Recycling grows up and pays off
Karen Youso, Star Tribune
You empty a plastic milk jug, your hand pausing over the garbage can. It's the moment of truth.
Do you drop it in? Or do you take time to rinse it and place it in the recycling bin?
If you recycle, you'll help save enough electricity to power 321,000 homes for a year. That's more households than Minneapolis and St. Paul combined.
Not worth it? You'll also help keep the equivalent of 203,000 tons of coal from burning. That means fresher air and less toxic mercury in our lakes and streams.
There's more. Start recycling and you will help to support jobs -- paying an average of $16 an hour -- for some 19,000 Minnesotans.
And if nothing else grabs you, here's one final thought: Keep recyclable materials out of the landfill, and you'll be contributing to the state's tax revenue without paying a dime. The recycling industry adds $64 million to Minnesota state tax coffers every year.
Minnesota curbside recycling is growing up.
Gone is its infancy, 16 years ago, when newspapers piled up with no place to go, when plastic wasn't recycled, and when the only return on recycling was the good feeling of helping Mother Earth.
Today, emerging businesses, often in small Minnesota towns, use recycled material to make their products:
Old newspapers become egg cartons in Moorhead; plastic milk and laundry detergent jugs turn into building lumber in Worthington and Paynesville; old cardboard becomes new cardboard in Becker.
Recycling, the robust teenager, now adds nearly $3 billion to the state's economy yearly. The material it produces has become a valuable commodity.
"It's traded overnight as we sleep, worldwide, just like corn and soybeans, dollars and yen," said Paul Gardner, executive director of the Recycling Association of Minnesota. Tom Troskey, spokesman for Rock-Tenn, a recycling paper mill in St. Paul, notes that nearly one of every 4 tons of collected paper leaves the United States. About half of that goes to China, including tons of paper collected at curbs in St. Paul that ends up at Nine Dragons mills in China.
"You can't go through any conversation about recycling without talking about China," Troskey said.
Brokers for Chinese companies, as well as carpet mills in Georgia, are also looking for Minnesota's waste plastic. Meanwhile, Master Mark Plastics in Paynesville imports 30 million pounds of recycled plastic jugs annually from Greensboro, N.C.
Not surprisingly, as demand rises, so do prices.
"Right now, everyone is riding the wave [of higher prices]," said Mark Heieren, of Apple Valley, a broker of recyclable materials.
That's good for recycling companies and the counties and cities that share their profits.
"When I see a bale of aluminum cans, I say 'Ka-ching,'" Gardner said. "A bale of aluminum cans is worth about $1,200."
Local governments often share in the profits. Minneapolis, for example, received $1.5 million from the sale of its recycling last year and is on track to reap even more this year.
Manufacturers use the material to make new products. Sometimes it's the same item: a glass bottle becomes another glass bottle, the newspaper on your doorstep has been there before, as a newspaper.
Other times, the recycled product takes a far different shape: the old phone book becomes a box for cake mix; the new deck is made from plastic jugs and sawdust.
Envy of other states
Recycling programs in Minnesota spring from a committee convened by former Gov. Rudy Perpich, whose recommendations became law in 1989. The law required recycling, but left it up to individual communities to decide how to do it.
Perhaps the smartest part of the law was that it provided a funding source. Every year, a portion of the solid waste taxes collected, $12.5 million, is divvied up to support local recycling efforts.
"That's the key to our success," said Mark Rust of the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance (OEA). It's what helps put Minnesota consistently at or near the top in the amount of waste recycled every year.
"Other states are jealous of what we have here," he said. "They wish they had that kind of system of funding and investment."
Despite the obvious benefits, experts say that recycling in Minnesota faces significant challenges.
In a budget-cutting move in 2002, there was a 10 percent permanent reduction in state support for recycling programs. That was followed by a one-year cut of 11.5 percent, when funds went unallotted. Officials say it's too early to tell what kind of impact these cuts will have.
Meanwhile, the OEA reports that Minnesota's recycling rates have flattened recently. Meanwhile, some local programs have closed centers or stopped collecting glass or plastic.
The task facing recyclers now is to get folks to do it more, Gardner said, especially when away from home. Schools, businesses and places where people congregate and travel often aren't set up to collect recycling, he said.
That's a lot of valuable resources lost, according to the OEA. Every year, $85 million worth of recyclables are thrown away, and it's costing us $45 million to dispose of it.
So, next time you ponder where to drop that aluminum can, glass bottle, plastic jug or newspaper, pitch it to recycling. It's the best way to keep Minnesota at the top of the heap.
Karen Youso is at email@example.com.