Maybe it’s the switch from CDs to streaming music and movies. Or the transition from glass to plastic bottles.
But for the first time in Minnesota, the per capita production of garbage declined even as the economy was growing.
“We are seeing a decoupling of spending and waste generation,” said Anna Kerr, a principal planner for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which released a draft Waste Policy Report for the Minnesota Legislature on Friday.
“It is a good news waste story.”
Waste typically declines during economic downturns, and in 2008 and 2009 that’s what happened. Minnesota’s waste output declined 4 percent and 5 percent in those years respectively.
In the past, when the economy popped back after a downturn, so did garbage.
But during and after the Great Recession something changed, the PCA found. In 2005, before the downturn, Minnesotans generated 34.2 tons of waste for every million dollars spent. But in 2013, that dropped to only 29.6 tons.
Kerr said the agency can’t explain why the trendline turned, but called it “noteworthy.”
Even total waste — which reflects both a growing economy and a growing population — was down 1.4 percent in 2013 compared with 2005.
In addition to that finding, the report offers a glimpse into fundamental changes in the way the agency thinks about garbage and recycling. It’s seeking guidance from the Legislature on how to move away from the disposable economy by getting people to “reduce” more than “reuse and recycle.”
For the past three decades, cities, counties and the private sector have focused chiefly on recycling and disposing of waste, because that was, well, much easier than cutting back on the overall amount of stuff in the economy, which would require changes in product design, industrial practices, and consumer habits, the report said.
But now the agency wants to start reducing materials before they get into the economy through innovations like longer-lived computers and phones.
That requires a different way of looking at the state’s waste stream. For example, Schwan’s home delivery switched from recyclable cardboard boxes to reusable containers. While that showed up as an alarming decrease in the recycling of corrugated cardboard across the state, it was actually much better for the environment.
“We should be looking at not creating the materials in the first place,” Kerr said. “Are we making products that can be reused multiple times?”
The agency also wants to develop a statewide recycling and waste management plan. Now, the agency oversees the seven-county metro area, but no counties outside the Twin Cities. And it wants to beef up its efforts to build markets for products made from recycled goods.
The PCA is accepting public comments on the report, and it will be finalized in December. The final report will be provided to the Legislature early next year.