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The Great Wall of Plastic

  • Blog Post by: Paul Austin
  • August 28, 2012 - 2:41 PM

 

Having just visited the Minnesota State Fair with my 2 and 5 year olds.  I know it can be a greasy blur of deep fried items on sticks, rides for the kids and visits to animal barns.  But between my helpings of chocolate covered bacon,  I found a lesser known corner of the Great Minnesota Get Together that deserves your attention.


In the Eco Experience building which rests at the base of a giant wind turbine blade in the northwest corner of the fairgrounds, there is a new exhibit that presents a stark image of how we, as Minnesotans, do at recycling. A giant curved wall of plastic drink bottles has been created.  It stretches from the floor up to the rafters and spans about thirty feet.  A few feet off the ground, there is a neon light illuminating through the bottles.  The wall represents the number of plastic bottles Minnesotans use every 5 minutes. The light divides the wall between the bottles we recycle, and the ones we don’t.
 
Minnesotans use a total of 1.5 billion plastic bottles each year.  That’s right….Billion with a B.  Ask the average Minnesotan how we do as recyclers, and the standard guess is that we recycle all the bottles above the line in the wall, which would be about 75 percent. 
 
But the point of the exhibit is to draw attention to the fact that in reality, we recycle only the bottles under the line, or, less than 25 percent annually.  Even at this pitiful rate, recycling is a major source of jobs in Minnesota.  Imagine how many jobs we could create if we doubled or tripled our recycling rate.  
 
In Iowa, the recycling rate is approximately 90 percent.  In Michigan, it is 95 percent. This means that combined those two states sent fewer bottles to the landfill then we did. 
 
How did those states get their recycling rates to a level where they so clearly dwarf ours?  It is simple really.  Both states have a recycling refund for beverage containers.  The consumer pays a small deposit when they buy the bottle, which they get back when they recycle it. 
 
It is not a novel concept, nor is it new.  But it is proving to be effective in those states to encourage recycling and decrease the pure tonnage of waste heading to landfills.  For the past few years, the Minnesota Legislature has been kicking around the idea of enacting a similar bottle deposit in this state.  But they have failed to act on this simple and proven strategy.
 
I encourage you to go see the wall of bottles.  It will crystalize the problem we have, and it will make it easier for you to talk to your elected officials about the changes that need to happen if we are going to beat our wasteful ways. 

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