Duluth, Minnesota, trashing more than 18 million aluminum cans, 19 million plastic bottles every year, worth over US$721,000, survey finds

DULUTH, Minnesota , December 1, 2011 () – Despite efforts to encourage recycling, Duluth-area residents and visitors are tossing close to 40 million beverage containers into the trash every year, highlighting a statewide problem.

That's the finding of a recent series of trash surveys by the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District. Staff donned gloves in October and ripped open garbage bags, sorting through about 49 truckloads over five days, or more than 13,000 pounds of trash. They found a lot food waste that could be composted, tons of paper that should be recycled and even a few microwave ovens and water heaters that are illegal to trash.

But the staffers were stunned by how many plastic beverage bottles and aluminum cans they found, the Duluth News Tribune reported Tuesday.

"We knew we had an issue with beverage containers. But when we did the math, it was shocking," WLSSD spokeswoman Karen Anderson said. "It came to more than 18 million pop and beer cans, and another 19 million plastic bottles, every year." And that was only from Duluth, Hermantown and Proctor, she said.

That's amounts to 423 cans and 461 plastic bottles per house per year in the Duluth area that aren't being recycled.

During the holidays, more glass ends up in the trash, with wine, liquor and beer bottles topping the list.

Recycling saves landfill space, and it takes less energy and fewer natural resources to transform old containers into new products. Throwing away aluminum and plastic also means throwing away money. The estimated value of recyclable material being trashed is more than $721,000 annually, just in the Duluth area, including over $400,000 worth of aluminum and close to $200,000 worth of plastic.

It's a statewide problem. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says Minnesotans waste $285 million annually in the lost value of recyclable materials thrown in the trash, and then they waste another $200 million to bury or burn the stuff.

While everyone is guilty, officials said three areas seem to generate the biggest problems: travel and events, apartment buildings and multi-unit housing, and rural areas that don't have curbside recycling. People either can't or don't bother to find recycling containers when they're away from home, and landlords and townships don't always provide recycling options.

A survey by the Recycling Association of Minnesota, an industry group, found that the average Minnesota gas station sends nearly 3 tons of beverage containers to garbage dumps and incinerators every year.

The WLSSD and MPCA have delivered 250 bottle-shaped recycling bins to more than 120 convenience stores in the Duluth area over the past year. While the bins were free to the stores, the recycling service provided by garbage haulers is not, which made some store owners grumble. But a district ordinance requires businesses to separate their trash and recycle any recoverable materials.

"Without the ordinance few, if any, of the gas stations would have been willing to implement recycling services," an MPCA analysis of the WLSSD program said.

The waste has given new impetus to efforts to enact a beverage container deposit law in Minnesota. A group called Recycling Refund says the state recycles only 35 percent of its beverage containers, compared with 97 percent in Michigan, which requires consumers to pay 10 cents extra for each container then refunds the money when it's recycled. Iowa, which requires a 5-cent deposit, recycles more than 90 percent of its beverage containers.

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