After ten days of intensive garden work, I’ve finally beaten back the weeds that tried to take over while I was on vacation. Now I have piles of branches and boxes and buckets of weeds to dispose of. Packing weeds into the car and driving to the compost center seems perverse, and not very environmentally friendly. But it’s my best solution — despite years of trying, I haven’t devised a way to compost successfully at home. The nearby Ramsey County compost center offers both a place to dispose of weeds and branches (and kitchen waste) and a return load of wood chips for mulch.
Waste disposal — recycling, composting, landfills and burning — poses tough decisions. In St. Paul, we still don’t have curbside compost pick-up, though 74 percent of the city’s residents want it, and Eureka Recycling has pushed for it.
More than 90 percent of St. Paul residents participate in recycling, according to a Wilder Foundation survey. Until about a year ago, that meant sorting paper and paperboard into one container and glass, bottles and recyclable plastic into another. Then the containers were picked up at curbside, once a week. That wasn’t difficult. And nine out of ten St. Paul residents rated the program as excellent or good. But in April 2014, the city switched over to single-stream recycling, which is even easier.
Single stream recycling means that all the recyclables go into the same curbside container. Then they get sorted at the recycling plant. The theory is that this will make recycling easier for city residents and increase participation. In the long run, single sort could also facilitate curbside compost pick-up, by making it easier for trucks to have one compartment for recyclables and one for compostables.
In the first year, the switch to single-sort has not increased the weight of recycled material in St. Paul. That might be because the switch came without changing from curbside bins to more convenient wheeled carts and alley pick-up, because of city budget decisions. Another factor is a national trend toward lighter-weight packaging. Eureka Recycling, the non-profit that has done St. Paul’s recycling for years, said that recycling volume is up, even though weight is down.
A recent Washington Post article points out an additional problem with single-sort:
“Trying to encourage conservation, progressive lawmakers and environmentalists have made matters worse. By pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins — while demanding almost no sorting by consumers — the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system.”
The article discusses a range of problems, from consumers tossing plastic bags into the recycling containers, gumming up machinery and requiring costly slow-downs and repairs, to contamination of recycled paper, leading to rejection by paper buyers.
The Washington Post article focused on the experience of Waste Management, Inc., the 900-pound gorilla of the recycling industry. This national, for-profit company has a different perspective than St. Paul’s non-profit contractor, Eureka Recycling. The article quoted WM chief executive as saying, “We want to help our customers, but we are a for-profit business. We won’t stay in the industry if we can’t make a profit.” In contrast, the city of St. Paul website says Eureka Recycling is a “mission-driven nonprofit organization that looks beyond the bottom line to provide the best recycling services – balancing cost, convenience, and environmental concerns.” That’s why it has started programs like the Twin Cities Free Market and a paper-buying cooperative.
I hope that the city continues to contract with Eureka, and that the new contract includes pick-up of compostables. In the meantime, I’m grateful that a place like the friendly Ramsey County compost site exists.