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Saint Paul City Council talks trash

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Yesterday, the Saint Paul City Council had a policy discussion about plans to meet the goals of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Minnesota’s goal for 2030 is a 60% diversion rate of trash into recycling. There is also an organic diversion goal of 9 to 15% by 2030.

There is not much specific data about who recycles and who doesn’t or whether different forms of packaging are reducing the amount of recycling and trash. Councilmembers discussed how to increase the compliance of recycling amongst renters, whom they view as least compliant. City data indicates that recycling has decreased overall in Saint Paul since 2008.

One incentive for recycling identified by the city council is that residents will pay less for trash collection. They believe economics will ensure compliance amongst landlords and homeowners. Another method identified to ensure compliance is the argument that recycling is just good for our planet and future generations. Per the literature, these are the two most often identified rationales for recycling.

But, what if there is no market, now or in the future, for recycled material? If there is no economic benefit and if we are not identifying future ways to use the materials, then the two main rationales for compliance are not real.

Along with the rest of the economy, the recycling market collapsed in 2008. The market for recycled materials continues to be on a downward trend. So, these materials end up at landfills regardless of people’s best intentions. Or, if governments are insistent on recycling, businesses will receive subsidies for using recycled material. Minnesota's Department of Waste Management has a recyclable materials marketing plan that includes loans and grants to businesses using recyclable materials. No market for recycled material means a greater cost to residents for trash collection or no reduction in materials to landfills or both.

We like to think that our trash is valuable. The Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation estimates that between 700,000 to 1.4 million Americans are hoarders. Perhaps, this critical mass of hoarders has convinced us to put recyclables into one bin, trash into another, and organics into yet another. Simply believing something has value does not make it valuable.

There is an alternative to recycling and landfills. Sweden uses trash as a form of energy. While even the Twin Cities has a waste to energy plant, Sweden imports 700,000 tons of garbage per year. Imported trash-- trash that has value-- doesn’t seem like trash.

Creating value from trash does not appear to be our goal. During the Saint Paul City Council discussion about the city recycling policy, there was no mention of the market for recycled material or of businesses which might find economic use for these products.

One business, Mr Michael Recycles Bicycles, submitted a letter for the discussion that described how they use recycled materials and how their use plays a role in building a stronger economy. They would like to see businesses that would benefit from recycling collection to be able to participate in collections. Mr Michael was the lone voice.

We pay for recycling with the fees and taxes the city charges for the collection of recycling, the taxes used to subsidize businesses for using recycled materials, and the costs of trucking material from households to recycling centers then to landfills when no market is found. Recycling, waste to energy, and landfills have been the topics of big debates in the United States, and little has been accomplished.

Alaskan residents receive an annual dividend in part paid for by oil revenues. If our trash was so valuable that businesses chose to buy it instead of purer forms of materials, and if energy companies were scrambling for it, shouldn’t we be receiving dividends, too, rather than paying in multiple ways to have it hauled away?

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