Peek at Northlanders' trash reveals a troubling surpriseBottles and cans lead a lengthy list of items we're forgetting to recycle, which amounts to more than $700,000 per year in lost value of recyclable material.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Duluth-area residents and visitors are tossing more than 40 million beverage containers into the trash every year despite efforts to encourage recycling.
That’s the finding of a series of trash surveys conducted recently by the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District in Duluth.
In the latest effort, in October, WLSSD staff donned gloves and ripped open garbage bags on the tipping floor where garbage trucks dump their loads — sorting through about 49 garbage truckloads, more than 13,000 pounds of trash, over five days. They looked at a mix of loads from homes and businesses.
They found a lot food waste that should be composted, tons of paper that should be recycled and even a few microwaves and water heaters that are illegal to trash.
But it was plastic beverage bottles and aluminum cans that stunned the survey crew.
“We knew we had an issue with beverage containers. But when we did the math, it was shocking,” WLSSD spokeswoman Karen Anderson said. “It came to more than 18 million pop and beer cans, and another 19 million plastic bottles, every year.” And that only from Duluth, Hermantown and Proctor, she said.
That’s a lot of AquaFina, Mountain Dew and Bud Light — 423 cans and 461 plastic bottles per house per year in the Duluth area that aren’t being recycled.
During the holidays, more glass ends up in the trash, with wine, liquor and beer bottles topping the list.
Recycling not only saves landfill space but requires less energy and fewer natural resources to transform old containers into new products.
Failure to recycle also means a lot of money is wasted. The WLSSD figures the lost value of aluminum that could have been recycled here at $402,000 annually, with almost another $200,000 in plastic. In all, the estimated value of recycled material being trashed is more than $721,000 annually, just in the Duluth area.
It’s a statewide problem. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency last week said Minnesotans waste $285 million annually in the lost value of recyclable materials thrown in the garbage, and then they waste another $200 million to bury or burn the stuff.
While everyone is guilty, the biggest problems seem to occur in three areas: travel and events; apartment buildings and multi-unit housing; and rural areas that don’t have curbside recycling.
“There was a documented increase in the amount of recyclables we get (in the trash) from rural loads,” Anderson said. To help combat that problem, the WLSSD is trying to make it easier for people to recycle, with less sorting required at township recycling centers.
WLSSD also is working in 15 multi-unit housing complexes for seniors, students and families to test projects to see what will make people recycle more and throw out less. Making sure landlords provide the option of recycling, often with space limitations in the buildings, has been a challenge.
It seems when Northlanders are away from home, we either can’t find or don’t bother to find recycling containers. Sporting events, parks, schools and convenience stores are some of our most common locations to trash beverage containers.
“Back in the ’90s when we drank a Pepsi at our house, we drank it in returnable glass bottles,” said Tim Farnan, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recycling expert. “It’s been in the last 20 years or so that we’ve seen this huge increase in single-serving, nonreturnable containers. There are more of us drinking more, and we’re taking (beverages) out and about more than before, and it’s really changed the composition of the whole waste stream.”
A survey by the Recycling Association of Minnesota, an industry group, found that the average Minnesota gas stations sent nearly 3 tons of beverage containers to garbage dumps and incinerators every year. The WLSSD and PCA have been working on the problem, delivering (free of charge) 250 bottle-shaped recycling bins to more than 120 convenience stores in the Duluth area over the past year.
While the bins were free to the stores, the recycling service provided by garbage haulers is not. Some store owners grumbled, but the WLSSD’s solid waste ordinance requires businesses to separate their trash and recycle any recoverable materials.
“Without the ordinance few, if any, of the gas stations would have been willing to implement recycling services,” a PCA analysis of the WLSSD program noted.
As part of a class project, UMD engineering students have been observing how the recycling canisters are working – whether the stores are keeping them in key areas, emptying them when needed, and whether customers are using them. The results aren’t yet in, but there has been some success.
In one case, after the WLSSD preached recycling as the law, one convenience store moved from having a large dumpster for garbage and one, 96-gallon cart for recycling to now filling the dumpster with recycling and needing just a cart for garbage.
“They were finding that most of their garbage volume was actually recyclables,” Anderson said.
The explosion of beverage containers, some 5 billion units were sold in Minnesota alone each year, has renewed the effort to enact a beverage container deposit law in Minnesota. A group called Recycling Refund notes that the state recycles only 35 percent of its beverage containers, compared to 97 percent in Michigan. Since 1978 Michigan has required consumers to pay 10 cents extra for each beverage container, then refunds the money when the container is recycled.
Iowa, which requires a 5-cent deposit, recycles more than 90 percent of its beverage containers.
“It’s really an away-from-home problem that’s unique to beverage containers,” said Molly Pederson, government affairs director for Conservation Minnesota. “We’re buying more and more things in single-serving containers, especially out of the home where it’s not easy to find a recycling bin.”