The state of recycling in Minnesota, with low economic return and high volume, has many looking for solutions beyond wishful thinking as landfills reach capacity and oil companies churn out more virgin plastics.
Wishcycling, according to Christine McCarthy, Lake County’s environmental services director, comes from the best of intentions when someone puts something in the recycling bin that they “wish” could be recycled, like a plastic yogurt container with the #5 recyclable symbol.
“People can’t bring themselves to throw something in the garbage that they think should be recycled. They are hoping and wishing it will be recycled,” McCarthy said.
But wishcycling can also include legitimately recyclable items, like that #1 plastic peanut butter jar that you didn’t bother to scrub out and left the blue lid on. If you did that, you may have just created a problem that could jeopardize the recyclability of all the other #1 plastics in the bin with your PB jar.
During the pandemic, McCarthy waded into sorting recycling when workers had to stay home. She found plenty of “contaminants” to a recycling load, like dirty jars with lids on, along with #3 through #7 plastics currently not accepted.
“It really gave me an opportunity to experience the dirty job of sorting plastics when people are not cleaning them and we have to pull the dirty ones out so the whole load isn’t rejected,” McCarthy said.
While Minnesota has a better than average rate of recyclables contamination, the expense of labor-intensive sorting adds to the equation, making recycling a losing game.
“We are faced with low-payback on recycling. We have to figure out how we can use these recyclables in a new way.”
The prices for recyclables were in a freefall after China stopped accepting shipments from the U.S. in 2018, McCarthy said. China had been handling nearly half of the world’s recyclables for over two decades.
Current prices appear to be coming up slightly, but McCarthy said there is still a long way to go before recycling is anything other than a money-loser for haulers and county-operated recycling centers.
“We are creating a commodity, and we need to make sure on the other end there is money going in to create opportunities for someone to capitalize,” she said.
Four companies in Minnesota received funding earlier this year as part of the Recycling Market Development program, with undervalued markets of glass, organics and mixed paper targeted for priority development.
Legislation passed in 2019 providing $400,000 a year for two years to fund expanded recycling opportunities. Operated through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the program’s funding was passed by the legislature at the same level in 2021 for an additional two years.
Susan Heffron, MPCA’s recycling market development coordinator, said those three target materials are some of the most ubiquitous and least salable, with practically no interest by companies for re-use.
“Those materials are of the lowest value, so trying to get an end market for those raw materials will change things, so companies don’t have to pay to get rid of them, but instead find better prices to sell them,” she said.
The first round of grants went to companies around greater Minnesota. One company will convert glass to sandblast material. The largest funded project by a Brainerd recycling company will transform lower-grade paper to cleaner paper that is in higher demand. Another project will increase food waste composting in Northfield. A fourth project expands recycling operations for a firm to purchase new equipment to convert vinyl waste into vinyl hose, and shred cardboard cores into bedding for livestock.
A second round of grant recipients are expected to be announced later this summer in the hopes of boosting prices for these unwanted materials that in recent years have ended up in landfills.
Even companies that have honed the process of sourcing reliable streams of recycled material, like Loll Designs in Duluth, are encountering problems.
With a history in the Twin Ports going back over 20 years, Loll has embraced recycling in many aspects of its manufacturing. Until disruptions in the plastics market last year, Loll’s furniture was made from 100% recycled high-density polyethylene, or recycled plastic from #2 milk jugs and shampoo bottles.
Loll’s supply chain manager, Jill Letendre, said demand for recycled content resin went through the roof last year, due to a natural disaster in Texas, and also an increased pandemic-related consumer demand for sustainable outdoor furniture.
“A lot of large companies came into the market and looked to use the same post-consumer resin. The cost went up and forced us to redefine the blend of resin we use,” Letendre said.
The big winter freeze in Texas in 2020 took out infrastructure related to the same plastics resin for weeks, creating a bottleneck that contributed to more supply pressure.
These changes are pushing Loll to explore alternative sources such as ocean bound plastic and plant-based plastics.
“This is new to us, and it’s pushed us to be more innovative with our suppliers, and more innovation can come if there’s more push to find solutions to using plastics in other ways,” Letendre said.
Zero Waste Cook County (ZWCC) is just getting launched in Grand Marais, but founders of this grassroots group have aspirations to enhance plastic recycling uptake in their rural area. New Cook County resident Kristina Mattson brings her experience as co-founder of the Zero Waste St. Paul. Her first goal is to find a source to take #5 plastics.
“People don’t realize that recycling is set up as a commodities market. Something can hypothetically be recycled, but it really is limited based on if that material is valuable,” said Mattson.
A reduction and diversion need to be addressed with an estimated 130 tons a year of new single-use plastic being produced.
While she is a believer in working at a local level to make change, Mattson said that bigger changes are needed at the state level. Shifting responsibility to plastics producers through legislation is what will ultimately create a market change, she said. “Transferring the cost of packaging recycling onto the producer to subsidize disposal costs, rather than the taxpayer, would take the weight off the shoulders of the consumer and the county,” said Mattson.
Maine was the first state to pass an Extended Producer Responsibility earlier this year, and another EPR bill is awaiting the governor of Oregon’s signature. Five other states have introduced similar legislation to require producers to pay a portion of the recycling costs for their packaging.