The demographics of garbage: What are Minnesotans really throwing away?

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is releasing a waste composition report today, which highlights trends of recycling in Minnesota. Some key findings:

  • The amount of plastic thrown away has increased from 11 percent of the waste stream to 18 percent since 2000.
  • Paper in the waste stream has decreased from 34 percent to 25 percent, likely due to decreased printing of newspapers.
  • Twelve thousand tons, or 24 million pounds, of aluminum beverage containers were discarded in Minnesota in 2012—the equivalent of 3.6 million aluminum cans per day.
  • Over 543,000 tons (1 billion pounds) of recyclable paper were discarded in Minnesota in 2012.
  • 21,000 tons (41 million pounds) of PET beverage container plastic were discarded in 2012.
  • Organics (food) accounts for 31 percent of the waste stream, which is a 21 percent increase from the 2000 study.

The study investigated what Minnesotans are throwing into the garbage and how much. The last waste composition study was completed in 2000. Due to their high cost, waste composition studies are not conducted regularly, but they do provide valuable information for the MPCA’s solid waste programs.  Data from this study will be used to target recyclable materials that are being thrown away in large quantities and promote increased efforts at recycling.

The 2013 waste composition study indicates there is less paper and less glass in the waste stream, but more plastic and more food waste. This speaks to the need to find a way to recycle more types of plastics, and to establish more organics collection opportunities to handle the large amount of food waste that is being thrown away.

“The organics information is the most obvious issue we can, and will, address with more organics recycling and composting,” the MPCA’s Peder Sandhei said. “There are many findings to discuss and strategize to improve from this report, but the main point is that we’re discarding valuable resources, and jobs are lost with every garbage truck that’s emptied.”

The study also shows that Minnesotans are discarding a large amount of material that is currently recyclable — material that can be used to create jobs in the local economy. Some of the Minnesota companies that make or produce products out of recycled material are Rock-Tenn in St. Paul; Bedford Technology in Worthington; By The Yard in Jordan; Master Mark in Paynesville; Liberty Paper in Becker; New Page in Duluth; and Gerdeau Ameristeel in South St. Paul.

“This report is a wake-up call. Minnesotans take great pride in environmental stewardship, but these numbers suggest we’re not living up to our reputation,” John Linc Stine, commissioner of the MPCA, said. “The amount of plastic and aluminum we’re still seeing going to the landfill is much more than a lost environmental opportunity: it’s a lost economic opportunity as well. We are literally throwing away valuable resources that fuel jobs and economic activity; we’re burying opportunity in landfills.”

When material is taken out of the waste stream, jobs are created. Recycling benefits the economy by:

  • Creating jobs: approximately 37,000 jobs in Minnesota are directly and indirectly supported by the recycling industry. These jobs pay an estimated $1.96 billion in wages and add nearly $8.5 billion to Minnesota’s economy.
  • Generating profit: our recyclable material has tremendous economic value. In 2010, Minnesota recycling programs collected about 2.5 million tons of material worth $690 million.
  • Saving money: it cost Minnesota over $200 million to throw away 1 million tons of recyclable material in 2010. Instead, this waste could easily have been recycled for an additional estimated value of $217 million.

For more information and a copy of the report, go to http://www.pca.state.mn.us/ac966ux

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