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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Recycling Ready for its Close-Up

August 23, 2013 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Let’s get this straight. All recycling is garbage while most garbage is unrealized recycling. Got that? Good, because more recycling means less garbage. Less garbage means lower costs, individually and collectively. You can save the planet and save yourself some cash. It’s also not that simple.

Garbage is discarded, unwanted material. It’s the detritus of human life. That doesn’t mean that garbage lacks value, utility or application. Through waste stream management, garbage is redefined. When one person’s garbage is another person’s treasure, the garbage pile gets a lot smaller. This is as true in Minneota as it is in Minneapolis.

Recycling is the process of converting or changing waste into new products. Old aluminum cans become new cans through industrial-level remelting. The same holds for recycling used glass bottles into new glass bottles. Aluminum, steel, glass and paper are the easy recycling targets. As recycling programs expanded, communities have tended to use these items’ profits to subsidize plastics recycling costs. After that, it gets a bit more complicated because of the processing and conversion costs.

Plastics recycling presents a unique barrier to recycling programs. After spending years collecting glass bottles and cans, plastic milk jugs and liquid detergent containers started looking suspiciously similar and convincingly recyclable. I mean, they’re big. They hold stuff much as glass bottles hold stuff. Obviously, some conspiracy prevents curbside collection and ready recycling of plastics.

Aluminum’s chemical structure elegantly lends itself to remelting and repurposing. Once aluminum has been extracted from ore, separated and processed, it can be readily re-used. That’s just not the case for plastics because plastics are composed of polymers, synthetic, moldable, organic solids mostly generated from petrochemicals. Plastics behave differently from metals because chemically they’re very different from metals. That, in short, is why recycling plastics is more cumbersome and expensive than recycling glass and aluminum.

As reprocessing costs rise, the price exceeds what the market will bear for the recycled material, leaving us with two choices: subsidize the recycled materials price, lowering it relative to competing materials or increase the costs of not recycling by removing or at least revealing hidden subsidies. That’s right. Garbage carries a cost.

We’re accustomed to think of garbage as simply a logistics problem. How quickly can I get it out of my house to somewhere out of sight? Understanding garbage as a complex, intertwined waste stream changes that picture and expectation. Even without recycling, waste carries costs. Monthly garbage hauling fees alone reflect that truth. The less garbage I produce, the less money I spend on disposing it. Simultaneously, I can improve waste stream reduction by increasing recyclables separation in my home where my cost is time rather than cash.

Suddenly, however, while my curbside garbage stream is slowing, my recyclables stream is growing. I have more paper, bottles, cans and plastic 1s and 2s outside of kitchen garbage pail than I have garbage in it. Now, I need an extra place to keep my recyclables.

This need is driving public demand for single-sort recycling collection, which Minneapolis and several other municipalities have done. Rather than having separate boxes for each item, single-source means we throw everything in one collections container. The convenience factor increases recycling participation, reducing the solid waste stream and attendant public costs. It also expands public awareness of recycling’s persuasive attitudinal shift which, basically, boils down to, “see? It’s not that hard.”

Retail goods manufacturers identify the need for a product’s reward. Toothpaste, used with tooth brushing, may increase dental hygiene but, that in itself, lacks a rewarding emotional punch. Mint taste, it turns out, leaves a slightly bracing clean flavor, emotionally reinforcing the experience and, subtly, the toothpaste brand. Cost savings alone is, for most consumers, an inadequate recycling participation reward. Curbside pick-up reinforces the collective and individual achievement. Pulling away from my house on Wednesday mornings, I see the result of recycling’s success as everyone’s blue collection tub sits waiting on the curb like Harleys at a biker bar. It’s not the same as a clean, minty taste but it’s pretty close.

We’re narrowing the waste stream by reducing inputs, more completely consuming materials and redirecting garbage into reused and recycled outputs. My city, Saint Paul, just announced that it’s expanding collected recyclables and committing to single-sort curbside pick-up. Every Minnesota county is making progress although most haven’t moved past the aluminum, cans, glass and paper group.

Recycling is the right direction for Minnesota. From businesses purposefully reducing packaging content to families lowering garbage costs, actively engaging waste stream reduction is smart public policy that leads us to other, equally smart policies about energy, roads, school, healthcare and job creation. More recycling gets us more of a better Minnesota.

Next step, using less stuff that we have to throw away.

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  • Packerchu says:

    August 25, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    Now if it were easier in Minneapolis to get an extra recycling bin.  :/