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Minneapolis transition to one-sort recycling expected to ramp up participation

The city’s current multi-sort recycling rate is embarrassing low — 18.1% — compared with St. Paul’s dual-sort rate of 46 percent.

Minneapolis hopes a transition to one-sort recycling will help it reach its 2015 recycling participation goal.
Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis

In Minneapolis, we should be embarrassed about how little we recycle.

Every other week, we carry our paper, plastic, cans and bottles to the curb carefully sorted and ready for recycling. At least that’s the theory.

In reality, our recycling rate is 18.1 percent — not quite one in five households.

In St. Paul, to use an embarrassing comparison, the recycling rate is 46 percent, nearly half of the households.

The reason?

Eight years ago, St. Paul switched from a multi-sort recycling system with every-other-week pickup — the Minneapolis system — to a dual-sort setup with weekly pickup. With dual-sort, residents put paper in one bin and everything else in the other bin.

“We increased the recovery rate by 15 to 18 percent,” said Tim Brownell, CEO of Eureka Recycling, which serves St. Paul. The switch “gave people more capacity,” he said.

Minneapolis rate needs to double

Minneapolis needs to almost double its recycling rate by 2015 to comply with a goal set for the city by Hennepin County so it can comply with a new state-imposed requirement to achieve a 45 percent recycling rate.

Reaching that goal will be tough if the biggest city in the county is lagging at 18 percent.

But Minneapolis does have a plan, and it’s been tested, with positive results, in two neighborhoods. New recycling carts already have been ordered.

Welcome to the world of one-sort recycling.

With that approach, all recyclable items go into one cart — and someone else, somewhere else, does the sorting.

one-sort recycling bin
Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis
Minneapolis residents will soon have just one
bin for recyclables.

“One-sort recycling will be so simple,” said Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy, who chairs the Transportation and Public Works Committee. “It’s going to be much simpler for people, and that is why we think there will be a much larger volume of recycling.”

Residents no longer will have bags of cans and bags of bottles and bags of paper sitting around the house.

They will still be asked to rinse out bottles and cans, and pizza boxes still will not be accepted.

“We have not been champs in recent years,” said Colvin Roy, who attributes the Minneapolis slide to the inclusion of yard waste tonnage, which should have been a separate category. “We didn’t realize how the suburbs had passed us up.”

Formal recycling, which started in Minneapolis 1982, has never moved above 20 percent and has been stagnant or in decline over the past 10 years.

2 neighborhoods test one-sort

The two one-sort test areas involved the East Calhoun Neighborhood Association and the Willard-Hay Neighborhood on the North Side. In each district, the weight of recycled materials was recorded before the test.

East Calhoun, which already had a high rate of recycling, saw the total weight increase by 31 percent with one-sort. Willard-Hay, with a lower rate beforehand, recorded a 77 percent increase.

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“Households that were not recycling started recycling,” said Sarah Sponheim, president of the East Calhoun Neighborhood Association and chair of the Green Team. She said it was easy to recycle with the new 95-gallon cart the city provided.

“We recycle a lot in my house, and it’s often full in two weeks,” she said. “You get used to it in a hurry. It’s so much easier.”

Now, she said, the alleys are neater because the new large carts don’t fall over and spill things the way the old bins sometimes did.

Citywide one-sort recycling is beginning this fall with 30,000 households getting new recycling carts.

Another 80,000 households will be added in the spring. Those neighborhoods have not yet been selected.

The fall program will be closely observed to identify problems and find solutions before the spring expansion.

Participants selected for the fall program will receive a letter explaining the new system, a calendar of pickup dates and, thank you very much, a refrigerator magnet explaining items eligible for recycling.

The city has already ordered blue 95-gallon carts, and the good news is you get to keep what is left of your old green or blue plastic bin. The cost for the carts, at one per household, is $6.8 million.  The cost for eight additional collection trucks is $1.976 million for a total of slightly more than $8.7 million.

Minneapolis will continue with pickup every other week, but the 95-gallon carts should be able to handle two weeks’ worth of materials. In St. Paul, with weekly pickup, homeowners’ collection bins are smaller.

One-sort’s multiple advantages

“Minneapolis will see an increase in recovery,” said Eureka’s Brownell, noting that the large-capacity carts will provide ample space.

Minneapolis recycling
Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis
One-sort will allow for vastly simpler recycling trucks.

There are other advantages to a one-sort system, officials say. The system, for example, will use the same type of collection vehicle the city now uses for solid-waste pickup. It also eliminates the need for multi-compartment trucks.

A dual-sort system was also tested in Minneapolis, but it did not increase the recycling rate as much and was more expensive. The dual-sort system requires both collection trucks with separate chambers and two collection containers per household.

The cost for a dual-sort collection system would have been $13 million, about $4 million more than the One Sort system. 

Two cities that have one-sort systems have seen recycling collection rates increase. Ann Arbor, Mich., has a rate of 37 percent, and Portland, Ore., 34 percent. With the switch, Ann Arbor’s weekly tonnage increased by 15 percent.

St. Paul is considering a move to a one-sort system, perhaps by 2014, but it also might add compostable material to take advantage of its dual-sort trucks.

Comparing cities’ recycling programs

 MinneapolisSaint Paul
Participation level18.1% of households46% of households
Recycling setupMulti-sort
Collected every other week
Dual sort
Weekly collection
Current systemCity-runEureka Recycling
Volume33% of available tonnage (2010)20,500 tons (2011)
EnhancementsSwitching in stages to one-sort systemConsidering one-sort; may add compostables, more plastics
New systemStarting now with 30,000 households; adding 80,000 in springNot applicable
Basic costs$24/mo for trash ($7 recycling credit) plus cart fee$20.90 monthly
Source: Minneapolis, Saint Paul