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Re-Appropriating Reuse

April 30, 2012 By Joel Mandella, Macalester College

Over the past several weeks Minnesota 2020 has been running a series of columns focusing on environmental policy issues. This is part of our continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

What if there was a system to solve many of the environmental challenges that face the 21st century without sacrificing a healthy environment or economic goals? What if we could use fewer resources, lessen strains on ecosystems, and improve the economy through both personal and governmental channels?

This ideal system already exists in America today, though it remains largely invisible to most people in their daily lives. But with more recognition and support, recycling proposals could become more widespread and effective in achieving collective economic and environmental goals.

The current waste management system in Minnesota is still largely rooted in unsustainable and inefficient waste disposal. In Minnesota, the average individual in the Twin City area produces seven pounds of waste every day. All together, that is enough waste to fill the Metrodome 11 times, every year.

More than half the total waste of Minnesota is sent to processing plants or landfills located both in- and out-of-state. Even though these processing plants are useful in reclaiming some of the energy through burning acceptable materials (24.5 percent of waste) and composting (less than 1 percent of waste), they also generate hazardous byproducts that then must be carefully disposed of. Moreover, the containment layers of these landfills eventually break down and leak toxic chemicals into surrounding ground and surface water.

Though these disposal processes create some jobs, the EPA estimates that recycling creates at least five times as many jobs as landfills. While the state of California spends 25 million dollars every year sending plastic bags to landfills and 8 million a year to remove littered bags from streets, Ireland in 2002 passed a 15-cent tax on plastic bags and consumption of plastic bags dropped 90 percent. The program also raised millions of euro in revenue. If enacted in Minnesota, this system would not only decrease unnecessary government spending and reduce pollution, but also increase state income.

Though efforts towards sustainability have proved helpful, there is still much room for improvement in recycling processes. Currently, the major recycling companies Eureka Recycling and Veolia Environmental Services manage waste in the Twin Cities. In 2001, Eureka Recycling assessed their process of curbside collection of separated paper materials and containers two times per week.

The study found that a weekly combined material pick-up was more efficient, along with an added bottle collection service. This led to overall improved costs, greater convenience, and diverted 74 percent of household discards from landfills to reuse. Every 5 plastic bottles saved by this curbside pick-up provides enough fiber for an extra-large T-shirt, one square foot of carpeting, or the necessary fiber for a ski jacket.

The study also found that curbside composting would be economical and ecological, but this has been slow in enactment. Eleven years later, Eureka has created a few organic composting programs in Minnesota, but many areas of the state are completely without such services or are still in the initial testing phases.

There are many ways on both personal and political levels to make a difference concerning the importance and availability of recycling. Most importantly, individuals should be sure to recycle their wastes and consume less. By doing this collectively, we can ensure that recycling programs continue to be economically possible, and know that we are participating in a simple act that makes a large environmental impact as a whole.

Those who wish to get more involved can put political pressure on governments and interest groups to pass recycling initiatives, or write to local recycling companies and state representatives to request expanded composting services in their neighborhoods. There are still many products and materials that are not currently recycled. Some of these materials are hazardous or impossible to reuse, but other potential materials are not recycled simply because an area has no existing infrastructure to reprocess them. By demanding expanded processing for recyclables, individuals can show support for a recyclable and change the recycling industry.

Recycling is not a panacea for global environmental and social problems facing the 21st century, but it is an amazing opportunity to change the current unsustainable society into a more healthy, beautiful, and wise culture and environment of reuse.

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