Yet the nuts and bolts of recycling remain a mystery to many of us. What happens to the stuff in the blue bins after the truck cleans them out every week?
The behind-the-scenes details matter because, in the next few months, the City of St. Paul will decide on its municipal recycling contract. The current city recycler, local nonprofit Eureka Recycling, will test its unique business model on cost and quality against larger rivals, such as Waste Management, the nation’s largest garbage company. With Minneapolis and neighboring Lauderdale recently choosing Eureka as their municipal hauler, St. Paul’s decision raises questions about how cities think about reducing their waste lines.
There are two components to the recycling business: collection and processing. Picking up the recycled stuff—sorted or not—is one thing; refining it and selling the material for re-use is another.
For example, Eureka’s new Minneapolis contract is just for processing, but in St. Paul the company performs both duties, picking up waste and taking it to their plant, just on the Minneapolis side of Highway 280.
“Garbage goes to the landfill, but recyclables go to a material recovery facility (MRF),” Steve Cohen, a former Eureka board member, said. “What’s garbage and what’s recyclable depends on where you live. Some of it goes to a landfill, where the recycler comes and picks it up and then throws it away or burns it.”
In the world of municipal recycling, Eureka is unique. It started as a program out of the Neighborhood Energy Connection (NEC), a St. Paul environmental nonprofit. Because of that, Eureka uses a “triple-bottom-line” approach that sets goals for social, environmental and economic sustainability, according Eureka marketing materials.
“Fifty percent of what we throw away in Minnesota is recyclable,” Lynn Hoffman, Eureka’s chief of community engagement, said. “Bottles, glass and paper are easily recyclable. We have our own fleet of trucks and own MRF facility, and that’s where the recycling is sorted. It all comes in in one giant pile. We have some machines, like magnets, that do some of the separating of the material, but also a lot of people that physically hand-sort the material.”
Eureka’s insistence on reusing recycled material—selling it to another manufacturer, for example—and to hire permanent employees at living wages, makes it difficult to compete merely on price. By contrast, industry standards typically rely more on temp workers or burning recycled material in electricity-producing incinerators.
“Glass is perfect in that it’s 100 percent reusable over and again,” Cohen said. “This is also [true] with metal. Other than plastics, all the materials, for all practical purposes, are infinitely recyclable, and in a worse-case scenario you compost it. That’s the fundamentally different view of Eureka.”
There are more details: how “pure” can the post-recycled material become? (A lot depends on the sorting process, and paper tends to get into everything.) How far are companies willing to ship it for reuse? (Eureka focuses on Minnesota and a few neighboring states.) What kinds of plastic do cities collect or not collect? (Minneapolis will take all plastics; St. Paul rejects #3 and #6.)
“Ninety percent of our material is sent to markets in Minnesota,” Hoffman said. “We have different markets for all of our material, and they’re shopped around, locally, to emissions from that transportation. We need to make the numbers work and also make sure we’re taking care of the environmental benefits.”
For example, much of the paper that Eureka collects goes right to the former Rock-Tenn plant on Vandalia Street between University Avenue and I-94.
The future of recycling
At its root, recycling is a commodities market, which means that today’s low oil prices and shaky demand make it difficult to turn a profit. When prices are high, it’s easier to sell recycled matter, but when they’re low, it can be cheaper to use raw material. The balance between commodities recycling and reducing waste is the main tension between different recycling operations.
“Eureka’s philosophy is awesome,” Cohen said. “They’re a zero waste organization, as opposed to the solid waste management. In the solid waste paradigm, there will always be garbage you have to deal with, but with zero waste, the end game is to get rid of waste completely.”
That is one of the reasons why Eureka’s focus includes consumer education, to alleviate the need for wasteful packaging or to encourage more composting, he said. (Minneapolis is launching a citywide composting program, and St. Paul may join them in the next few years.)
“It helps to talk to people and give them an aha! moment about what’s in their hand and what happens to it next,” Hoffman said when asked about Eureka’s work at large public events. “People pause and recognize that there are choices and options for what happens to those products, and what those impacts are.”
The hope is that if a public event like St. Paul’s annual Grand Old Days in June can achieve the ambitious zero-waste goal, someday the whole city can follow suit.
Meanwhile, St. Paul is working on figuring out whether recycling can meet its livable wage and environmental goals. Look for the decision some time this year.
(Note: The City of St. Paul did not respond in time to media requests for this article.)
Bill Lindeke is an urban geographer and writer living in St. Paul.
St. Paul City Council wants your input on local trash collection
The City of St. Paul is asking city residents to give their input on whether or not the city should move to an organized trash-collection system.
Currently, St. Paul has an open system of trash collection where residents contract individually with private haulers. This means several haulers could work in the same city block.
In an organized system, one or multiple trash haulers would be authorized to collect trash from a specific service area. The St. Paul City Council has stated that if the city moves to an organized collection system, the city would maintain opportunities for small, local, minority- and womenowned garbage haulers and support living-wage jobs.
The council is asking city residents to provide input on which benefits they value most. The comment period will close in April. In May, information collected from residents will be presented to the city council.
You can take the survey at http://tinyurl.com/sp-trash. You can also learn more about this at www.stpaul.gov/residents/live-saintpaul/ utilities/organized-trash-collection.