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Workers begin the separation of paper and plastic, bottles and cans early in the cycle on a conveyor belt at Tennis Sanitation in St. Paul Park on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. There is a proposal to charge 10 cents per can and bottle purchased. Recycling companies are opposed to this legislation. (Pioneer Press: John Doman)

Environmental groups split on proposal for Minnesota recycling deposit boost

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By Bob Shaw

Environmentalists are usually unified, marching shoulder-to-shoulder to help Planet Earth.

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But not on this issue

A proposal to charge a 10-cent deposit for bottles and cans in Minnesota has sparked an unusual split among the greens.

Proponents say twice as many bottles and cans would be recycled, and the program would create more than 1,000 jobs and cut back litter statewide.

“This is a value that Minnesotans share — not being wasteful,” said Paul Austin, director of Conservation Minnesota, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. Minnesota already has one of the highest recycling rates in the country at 34 percent.

What’s proposed is that consumers pay the deposit at the store, then take the empties to redemption centers across the state. This would be in addition to any other recycling they do.

Opponents say the state would spend millions for minimal environmental impact and would cannibalize existing recycling programs by taking high-value materials such as aluminum away from the recycling businesses.

“You would be punishing the recyclers. You would be punishing consumers who recycle to get at the people who do not recycle,” said Tim Wilkin, spokesman for Recycle Smart Minnesota, an anti-deposit-bill coalition of groups that make and sell nonalcoholic beverages.

The idea of a deposit plan has been kicked around for decades, but it emerged again in January, when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued a report that was requested by the Legislature.

Supporters of the deposit in the Legislature said there would not be enough time in the 2014 session to consider the proposal, but that it would be brought up later.

“It’s not a dead issue,” Austin said.

How it would work

The PCA report said consumers could pay a dime for each of the 4.7 billion beverage containers they buy yearly. They would return the empties to 402 redemption centers to get their deposits back.

Recycled bottles and cans are estimated to increase from 114,000 tons to 222,000 tons — out of the 5.7 million tons of stuff Minnesotans dispose of each year.

The agency estimates the program would cost the state about $250 million a year, including:

  • $141 million for the redemption centers, at least one for every 15,000 people.
  • $74 million in unclaimed deposits, figuring that 16 percent of the containers on which consumers have paid a deposit would not be returned.
  • $38 million to haulers and processors, program administration, public education and other costs.

Those costs would be offset by the sale of recovered materials.

The state didn’t include one of the costs to consumers. Recycle Smart Minnesota estimates the cost of driving the empties from 2.3 million Minnesota households to redemption centers would be about $40 million a year, based on per-capita costs from a recycling study made in Vermont.

Who’s for it

Tim Brownell is one recycler who likes the idea.

As CEO of Eureka Recycling, a nonprofit that handles recycling for St. Paul and other communities, he supports many forms of recycling. “It is both/and, not either/or,” he said.

The deposit law would change the way consumers think about recycling, said Pete Barthold, owner of Barthold Recycling of St. Francis.

“People look at an empty water bottle now and throw it away. Who cares?” Barthold said. “But if it’s worth a nickel or dime, they will save it.”

The measure would attach an appropriate cost for recycling to a product, according to Allan Hancock, a member of the St. Paul-based Green Party.

“We have limited resources on this Earth, and for our population of 300 million to be consuming 25 percent of the Earth’s resources is not sustainable,” he said.

Hancock would like to expand the idea, so that recycling deposits would also be paid for new cars, cellphones and appliances.

The plan has appeal for some consumers, including Lauren Anderson, the recycling and environmental coordinator for the Macalester/Groveland Community Council.

She admitted that setting up the deposit system would mean “growing pains.” But she said consumers and businesses would adjust — as they have in 10 other states that have deposit laws.

Who’s against

Most recycling businesses, however, feel betrayed by the proposal.

With a 10-cent deposit, the empties won’t get tossed into curbside bins of recycling companies. The PCA estimates that those businesses would see an 80 percent reduction in beverage containers.

Worse, the new system would skim off the most profitable materials — aluminum cans and certain types of plastic. It’s those materials that subsidize the less-profitable recycling of paper and glass.

The deposit plan would be a hassle for Minnesotans, said Rich Hirstein, senior municipal services manager for Allied Waste Services, which handles garbage and recycling in much of the Twin Cities area.

He said the way to increase recycling is to make it easy. “The way to do it is not making me drive to the store, stand in line frustrated, and wait for you to give me my own money back,” Hirstein said.

Some opponents point to Michigan’s experience with a bottle deposit. It has the highest deposit fee in the nation — 10 cents, just as Minnesota is considering. Yet despite a surge in recycling of bottles and cans, the state’s overall recycling rate is 20 percent, according to Michigan Recycling Partners. That’s less than half Minnesota’s.

“It’s really a terrible idea,” said Tony Donatell, owner of Lone Oak Market in Eagan. “My customers are not going to be happy to pay an extra $1.20 for a 12-pack of soda.”

Boosting recycling

Other approaches are more promising, say deposit opponents.

Single-sort recycling, for example, allows consumers to toss all recyclables into one bin for curbside collection. It can boost rates dramatically — the Minneapolis city website reports a 58 percent increase since it moved to single-sort last year.

An obvious way to boost recycling rates, Wilkin said, is to extend single-sort recycling to the 40 percent of the state’s population that doesn’t have it.

“The easier you make something, the more they comply,” he said. “That is the secret sauce of the solid-waste industry — make it easy.”

Other critics — and even some supporters — say that addressing the 31 percent of waste that is organic material and food scraps might make more sense than taking aim at the 4 percent that is beverage containers.

Willie Tennis thinks the 10-cent deposits are a dreadful idea.

Tennis, co-owner of Tennis Sanitation of St. Paul Park, climbed up a catwalk in one of his recycling buildings last week. From there, he watched the maze of conveyor belts, flanked by quick-fingered workers sorting out eight types of plastic, three colors of glass, two kinds of paper and various metals.

“We have invested millions in this place,” he shouted over the racket. “If the highest-revenue products are taken away from us — wow.”

In Washington County, he said, consumers already recycle bottles and cans in the bins that Tennis picks up. They pay again to have recyclables removed from their garbage, in a processing plant in Newport.

“We already recycle twice,” he said. “Why should we recycle a third time?”

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