$217 million in recyclables lands in Minnesota's trash each year

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Discarded paper products like this pile at Eureka Recycling in St. Paul could be worth millions to Minnesota’s paper and container manufacturers, recycling experts said.

Photo: RENÉE JONES SCHNEIDER • reneejones@startribune.com,

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Minnesotans are throwing away as much garbage as ever, but the contents of the average household dumpster have changed dramatically in the last 10 years — a new profile that reveals how daily lives have evolved as well.

Paper is down — thanks to computers and smartphones — but plastic is up, especially the filmy stuff used in those ubiquitous shopping bags. A rising number of plastic bottles in trash pickups shows how often Minnesotans drink beverages away from home, where it’s harder to find a recycling bin. And the biggest change is that the clean-plate club is no more. Today, almost a third of the garbage stream is “organics,” and of that more than half is wasted food.

Hidden within those piles of garbage — about 3.6 million tons of it this year — is about $217 million worth of valuable materials, according to a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) study to be released this week.

The agency’s first breakdown of the state’s waste stream in 13 years shows that one third could be recycled, a chance to increase the 37,000 direct and indirect jobs and $2 billion in wages generated by Minnesota’s recycling industry.

That portion includes recyclable paper and cardboard, commodities in high demand by manufacturers, and plastic that can be made into construction materials, packaging and food containers.

“There are still people who think [recycling is] not worth doing,” said Wayne Gjerde, coordinator for the PCA’s recycling market program.

Minnesota’s average recycling rate is higher than that of most states — and it has stayed high, just under 50 percent of what gets thrown away, even as the total amount of waste generated in the state has increased in the years following the recession. But the recycling rate has been largely flat for years.

The PCA conducted the garbage analysis in part to figure out ways to reduce what goes to landfills and incinerators. The results are based on sifting through 40,000 pound of garbage at six sites in Minnesota.

“You need to know what’s in it,” said Peder Sandhei, a planner for the PCA.

One conclusion of the parsing is that drinking habits have changed. Minnesotans throw away about half of the glass, aluminum and plastic bottles they use, Gjerde said. Soft drinks are down, but consumption of bottled water has skyrocketed from a national average of 10 gallons a year per person in 1991 to 30 in 2012.

The number of aluminum cans Minnesotans toss every day would stretch from Minneapolis to Grand Marais, according to Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota. The line of plastic bottles would run from Winona to Bemidji.

“I don’t think people realize how much we are talking about on a daily basis,” he said.

Officials at Eureka Recycling, the zero-waste nonprofit based in St. Paul, say one in three bottled beverages are now consumed away from home. But establishing functional recycling systems in shopping malls, parks and other public places is difficult.

“In the parks, depending on how they are set up, you can end up with a bunch of dog poop,” said Dianna Kennedy, Eureka’s communications director.

Organics going to waste

The new data on beverage containers will almost certainly fuel an ongoing debate on whether Minnesota should adopt a beverage container refund system similar to those in a handful of other states. Though Gjerde said the PCA does not have a position on the concept, putting a 10-cent deposit on every aluminum, glass and plastic container would likely increase recycling as much as 80 percent, if other states are a guide.

Paper is another opportunity. Its share of the garbage stream has fallen from 34 percent to 24 percent since 2000 — mostly because of declines in newsprint and magazines. But what’s left is worth about $34 million to the state’s paper and container manufacturers, Gjerde said.

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  • Eureka Recycling equipment operator Marcella Ramirez moved a load of plastic bottles Friday. More and more plastic is being sent to landfills rather than recycling plants, a study showed.

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