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Minnesota’s new recycling law means business

Under the state’s new recycling rules, Twin Cities businesses will have to follow practices homeowners have used for decades. 

In May, Gov. Mark Dayton signed the first major overhaul of the state’s recycling rules in 25 years: a law that will raise goals, expand funding, and — most significantly — require businesses to follow similar recycling rules as homeowners.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Long considered a national leader in recycling, Minnesota now is modeling even more ways to reuse. In May, Gov. Mark Dayton signed the first major overhaul of the state’s recycling rules in 25 years: a law that will raise goals, expand funding, encourage more composting, and — perhaps most significantly — require businesses to follow similar recycling rules as homeowners.

“Basically, recycling rates for the state have remained flat since the first laws were initiated in 1990, though some counties have done better than others,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who sponsored the legislation. “We are not increasing the recycling rate to the extent we ought to be to create jobs and grow the economy. We have literally been throwing away $200 million every year of materials that can be used.”

The new law will try to increase the rates in several ways. First, it sets a goal for metro counties to recycle and compost 75 percent of solid waste by 2030, up from 50 percent now.

“Setting higher recycling goals may not sound like a whole lot, but going from 50 percent to 75 percent, that’s a lot of material,” said Paul Gardner, a former Democratic state representative from Shoreview who now serves as executive director of Recycling Reinvented, a nonprofit organization that promotes recycling policies. “That’s probably 1 million tons or more [of solid waste]. That adds more value to the economy.”

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The new law also increases funding for recycling activities in Minnesota’s 87 counties, requiring them to spend at least half of the additional money they’ll receive to encourage composting, efforts that may include curbside composting bins, Hornstein said.

Currently, each county receives a portion of a funding pool of $14.25 million, based on population. That amount will jump to $21.25 million during fiscal year 2015, then will settle at $17.25 million for each year after that.

The biggest change in the law, though, is a requirement affecting many commercial enterprises within the seven-county metro area: With some exceptions, any business that generates four cubic yards or more of solid waste per week must begin recycling at least three materials, such as paper, glass, plastic and metal, by Jan. 1, 2016. In addition, professional and collegiate sports facilities anywhere in the state will also have to recycle at least three materials. Industries exempt from the new rules include agriculture, construction and manufacturing. 

Despite the goals included in the new law, no penalties exist for failing to meet the benchmarks, said Bob Eleff, of the state’s House of Representatives Research Department. If counties fail to meet the standards, they must simply notify residents and provide information about recycling programs.

“Not exactly blood-curdling enforcement provisions,” Eleff said. “No one’s going to jail.”

Even without strict enforcement measures, though, Minnesota’s new rules will likely enhance the state’s long-held reputation as a national leader when it comes to recycling. The state’s recycling rate, — the amount of solid waste recycled and composted divided by the amount generated — was 46.5 percent in 2012, according to the state Pollution Control Agency. That’s up from just more than 40 percent in 2000. That national recycling rate, according to the EPA, is 34.5 percent.

And Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy at the National Solid Waste & Recycling Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, said Minnesota was among just a few states to put rules into effect regarding businesses. “Very few states speak specifically to commercially recycling,” Miller said. “That’s probably going to be a trend over the next five years.”

Yet quantifying just how well Minnesota — or any other state — is doing when it comes to recycling is challenging. No national standards exist when it comes to how effective states are at the practice. In fact, because states use different metrics to measure their own recycling programs, the only benchmarks against which to establish progress or decline are those state officials set up themselves, said Nora Goldstein, editor of BioCycle magazine.

Goldstein used to collaborate with the Columbia University Earth Engineering Center on a “State of Garbage in America,” which included a state-by-state comparison of recycled and composted material. But the last report BioCycle published was in 2010, using 2008 data. “We stopped calculating the recycling percentages for a variety of reasons, including the lack of robust data being collected by a number of states, which skews the rankings,” said Goldstein, who added that the declining numbers of states tracking those data now is an industry-wide problem.

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Third-party evaluations of state recycling programs are also far more scarce than they once were, said Anne Hunt, environmental policy director for Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul, Minnesota. “Twenty years ago, a lot of environmental groups were tracking solid-waste stuff like that,” Hunt said. “Now, it’s all about renewable energy and greenhouse emissions.”

Nor does the EPA regularly evaluate the efficacy or economic impact of state-recycling programs, said agency spokesman George Hull. The last time it did so, the agency used data from 1997-99, Hull said, though the agency plans to issue a new report in 2015.

In Minnesota, state officials say recycling was directly responsible for 15,221 jobs and produced $8.5 billion in “total estimated gross economic activity” in 2011, according to data provided by Wayne Gjerde, the Pollution Control Agency’s recycling market development coordinator.