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Will Saint Paul's latest policy reduce trash or just divert it out of Minnesota

What can be done about plastic?
What can be done about plastic?
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Eighty percent solid waste diversion by 2030. That is the goal of the current Saint Paul City Council per a resolution passed at last night’s city council meeting.

"I think this is the first time we will have officially adopted some specific targets and goals around diverting material out of our waste stream," Council Member Russ Stark said. "We've got points in time that we're setting targets for."

Much of the language seems to revolve around increasing compliance with current citywide recycling efforts. But, is this current resolution just lip service to make us “feel good” about our city while in reality not diverting trash from landfills?

San Francisco boasts 70 to 75% waste diversion. But, much of this waste is just shipped elsewhere, where it is eventually disposed of. Kim Holmes, director of recycling for the Society of the Plastics Industry in Washington, said in “Business Week” that “nearly all plastic from U.S. electronics waste is exported to Asia.”

Chinese customs have found that nearly 40% of shipments are non-recyclable trash. In addition to plastics not being recycled, many electronics end up being dumped or dismantled in environmentally unsound ways after export to China.

China has recently implemented its Green Fence policy, which is tightening restrictions on what types of recycling imports it will take.

Saint Paul currently has a contract with Eureka Recycling whose website notes the company supports a “zero waste” mission. Per an email discussion with Eureka, the company says that all plastics are sent to North American markets. They note that other developing countries are beginning to accept plastics, but were Eureka to start exporting to those countries, it would be because they could track the process.

Eureka also has a recycled paper co-op, which allows businesses and individuals to purchase recycled paper at a reduced cost.

There are other examples of businesses around Saint Paul that do offer some assistance in reuse and waste diversion.

Twin Cities Reptiles accepts yogurt containers which they use to contain live food purchased for reptilian pets. Mr Michael Recycles Bicycles reuses bicycle parts and they are always looking for donations of bicycles, no matter the condition. Fixity’s motto is, “Fix it, don’t nix it.” According to their website, they reuse material for new creations or repair just about anything.

Companies like these are great examples of actual waste diversion and could play a key role in helping the city to achieve real results.

In December, when the city council was discussing specifics related to this policy resolution, Mr Michael Recycles Bicycles asked that the city “adopt a process that provides equal and open access to all businesses who wish to collect usable items at the cleanups. The process should give preference to businesses that pay taxes in the City of St. Paul prior to giving access to non-profits.”

However, city goals have not mentioned incentives or policies that support all of the businesses that actually reuse and divert waste. As the “Pioneer Press” notes this morning, “though many details remain unknown, achieving those goals will require the city to collect food waste and a wider variety of paper products by the year 2017.”

The article continues that, per Council Member Stark, “the city will soon roll out upgraded recycling services with Eureka Recycling, a nonprofit that provides curbside collection citywide on a contract basis.”

Very few places actually achieve real waste diversion. As mentioned earlier, much of San Francisco’s recycling is exported to China, where San Francisco has little control over what happens.

Two places seem to attain results. Sweden is the country most often cited. It recycles a great deal of its trash and what isn’t recycled is burned for energy. Sweden imports trash.

In Detroit, General Motors (GM) reports that it has also achieved zero waste. The company reports $2.5 billion in revenue since 2007, when it began selling recycled materials.

Some of GM’s recycling and reuse efforts have used scrap parts to create things like wood-duck nesting boxes for wildlife refuges.

"A lot of the stuff we've incorporated has come from employee ideas," GM Spokeswoman Sharon Basel told “Detroit Free Press.”

When talking about the Saint Paul’s goal of 80% waste diversion by 2030, Chris Tolbert said, "These are fairly bold yet attainable goals.”

Non-profits and businesses in Saint Paul are beginning to work toward waste reduction. But, city policy is more focused on regulation than with real results.

To truly achieve zero waste, the development of markets will be required. Markets will need to be created through creativity, hard work, and partnerships with multiple businesses.

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