Listen, folks: If you've ever tossed an empty pop or water bottle in a garbage can, a new display at the Minnesota State Fair is going to hit you with a stark reminder about why you should never do it.

Alongside the rides, the food and numerous festivities is a 40-foot tunnel made completely of discarded plastic bottles. The not-so-subtle display forms the corridor of shame at the fair's Eco House, where visitors can see up close what all those containers look like when they're not hidden in a landfill.

"This tunnel represents just 5 minutes of [bottle] generation in Minnesota," said an irked Wayne Gjerde, who manages the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's (MPCA) recycling division. "When people walk up to it, they say, 'Holy cow! That's disgusting.'"

More than gross, it's a problem. Recycling levels in the state have remained largely flat for 15 years, which hurts the environment, as well as plastic manufacturers that rely on these bottles to cut costs. The MPCA was so fed up with Minnesotans' reluctance to recycle that officials decided to use the State Fair to raise awareness -- and some eyebrows.

"We only recycle 25 percent and throw the other 75 percent away," Gjerde said. Because so few bottles get recycled, "the people who process the plastic into new materials can't get enough [recycled] material." he added.

In 2007, the state set a goal to collect 80 percent of all beverage bottles by January 2012, but that didn't happen. MPCA records show just 3,684 tons of the ubiquitous polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic were recycled last year, compared with the 16,000 tons of plastic that were likely used.

Virgin plastic

For manufacturers of carpets, pallet straps, bottles, polar fleece cloth and tools, this means they can't get enough post-consumer PET plastic to make their products. So they are forced to buy virgin plastic, which usually costs more and ultimately expands the volume of waste in the system, business owners and state officials complain.

Alan Rajdl, owner of Midstate Plastics in Remer, Minn., wants 70 percent of his disposable paint tray products to be composed of recycled plastic. "But I can't get more. There just isn't enough of it around," he said. "With a product like ours, it seems kind of silly to have to buy virgin." Virgin plastic costs him 20 percent more than recycled.

Right now, only 40 percent of his Midstate Plastics paint trays and liners are made from recycled Mountain Dew, 7UP and Coke bottles and industrial plastic scraps provided by Advanced Extrusion in Becker, Minn.

He hopes the fair's exhibit will boost his options. "The fact that there is a used pop-bottle display at the fair is fantastic," Rajdl said. "I think we could collect more pop bottles out there and recycle them. I am all for it. Definitely."

Mary Elizabeth Berglund, a Ramsey County environmental supervisor, called the fair exhibit "very cool."

Minnesotans "can certainly do more," she said. "Not everybody chooses to recycle. Some people recycle only newspapers and paper or only plastic from their household. We try to reach all of those people but we know that we are only capturing so much of it."."

Some recycling advocates want Minnesota to offer recyclers a nickel or dime a bottle, following the model of California, New York, Michigan, New Hampshire, Maine and other states. But so far, that's not in the cards for Minnesota.

Nevertheless, the MPCA has new goals. Its 2011 status report indicates that the agency wants more Minnesotans to put bottles curbside in bins on recycling day, to start recycling programs at work -- anything but chuck useful trash in the trash.

Adopting recycled ingredients in manufacturing processes helped create 15,221 Minnesota jobs last year. That's up from 9,003 in 2004, according to MPCA's 2011 Solid Waste Policy Report.

To further boost jobs, the Recycling Association of Minnesota, which also has displays at the fair, just expanded its "Message in a Bottle" program to gas and convenience stores in Dakota County and the south metro region.

This month, 75 Dakota County Holiday gas stations and other stores put out fun recycling bins that are shaped like giant soda bottles. If they work, they'll collect manufacturing ingredients for the future.

The recycling association's project is in partnership with the Minnesota Beverage Association and ProAct Inc. It has grown from being in 16 stores in 2007 to a new total of 150 stores.

Expanding the program to Burnsville and throughout Dakota County "will have a great impact on recycling, as well as green job creation," said Ellen Telander, executive director of the Recycling Association of Minnesota. "Each convenience store is estimated to collect 2,000 pounds of recyclables each year, for a total of 300,000 pounds of beverage containers recycled annually."


The program started in 2007 in 15 towns and has since collected about 500 tons of bottles a year for re-use in factories. Obviously, the association's goal is to increase that, Telander said.

The Recycling Association of Minnesota and the MPCA are encouraging bottle and bag manufacturers to collect their containers post-use. That's one reason the Minnesota Beverage Association took part in the Message in a Bottle expansion.

The association is "proud to assist with the expansion of this amazing program," said beverage association president Tim Wilkin. "It will further help Minnesotans recycle more when they are on the go. This program is a win-win-win for businesses, their customers and the community."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725