Minnesota needs a recycling jump-start

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 10, 2014 - 6:26 PM

A House bill wisely links new money to higher goals.

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The single-sort recycling system in Minneapolis means that materials can be placed in a bin together, with no bags or sorting required.

Photo: Richard Sennott • Star Tribune,

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Yogurt and margarine tubs are “all in” now in St. Paul. Same goes for deli plastic containers and transparent produce shells. You can put them in the same curbside recycling bin as your cereal boxes and this newspaper (after reading it thoroughly, of course). As of this week, single-stream recycling, aka “single sort,” has come to St. Paul.

That’s a change worth cheering, as Mayor Chris Coleman and assorted city officials did on Monday at the “All In” kickoff. But it’s also a change that’s been slow in coming — and not just because single sort already has been the rule for some time in Minneapolis and several forward-thinking Twin Cities suburbs.

Recycling rates climbed to about 40 percent of all metro-area solid waste about a decade ago, then stalled until the recent, spotty advent of single sort produced a few localized surges.

State recycling policy stalled, too. The last comprehensive recycling legislation was enacted by Gov. Rudy Perpich and the 1989 Legislature. It established a solid waste management tax (akin to a garbage sales tax for those who use the services), purportedly for distribution to local governments to cover recycling costs. For 24 years, that funding flow has been steady at $14 million per year, even though the revenue that tax generates has more than tripled. Today, the tax’s proceeds go primarily to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the general fund. As a result, recycling is primarily funded by local property taxpayers, and it struggles to compete with public safety and infrastructure for scarce local dollars.

Minnesotans deserve more of the economic and environmental benefits that recycling brings. For that to happen, a state policy jump-start is in order. That’s the thinking behind a smart recycling measure that, after one regrettable excision, the Minnesota House added to its supplemental budget bill on April 3 and sent to a House-Senate conference committee. It’s a stronger bill than its Senate counterpart, and it deserves vigorous defense by House budget conferees.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, sets a recycling rate target for metro-area counties at 75 percent by 2030. To help counties get there, the measure also would send local governments an additional $7 million from the $70 million per year that the solid waste management tax generates.

That new recycling money would come with an important caveat: At least half of it must be used to increase the collection of organic waste for composting. With food and plant waste comprising 31 percent of the state’s solid waste stream, composting offers a major opportunity to reduce polluting landfill inputs while producing a horticulturally desirable soil additive.

An unfortunate chink was carved in Hornstein’s measure on the House floor. A recycling requirement for commercial buildings that contract for solid waste collection of more than 2 cubic yards per week was removed in the face of opposition from the state’s business community. Without more business participation in recycling, counties will find it difficult to meet the 75 percent recycling rate goal the bill sets.

That omission adds significance to a proposal by the bill’s Senate sponsor, John Marty, DFL-Roseville. Marty was able to secure only $750,000 in additional state funding for local recycling efforts in the Senate’s version of the budget bill. The important link between new money and composting was omitted.

But Marty perceives growing awareness among Minnesotans that trash has value. He proposes high-level policy planning efforts in coming months, leading to additional legislative proposals in 2015 and beyond for “mining” trash for its valuable components, while sparing Minnesotans the short- and long-term costs of landfills and incineration. Twenty years ago, Marty was an unsuccessful DFL candidate for governor. With this proposal, he’s thinking like one.

Too often, measures akin to these have emerged from legislative conference committees with mandates for local governments intact, but with little or no funding provided to achieve them. This bill ought not follow that pattern. If Minnesotans who favor recycling contact their legislators in coming days, it won’t.

  • Room for more

    In Minneapolis, a pilot project in all or parts of five neighborhoods led to an eightfold increase in organic waste recycling (composting) between 2008 and 2012. Still, organic waste collected for composting accounted for only 0.41 percent of the city’s total solid waste in 2012.

    Source: City of Minneapolis

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