To boost recycling, St. Paul may need to trash old bins

Recycling collector Eric Fredrickson
Recycling collector Eric Fredrickson dumped a bin of paper, bottles and cans into the side of a Eureka Recycling truck in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, March 12, 2015.
Curtis Gilbert | MPR News

A new, simplified recycling system that worked wonders in Minneapolis has had decidedly underwhelming results in St. Paul — and the city's old recycling containers may be partly to blame.

After a $1 million overhaul of its recycling system, St. Paul's recycling rate has dropped slightly, even though city residents have been allowed to put all their recyclables into a single bin. All the sorting happens at a central facility.

"Everything has just been very stagnant," St. Paul Environmental Coordinator Kris Hageman said.

As measured by weight, overall recycling is at about the same level as it has been for the last five years. Last year, the tonnage dropped 1 percent.

When Minneapolis rolled out a similar program a couple of years ago, the results were immediate and dramatic. Recycling jumped 30 percent, and it's continued to climb.

Tim Brownell, co-president of Eureka Recycling, which manages St. Paul's program, said Minneapolis saw a huge increase in its recycling rate because the previous program was extremely complicated.

"People were sorting newspaper from magazines from cardboard," Brownell said. "They were separating glass by color, separating their aluminum from their metals, etc. And so they made a dramatic shift from a nine-sort system to a one-sort."

St. Paul, meanwhile had only two categories before April, which were not hard for residents to manage. That's why the city once had a much higher recycling rate than Minneapolis.

Rep. Frank Hornstein
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, urged House and Senate negotiators to provide money for recycling in a supplemental budget bill on Tuesday, April 22, 2014.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News 2014

Containers are another factor. When Minneapolis eliminated its convoluted sorting system, the city also made a major investment in new receptacles for recycling. It gave every recycling customer what the industry calls a cart — essentially a large plastic garbage can with wheels and lid.

St. Paul Environmental Policy Director Anne Hunt said carts hold a lot more than old-fashioned recycling bins. They can stay in the alley, which is more convenient for residents than hauling several small bins to the curb every week.

Many people, she said, have trouble keeping track of recycling day.

"If they have a wheeled lidded cart, where they can just put the material in at any time that's convenient for them, when they're going out to their alley or going out to their garage or something like that, they'll put the material in there and they don't really have to keep track of which day it is collected on," Hunt said.

Annual recycling measured by tons in Minneapolis and St. Paul

Recycling in Mpls, St. Paul
Data source: The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Curtis Gilbert | MPR News

Eureka Recycling estimates moving to carts would increase St. Paul's recycling rate by 15 percent. The city wants to switch but hasn't yet. Residents are still using their old recycling bins, which are about one-fifth the size.

St. Paul had originally planned to buy carts this year, but had to delay when it discovered they weren't compatible with Eureka's current fleet of trucks. Together new trucks and carts would have cost the city up to $7 million over the remaining two years of Eureka's contract. St. Paul is now shooting to make the upgrade when the contract comes up for renewal in 2017.

St. Paul's switch to single-sort recycling hasn't been a complete failure. It's collecting about 50 percent more plastic now, because it started accepting things like yogurt tubs and strawberry boxes. But plastics are still a relatively small percentage of the recycling stream, and they haven't made up for declines in glass and other heavier items.

However, Hunt said those items aren't necessarily going to landfills.

"A number of people are getting their subscriptions to the newspaper or their magazines online. So we're not seeing that material at the curb," she said. "A number of items are also shifting to a lighter weight plastic bottle — for example, the ones that crunch when you are finished with them. There's even some other products that are shifting from glass into aluminum or glass into plastic. And so that impacts the amount of material that we are picking up at the curb."

That doesn't mean the overall amount of trash from St. Paul residents is declining. The city estimates that number is rising per household per year. If recycling is stable as trash is on the rise, households are likely recycling less than they were before.

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