Six years ago, the state decided that by 2012 Minnesotans should be recycling 80 percent of the billions of drink containers they use every year — a lofty goal that would keep it at the forefront of waste reduction nationally.
Since then the recycling rate hasn’t budged. At best, Minnesotans recycle less than half of the water, pop, beer, iced tea, fruit juice and energy-drink containers they use, with the rest winding up in landfills and garbage burners.
That contradiction explains what is expected to be a contentious public hearing Tuesday in St. Paul on one surefire way to change consumers’ habits: Turn beverage containers into cash by putting a 10 cent deposit on each one.
Such a fee would catapult the statewide recycling rate to 84 percent, a new analysis found, just as it has in some other states with similar laws. In addition, it would drastically reduce the energy and raw materials consumed in making new containers, along with greenhouse gas emissions and litter.
But it would also scramble the deck, creating winners and losers, in the state’s $8.5 billion recycling industry.
The state analysis projected that the recycling initiative would add about 1,000 jobs to a business that already has a $2 billion payroll in Minnesota, and save million of dollars for local governments. On the flip side, it would rob about $4.6 million in marketable commodities — plastic, aluminum and glass — from both public and private collectors that now sell it.
Instead, that revenue would help subsidize a new system of recycling hubs — along with $29 million from companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé and other manufacturers, which have successfully fought a refund law for decades in part because they would be expected to pay for it.
And consumers? Recycling analysts say their costs might go up by less than one half-cent per container, but they would be saddled with an added chore: Taking bottles to a redemption center or grocery store to get their deposits back.
Some legislators and environmental groups say that the analysis finally provides the numbers that make their case.
“How often do you get a chance to improve the environment and create 1,000 jobs at same time?” said Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota, an environmental group that has been advocating for the refund law.
But Tim Wilkin, president of the Minnesota Beverage Association, argues that the change is unnecessary. More and more communities are turning to single-sort recycling programs, he said, which will increase what for decades has been a stubbornly flat recycling rate.
“Any time you make it easier on consumers, all recycling goes up,” Wilkin said.
Away from home
What’s often overlooked is that home recycling is only part of the challenge. Drinking habits have changed markedly in the last two decades: Consumption of bottled water has skyrocketed to about 30 gallons per person annually since 1991, and so has the number of beverages consumed away from home.
Eureka Recycling, the zero-waste nonprofit based in St. Paul, estimates that one in three beverages is now consumed away from home, where recycling bins can be hard to find. Collecting those bottles, plus recycling from apartment buildings and businesses, has proved difficult, according to state pollution officials.
Still, the environmental payoff in higher recycling rates would be considerable. If the 153 billion containers that wound up in the nation’s waste stream in 2010 had instead been diverted back to manufacturers, they would have saved enough energy to power all the homes in Los Angeles and Chicago, according to the Container Recycling Institute.
One recycled aluminum can save enough energy to power a TV for three to four hours, Austin said.
Wilkin said the state could find other ways to increase recycling away from home. The Recycling Association of Minnesota, for example, has set up container collection bins at convenience stores and other public places. The revenue from the sales of plastic and aluminum pays the wages of the disabled adults hired to run it.
“We are working to expand it,” Wilkin said.
But there is little consensus in an industry with conflicting interests: The Recycling Association of Minnesota, which represents 200 businesses and organizations that collect and sort recyclables, cannot agree on it. So the association doesn’t take a stand one way or the other.
“Some of our members think it’s a good idea,” said Maggie Mattacola, director of the association. “Some think it’s a horrible idea.”
That’s one reason recycling has been stalled for 20 years, said Paul Gardner, executive director of Recycling Reinvented. “Recycling does not speak with one voice,” he said. “You can’t get the paper, glass and plastic guys on the same page.”
Gardner is working with Nestlé and other manufacturers on a different idea altogether, Extended Producer Responsibility, that would involve far more sweeping changes. In essence, all manufacturers of consumer products would pay for recycling their own packaging — everything from water bottles to CD cases — much as paint companies and electronics makers do now.
Gardner said it would greatly increase recycling rates for about the same costs as now. But it would require near universal buy-in from consumer product corporations to ensure a level playing field and keep costs down for all.
By coincidence, his analysis of such a plan is getting its own hearing Tuesday at the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee.
The committee will discuss another new statewide recycling goal, this one from Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who wants to increase the state’s rate to 60 percent by 2030.
“We are acknowledging that not much progress has been made,” Hornstein said. “I think we could do it by 2025.”