Minnesota lawmakers look to put packaging companies on the hook for materials waste

A woman stands by a pile of recyclables
Eureka Recycling Co-President Katie Drews stands by a pile of recyclable material dropped off at the nonprofit's facility in Minneapolis.
Clay Masters | MPR News

Mountains of recyclable materials start filling up a drop-off bay at Eureka Recycling in Minneapolis every morning. 

The nonprofit recycling center takes in 400 tons of recyclable material from the Twin Cities metro every day — and a lot of that waste is from all those packaged materials.

Minnesota is among a small but growing number of places where bills have been introduced to achieve what advocates call Enhanced Producer Responsibility policies. California, Oregon, Maine and Colorado have passed legislation. None have been implemented yet.

“Individual action to decide to recycle something and put it into a recycle bin rather than a trash can really matters,” Eureka Recycling co-president Katie Drews said. “But we really need that policy to actually move the needle forward.”

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Deciding where to point that needle is the challenge. At the Capitol, lawmakers are considering what kind of packaging to include, how to incentivize new approaches and, most controversial of all, who should pay to reclaim materials that might otherwise wind up in landfills.

Drews said there is “a really well built-up recycling infrastructure” in Minnesota and packaging should be “created so that it can effectively flow through our facilities.”

Backers voice concerns about waste, climate change and the level of microplastics detected in the blood and lungs of humans.

“There are estimates that Americans consume, on average, one credit card worth of plastic every week,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis.

Under the proposed legislation, an advisory board would come up with ideas for reducing non-recyclable packaging materials. Packaging companies would have to register with a new organization and pay fees. 

The annual fees wouldn’t kick in immediately. The rates would be set through a Pollution Control Agency-led process; there would be incentives for designers to come up with packaging with less material or items that can more easily be recycled.

The end goal is to ensure all packaging would be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2032. 

“It shifts the cost we’re paying for those recycling and disposal fees onto the producers themselves,” Jordan said. “Saving Minnesota taxpayers money in their taxes they pay to their local governments for disposal and recycling.”

The bill has been supported by local entities with landfills that are filling up. But nationally the plan has faced pushback from packaging and retail industries who argue it would cost more for consumers.

“We have some of the highest recycling rates,” said Tony Kwilas, a lobbyist with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, who noted that Minnesota is in the top quarter of all states when on that front. “There is a structure in place, and it is adequately well funded here in the state of Minnesota.”

People sort through materials
Employees at Eureka Recycling sort through various materials that come through the non-profit's facility in Minneapolis.
Clay Masters | MPR News

Kwilas also notes there is a study still underway looking at recycling. Last year, the Legislature put $600,000 toward a study by the Pollution Control Agency on resource management. The directive was to look for policies that could reduce waste by 90 percent by 2045, but that report has yet to be completed.

Republicans like Rep. Josh Heintzeman of Nisswa question whether the bill at hand is a proven method for reducing waste.

“I would argue based on what we’re hearing now that that’s actually not the case,” Heintzeman said at a hearing last month.

Maine is the state furthest along. Lawmakers there passed a bill years ago and rules are in development now.

“You need a law that is very comprehensive and includes a lot of different methods for towns to participate in recycling programs,” said Vanessa Berry with the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Also, we had to think about all of the different things that we want to incentivize with packaging material.”

Back in Minnesota, the latest hearing was Tuesday morning. The House bill advanced to the House Judiciary and Civil Law Committee. A companion bill has been through two Senate committees.

Jordan said it’s an issue the state can’t avoid much longer.

“We cannot continue to landfill and incinerator ourselves out of this waste problem,” Jordan said.