The Minnesota State Fair generates something north of 84 tons of waste every day over its 12-day run that ends Monday.
Mitch Hedlund, a veteran business marketer who several years ago started RecycleAcrossAmerica.org, and other business and environmental players have tried to turn the fair into more of a reduce-reuse-recycle expo.
Hedlund, whose five-person outfit creates and distributes hundreds of thousands of uniform recycling labels annually to business, schools and government agencies, had a hand in the fair getting 260 more recycling bins this year, funded largely by the Minnesota Beverage Association and the American Beverage Foundation for a Healthy America. That's on top of 535 fair recycling bins that are loaned for other big events.
Confused or lazy consumers dump food and other stuff into recycling containers for aluminum, glass, paper or plastic that's feedstock for industrial and next-generation products. Or they jam recyclables into the garbage can.
Either way, it contaminates recyclables, which must be discarded when they get to a processing facility. And it drives up recycling costs when that material must be dumped instead of sold to industrial users.
"People make mistakes because industry has made it difficult to recycle [with varying signage]," said Hedlund. She notes that the United States' two largest recycling concerns, Waste Management and Republic Services, are also garbage-and-landfill outfits with a long-questioned commitment to recycling. "They own landfills. That's the equivalent of somebody owning the hospital who gets more financial benefit from the morgue."
The State Fair increased the number of recycling containers this year, partly because past analysis of the contents of garbage cans not near recycling bins found they were 80 percent full of stuff that could be recycled. That number drops to 10 percent or so when recycling bins are nearby.
Recycling properly is good for the environment and the economy.
Waste reduction and recycling provides industrial feedstock for next-generation products, cuts energy consumption and pollution, and increases efficiency. We're getting better at this, despite the two-year downward swoon in commodity prices that has hurt industrial buyers/processors of recyclables.
Late in 2015, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) reported that the per capita production of garbage declined even as the economy has expanded in the years since the Great Recession of 2008-09. In 2005, before the downturn, Minnesotans generated 34.2 tons of waste for every million dollars spent. In 2013, that dropped to 29.6 tons.
In fact, Minnesotans are sending about a third less recyclable material to landfills than they were a decade ago, according to MPCA data analyzed by the Star Tribune last spring. The only growth category was plastic bags.
Recycling companies and those that use recycled content provided $3.4 billion in wages, 60,215 jobs, and $26 billion in sales last year.
Goodwill Industries accepts and sells used clothing to fund counseling and job-training programs. Companies make furniture from plastic jugs; boxes, insulation, tissue and paper products from used newsprint and office paper; equipment from recycled steel and aluminum; the list goes on.
And organic waste increasingly becomes rich compost, or fertilizer for farmers and gardeners who then no longer need chemical fertilizers.
The fair's Eco Experience is a partnership between the State Fair, the MPCA and 150-plus outfits that demonstrates how conservation, green energy, recycling, community gardening and refurbish-and-reuse are wealth-and-health drivers. And don't worry about the 3,000 tons of animal waste generated at the fair. It's trucked to farms to fertilize fields.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at email@example.com.