Minnesota garbage study offers 'wake up call,' pollution control agency head says

Sorting recyclables
Workers hand-sort recyclables at Waste Management's Materials Recovery Facility in Minneapolis, Minn., in this 2012 file photo.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Food waste and other organic material made up nearly a third of what Minnesotans sent to landfills in 2012, according to a new study state officials released Monday.

The Waste Composition Report, released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, found that organics accounted for 31 percent of the waste stream; 25 percent of the waste stream was paper and 18 percent was plastic. A category called "other wastes," which includes things like furniture, appliances and carpet, also accounted for 18 percent, and metal, glass and electronics were in the single digits.

The last time the MPCA conducted such a study was in 2000. Since then, plastic has made up a bigger part of the waste stream, but the percentage of paper being thrown away has decreased, likely because there are fewer newspapers, the study concluded.

Still, Minnesotans are throwing away about a million tons of recyclable materials in a year that are worth about $217 million, the report said.

"In a perfect world, if you could capture that million tons and capture that organics, there's really not much left after that, so it's a dramatic target there," said Wayne Gjerde, recycling market development coordinator for the MPCA. "Once it goes into the garbage or goes into the landfill, that material is not available for somebody to create economic activity with. So essentially you're throwing away jobs."

MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine called the report a "wake-up call."

Recycling rates have been relatively flat in recent years, leading some to suggest Minnesota adopt a bottle and can deposit law to encourage people to recycle. A cost-benefit analysis is under way to help Minnesota lawmakers decide whether to pursue legislation next year.

Officials said the study also shows more organics collection for composting is needed to address the large amount of food waste going to landfills.

To conduct the study, MPCA contractors sampled and sorted trash at six different trash facilities around the state: Lyon County Regional Landfill, Hubbard County South Transfer Station, Western Lake Superior Sanitary District Transfer Station, Elk River Resource Recovery Facility, Pine Bend Landfill (Republic/Allied) and St. Paul Como Transfer Station (Advanced Disposal).

Other highlights from the study:

• 12,000 tons of aluminum beverage cans were thrown away in Minnesota in 2012, which equals approximately 3.6 million aluminum cans per day.

• 21,000 tons of plastic bottles were thrown away in 2012.

• About 37,000 jobs in Minnesota are directly or indirectly supported by the recycling industry.