Let’s talk trash. Minnesotans put too much of it in landfills and incinerators, studies show. There’s ample opportunity to put garbage to better use, yielding more jobs, more desirable raw material for manufacturers and lower greenhouse-gas emissions.
That’s the backdrop to two proposed changes to state recycling policy that have surfaced in recent weeks:
• A 10-cent-per-container deposit on beverage bottles and cans, redeemable by consumers upon return.
• A boost in metro-area recycling goals in state law, calling for at least 60 percent of all garbage to be recycled, 15 percent composted, and only 25 percent of garbage ending up in landfills or incinerators by 2030. In 2010, by comparison, just 41 percent of metro garbage was recycled or composted — a rate that has stayed essentially flat for 10 years.
We’re enthusiastic about the latter and not sold — yet, anyway — on the former. Still, we welcome the trash talk that both ideas have generated, and hope that a robust debate will ensue in the legislative session that begins Feb. 25. Making smarter use of garbage involves changing people’s habits, and that starts with raising awareness of the good that more recycling and composting promises.
Twenty-four years ago, when Minnesota first put recycling goals into statute, many dubious Minnesotans still looked at recycling as tree-hugger stuff. Today, it’s widely accepted, for very practical reasons. The recycling industry accounted for 27,000 jobs and $2 billion in wages in Minnesota in 2010, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) says. The market demand for the material recycling generates is high and increasing. In 2010, Minnesota recycling programs collected about 2.5 million tons of material worth $690 million.
But public acceptance hasn’t translated into enough change in trash habits. If bottles and cans thrown into Minnesota trash cans in 2010 had been recycled instead, another $285 million could have been recovered. Instead, Minnesotans paid $200 million to put those used containers into landfills.
Numbers like these prompted lawmakers to direct MPCA to do a cost-benefit analysis of adding a deposit fee to beverage bottles and cans. The draft of that analysis, released this month, projects a dramatic increase in recycling rates — to 88 percent, up from today’s estimated 45 percent — with a 10-cent-per-item refundable fee. It also foresees a $29-million-per-year cost, to be borne largely by the beverage industry.
But that analysis does not fully estimate the cost in both money and inconvenience that consumers would likely bear. They would be expected to either take their bottles and cans to one of a projected 402 redemption centers to reclaim their deposits — trips that the beverage industry said would cost $40 million per year — or forfeit their deposits and, presumably, recycle as they do (or don’t) now. Recycle Smart Minnesota, a coalition of food and beverage businesses, says forfeited deposits would set consumers back $114 million per year.
Either way, those expectations put new burdens on the Minnesotans who are already recyclers. Adding to their cost and hassle seems counterproductive to increasing the recycling rate, casting doubt on the big boost in recycling projected for such a system.
Advocates for a bottle and can deposit face a challenge: Can a redemption system be designed that would minimize or eliminate new burdens on recyclers? Finding such a design seems critical to the idea’s acceptance. Here’s hoping that search is in progress, and that it is the reason legislative backers of container deposits say they won’t push for action on a “bottle bill” this year.
Policymakers’ interest in bottles and cans is understandable. These containers are 100 percent recyclable and, according to Paul Austin of Conservation Minnesota, so numerous that the unrecycled cans tossed out daily in Minnesota would stretch from Minneapolis to Grand Marais if laid end to end.
But beverage containers don’t present the biggest opportunity for reducing landfill inputs (see accompanying text). Food waste and paper do.
According to state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, sponsor of the bill to increase metro recycling goals, 40 percent of today’s metro-area waste stream could be composted at comparatively low cost and considerable benefit. Keep food waste and compostable paper out of landfills, and methane emissions from those dumps would decrease. In addition, a desirable soil additive would be produced, improving soil fertility and reducing erosion.
A number of western Hennepin County suburbs and parts or all of five Minneapolis neighborhoods are producing positive results with curbside collection of organic materials for composting. Establishing a composting goal for the region and holding counties to account for achieving it, as Hornstein’s bill would do, would hasten the arrival of curbside organic collection in the region.
His bill has one other good feature: It would require commercial buildings and sports facilities to offer recycling. There’s room for improvement there. Today such places account for 28 percent of disposed beverage containers in Minnesota, but only 20 percent of all beverage container recycling.
Higher goals won’t reduce the trash stream by themselves. But as state goal-setting for renewable energy is demonstrating, goals combined with benchmarks and a system of public accountability can give urgency and consistency to city, county and private-sector decisions, which in turn can change consumer behavior. More trash talk is in order in Minnesota, and higher goals can inspire it.