Minneapolis is poised to take an important step toward improving its recycling services and supporting livable-wage jobs. City staff members have recommended Eureka Recycling, a local nonprofit with a zero-waste mission, for the city’s next five-year recycling contract. We urge the full City Council to support the staff recommendation and continue the city’s big strides in waste reduction.
Few Minnesotans think much about the destination of the bottles or paper they throw into their recycling bins. But what happens on the other end matters. The benefits of recycling vary considerably depending on how the items are processed.
First, it matters how much actually gets recycled. At Eureka, an impressive 96.5 percent of the materials it receives are recycled, well above the national average. More recycling means less greenhouse-gas pollution from creating new materials. In fact, in 2013 alone, recycling and composting in the U.S. saved the equivalent of taking 39 million cars off the road for one year.
Second, it matters where the materials are sold. If recyclables are sold overseas, we lose the economic benefit and jobs from converting those materials to new products, and much of the environmental benefit is lost from the added transportation emissions. At Eureka, over 90 percent of the materials go to markets here in Minnesota, creating a positive economic loop.
Third, it matters how the workers are treated. Sorting through our recyclables is difficult and dangerous, but society benefits from the jobs that recycling workers do. All of Eureka’s more than 80 employees are paid higher than a living wage and offered good benefits. These include paid sick time — a current focus of the mayor and City Council — as well as health insurance and long-term disability coverage. These features are rare in the recycling industry, which often relies on temporary workers to avoid paying benefits and higher wages.
Because it offers good jobs, Eureka gets good results. Employees are dedicated to their work and turnover is low. This means better-trained employees who produce a good product. Eureka’s end product is so good, it receives some of the industry’s best prices. It says something important that Eureka can provide good jobs while still offering Minneapolis the lowest bid price. Doing well by your employees also helps you do well as a company.
Finally, it matters that Eureka is a mission-driven nonprofit. Eureka does not believe its job is done once it picks up your recycling. It believes in “zero waste” — the goal of getting as close to 100 percent recycling, composting or reuse as possible. This means that Eureka goes above and beyond in providing community programing to educate residents about waste reduction. It is one of the reasons St. Paul has selected Eureka to provide its recycling services for 14 years.
Minneapolis is ramping up its effort to be a nationwide leader on waste policy. The citywide composting rollout is making excellent progress, with 30 percent of residents signing up in the first phase. Mayor Betsy Hodges launched a “Zero Waste Minneapolis” effort in her State of the City address last year. Also, thanks to a 2011 Minneapolis ordinance and a 2014 state law, commercial buildings in Minneapolis must offer recycling as of Jan. 1 of this year.
These are big steps, but we still have a long way to go as a city to catch up with national leaders such as San Francisco, which has a whopping 80 percent rate of waste diverted from landfills, compared with Minneapolis’s 34 percent.
The more we recycle, the more local jobs we can create. According to a report released recently by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota’s recycling industry supports 60,200 direct and indirect jobs and $3.4 billion in wages. Yet in the last 15 years, Minnesota sent 20 million tons of recyclables to landfills. Imagine the economic impact if we hit the 2014 state law goal of 75 percent of materials recycled or composted in the metro area by 2030.
The city’s Transportation and Public Works Committee, led by Chair Kevin Reich and Vice Chair Linea Palmisano, has unanimously approved the staff recommendation to select Eureka. We hope the City Council will follow this lead and show that Minneapolis is serious about reducing its waste and using its contracts to support good jobs.
Keiko Veasey is board chair of Linden Hills Power & Light. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, is a member of the Minnesota House. Karen Monahan is a senior organizer with the Sierra Club.