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Sustainability in the City: Recycling it forward

December 26, 2013 By Ivy Bardaglio, Macalester College

Minnesota 2020's environmental op-ed series continues today with a look at St. Paul's new recycling initiatives. We hope you enjoy this collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

It has been a rocky journey, but St. Paul is finally on the right track.

After moving into St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood last year, the city’s recycling policies shocked me. I was raised in Vermont, a mecca for all things tie-dye, organic, and sustainable. Upon my arrival to Minnesota’s capitol city, I was accustomed to recycling and composting everything and anything that crossed my path.

In St. Paul, this is not possible. Eureka Recycling, the contractor St. Paul uses for recycling and waste reduction, enforces a strict set of waste guidelines that do not include single-sort recycling or recycling of many plastics. St. Paul’s neighbor and dear twin, Minneapolis is a single-sort recycler that accepts all plastics and nearly all brands of cardboard. Other regions of Minnesota, including Duluth and the surrounding Western Lake Superior district, are also ahead of St. Paul.



Thankfully, the City of St. Paul has a 4-year plan called “Recycle it Forward” that aims to modernize St. Paul’s waste-disposal so it can be a green leader in Minnesota. Through the current recycling program, Eureka has given $3.2 million back to the city to invest in zero-waste initiatives. (2013-14 Recycling Guide)

Starting this year, Eureka plans to increase education and outreach in an effort to boost recycling participation. In 2014, Eureka will launch a single sort recycling program. The current program forces customers to sort their paper/cardboard from bottles and cans. While this dual sort system is already relatively progressive, the system does leave room for improvement. A single sort system will streamline the process and make recycling more accessible and more efficient to all citizens.

Increased plastic recycling will also begin next year. There are currently 7 different numbers of plastic; these numbers can be found of the bottom of most plastic containers encircled in a recycling triangle. These numbers signify the type of plastic the material is made of. Different plastics require different processes to be recycled. In St. Paul only a fraction of these types of plastic can be recycled (Types #1 and #2), all others must be thrown away. Items going to the landfill include shampoo bottles, plastic cups and plates, 3- and 5-gallon water bottles, and DVDs, to name a few popular #3, #6, and #7 plastics. These plastics are all notoriously difficult to recycle due to their complicated chemical makeups.

In 2014, Eureka aims for customers to be able to recycle all #1, #2, #4, #5, and #7 containers. Numbers six and three will still not be recycled, due to the complicated processes required to repurpose them. The addition of plastics #4, 5, and 7 will not only increase the amount of recycled plastic while decreasing the amount of plastic in landfills, it also makes the process much easier for recyclers. Under the policy, almost all plastic can be recycled, thus less sorting and effort is required.

While the Recycle it Forward program intrigues me, I am also apprehensive. Wilder Research reports that St. Paul residents want more convenient recycling and composting options. However, this is not shown in practice. According to the City of St. Paul, participation in the city recycling program has decreased or remained flat over the past few years. Additionally, 7 in 10 St. Paul residents felt they had a “clear understanding” of the recycling system. According to the Wilder study, this confusion most commonly arises over plastics, pizza boxes, and sorting requirements.

Since Eureka is providing an exciting, eco-friendly opportunity for residents to deal with their waste, it is important that we take full advantage of it. In the short term, it will help us limit the amount of waste in landfills, promote environmental justice and reduce pollution. For future generations, it will save energy, improve public health, and help Minnesota meet its goal to reduce waste by 2030.

If we want to preserve our beautiful Midwestern skies, ten thousand lakes, and ecologically diverse forests, we have to live sustainably. Recycling is the easiest day-to-day activity that we can participate in. And thanks to cooperation between community activists, local politicians, and the private sector, this process has been made incredibly easy for us.

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