As the dust settles on Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ first budget address, we’d like to focus on an area that resonated with us personally and professionally. It is important to point out our leadership roles with Eureka Recycling. Eureka is a zero-waste, nonprofit social enterprise based in Minneapolis that employs more than 100 people with living-wage jobs. We are pleased to see the mayor moving toward a zero-waste Minneapolis. Her proposal to start curbside organics collection in 2015 is a great first step, because this material is more than 30 percent of what we toss in the trash every day.
Why does this matter to Eureka? Because it gets us closer to zero. It means that we create systems that use the outflows of one system (compostable food waste, etc.) as an input for another system (soil to grow the next crop of food). We then repeat these circular systems to maximize the financial, social and environmental benefits of the economy in our communities. Nature has been doing this for millions of years.
It allows us to decrease the volume of materials sent to HERC (the garbage burner in Minneapolis located across the street from the Twins stadium). The alternative is to continue our use of linear systems in which the inflows we use to make products and packaging are raw materials from nature and the outflows — what we call trash — are mostly composed of recyclable and compostable materials that we burn. This requires more raw materials harvested from nature. Given that our resources are not infinite, this linear system is running on borrowed time.
We appreciate that there are those who will argue against this move for various and well-intended reasons. However, we respectfully disagree with them. Here are two quick reasons:
First, there’s the waste-to-energy argument. When we send that organic material to HERC, it’s burned. Burning wet, organic material is inefficient and reduces the overall effectiveness and increases the cost of the process. Composting this organic material into soil is a much more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable choice. This trash burner is also upwind from some of the most underrepresented and overly burdened communities in Minneapolis. These communities take the biggest load of the toxins emitted but historically have had the least input into deciding what happens to the trash. This creates a serious environmental justice issue in which the consequences of not recycling and composting fall on our neighbors with the least resources to defend themselves. That is not the Minneapolis or the Minnesota we know.
What about cost? That’s really the elephant in the room here. What some are ignoring is the impact that organics collection can have on decreasing the monthly costs of garbage collection for families. Those making the argument that families will have to choose are ignoring the savings that can be realized by simply composting.
According to a recent study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, more than 31 percent of what is left in our trash after recycling is organic, meaning that nearly a third of the space in the average Minnesotan’s trash can is taken up by material that could be turned into compost, a healthy soil component that can be used to grow food. If you separate that material out for composting, two magical things happen. First, your trash volume dramatically decreases. This means you can elect to have a smaller garbage can or you can reduce your frequency of collection (or both), which will save you money.
An additional value is that this allows people to see what’s really left in their can once the recycling and compostable materials are gone; it helps them make decisions about purchasing that can result in zero waste. If your motivation is to get to zero, then the mayor has outlined a way to get there. If your motivation instead is to simply save money, here’s the beautiful part: The mayor has outlined a way to get there.
We are getting closer to zero waste under Mayor Hodges. She is committed to reducing the negative impacts of waste on all our communities, while helping to create soil that we need to grow local, healthy food and saving Minneapolis households money on their garbage bills.
That is Eureka’s idea of leadership.
Tim Brownell, Carolyn Loper and Bryan Ukena are co-presidents of Eureka Recycling.