we will continually evaluate and work to improve on in the future."

Back-of-house recycling

That said, there's plenty of recycling going on that the public might never see. Hoffman said the Fair brings Eureka thousands of pounds of "back-of-house" items from vendors, such as cardboard boxes.

The Fair has even found ways to reuse some 70 tons of cooking grease, sending it off to Sanimax facilities to be converted into biodiesel fuel. Some 3,000 tons of animal manure finds a home in Hastings, where it's composted into fertilizer.

Recycling options for visitors, such as public composting, have been trickier to coordinate. Eureka spent the better part of two years working with Fair organizers on creating opportunities for visitors to drop their uneaten food and other compostable materials into compost bins. That's a messy, smelly, potentially expensive enterprise that could quickly become contaminated.

The result: corn cob receptacles situated next to a grilled corn vendor. The giant boxes have been in place for several years.

"It's just about all I've seen — the plastic recycling and the corn," said Zach Joach of Minneapolis, while enjoying a grilled corn. "That's all I've noticed."

Fair officials said in a written statement, "leaving less of a footprint is important to the Minnesota State Fair, and we strive to improve our efforts each and every year. We have been recycling on a major scale for decades, including paper, glass, metal, grease, manure, construction materials, food waste, waste water, plastic bottles and much more."

"None of our trash goes into a landfill. Rather, it is sent to a waste-to-energy plant and burned to create electricity. Each year, our waste management program is evaluated, and we discuss where changes and improvements can be made. 2019 will be no different."

State Fair recycling

Fair officials this week released these numbers:

TRASH

  • 900 tons of trash are generated at the State Fair.
  • ACE Solid Waste, Inc. hauls away trash to Newport, Minn., where it is incinerated and converted into electricity in a waste-to-energy facility.

RECYCLING

  • Eureka is the State Fair's recycling company.
  • Fair guests can recycle glass, plastic and aluminum (bottles, cans, plastic cups) into the nearly 800 bottle-shaped recycling bins located throughout the Fairgrounds.
  • Last year, 57 tons of glass, plastic and aluminum were collected and recycled.
  • Yes, plastic beer cups can be recycled in the bottle-shaped receptacles.
  • The State Fair's 24-hour sanitation crew collects this recycling throughout the day, and a crew sorts it early in the morning at the Fairgrounds' recycling center.

COOKING GREASE

  • 70 tons of cooking grease are recycled by the Sanimax corporation and turned into biodiesel fuel during a typical State Fair.

FOOD WASTE

  • The bins near the Corn Roast are compost receptacles. The cobs and husks — as well as other compostable food waste — are composted and taken to SET in Empire Township near Rosemount.
  • 96 tons of food waste were collected during the 2017 Fair and recycled.

MANURE

  • More than 3,000 tons of animal manure is hauled to Hastings to be composted and used as fertilizer.
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