Study finds Minnesotans wasting more food, plastic

Published 9:39 am Monday, November 18, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesotans are throwing away a lot more food and a lot more plastic these days, and that’s discouraging to officials who say valuable resources are being wasted that could create jobs if they were recycled instead.

A new Minnesota Pollution Control Agency report compares data on what residents and companies are putting into the garbage with a similar study in 2000. From 2000 to 2012, it found, the amount of organic material Minnesotans throw away — primarily food — has grown to 31 percent of the waste stream, a 21 percent increase. And the amount of plastic Minnesotans trash has increased from 11 percent of the waste stream to 18 percent.

Researchers got down and dirty. They sent teams to six waste handling facilities across the state to sort trash into 50 categories by hand. Proper protective clothing and safety equipment were mandatory.

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Based on what they found, the report estimates that Minnesotans last year threw out 21,000 tons of recyclable plastic beverage bottles and 12,000 tons of aluminum beverage cans — 3.6 million aluminum cans per day. Paper decreased from 34 percent to 24 percent of the waste stream, likely due to fewer newspapers, but Minnesotans still discarded more than 543,000 tons of recyclable paper last year.

“We’re throwing away about a million tons of recyclable material every year, and that material is worth about $217 million,” Wayne Gjerde, recycling market development coordinator with the MPCA, said in an interview.

The agency provided a copy of the report to The Associated Press ahead of its official release Monday.

“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,” MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said in a statement. “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.”

It’s not clear why Minnesotans are throwing away more food, Gjerde said. It may have something to do with people’s buying habits or the trend toward more meals outside the home. He pointed to a 2011 British study that found two-thirds of the food waste from hotels, pubs and restaurants there in 2009 could have been eaten had it been better portioned, managed, stored or prepared.

One sanitation company is already composting household food waste in the western Minneapolis suburbs, Gjerde said. And the MPCA soon will issue draft regulations for public comment aimed at expanding curbside collection of compostable food waste across the metro area and other parts of Minnesota, he added.

He also credited groups such as Second Harvest with doing a good job of salvaging edible food for people in need.

There’s been a dramatic jump since the last report in discards by businesses and consumers of plastic films including stretch wrap and plastic bags, Gjerde said. But used shopping bags and construction wrap can be recycled if they’re collected and kept clean instead of being mixed with the rest of the trash, he said.

According to MPCA figures, recycling supports around 37,000 jobs in Minnesota, directly and indirectly, jobs that pay nearly $2 billion in wages and add nearly $8.5 billion to the economy. Minnesota recycling programs collected about 2.5 million tons of material worth $690 million in 2010, while it cost the state over $200 million to dispose of 1 million tons of recyclable material in 2010 instead of reusing it.

When that material goes into landfills, Gjerde said, those newspapers don’t get recycled into egg cartons in Moorhead, those magazines don’t get converted into new magazine paper in Duluth, and those plastic milk and detergent jugs don’t get converted into plastic lumber in Paynesville.

“We can do a lot better,” Gjerde said.