The Minneapolis Public Works Department has recommended a five-year contract with Eureka Recycling to process all of the city’s recycling. Next, it’s St. Paul’s turn to decide between the local non-profit and the biggest private companies in North America for pick-up and processing. Choosing Eureka makes sense from both economic and environmental perspectives.
By April 1, St. Paul will decide on a contract for collecting and processing recycling. For the past 14 years, St. Paul’s recycling has been handled by the nonprofit Eureka Recycling, which is one of the bidders for the new contract. This is one of a series of posts about Eureka and recycling in St. Paul.
Minneapolis picks up its own recycling, using the same public/private partnership that picks up its trash. Its recycling contract is only for processing, not for pick-up. In St. Paul, the contract (or possibly contracts) will cover both pick-up and processing of recyclables. While most residents (and Eureka) have pushed for including curbside composting, the city decided to delay the start of composting until mid-2017, and not to include it in the five-year contract now under consideration. The new contract will make some changes, moving to the use of lidded, wheeled carts instead of the current bins, and to alleyway pickup where possible.
Contract considerations include treatment of workers and environmental effectiveness, as well as cost. The city contracts are complex, with proposals running to hundreds of pages.
Lynn Hoffman, Eureka’s chief of community engagement, said the company operates with a triple bottom line. In addition to the economic necessity of paying for operating costs, Eureka makes decisions based on sustainability for employees and on maximizing environmental outcomes. That includes designing its Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) and working with employees to maximize the amount of material that actually gets recycled. The residual rate is the amount of collected materials that can’t be sold for recycling. The national industry average is 10 percent residual waste — Eureka’s rate is only 3.5 percent.
Eureka is committed to finding the best markets for recyclables, which means purchasers who will turn plastic bottles into bottles again, so they can remain in the recycling chain, rather than a manufacturer that would turn recycled bottles into something like plastic key chains, which cannot be recycled. That also means seeking local buyers, both to minimize transportation and to maximize support of local economies. Eureka says that “On average, 92% of the sorted recyclable materials that leave Eureka’s MRF go to markets in Minnesota (89% stay with-in the Twin Cities).”
One of those local markets is WestRock, the new name of Rock-Tenn. “Why ship all over the country, when we have a market right here with good jobs?” asks Lynn Hoffman. Recycled paper goes from Eureka’s Materials Recycling Facility in northeast Minneapolis to the WestRock plant in St Paul and ends up back on the shelves as new paper products in two weeks.
Waste Management, which claims to be “the largest environmental solutions provider in North America” is one of the companies competing for the contract in Minneapolis, and probably also in St. Paul. When I contacted Waste Management, they would not say whether they were bidding on the St. Paul contract and would not answer questions about staffing, or anything else. (Republic, the nation’s second-largest trash-and-recycling company, is also bidding on the St. Paul contract, along with the Tranquility Housing trucking company, according to an article in the Star Tribune.)
In contrast, Eureka welcomed me to visit its Materials Recycling Facility and talk to employees. Eureka employs local workers full time, paying a starting wage above St. Paul’s living wage and also provides full benefits, including sick and safe time and overtime pay for any time worked in excess of 40 hours in a week. Workers get their schedules more than two weeks in advance. Unlike most of the recycling industry, Eureka does not rely on temporary and part-time workers. Its workers stay for years, frequently moving up in the company. A letter from GAIA, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, to St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman noted that
“From the initial staff hired to sort material at Eureka Recycling four of the current managers started as sorters and over the last 10 years all MRF management has been hired from the ranks of the MRF sorters.”
Sustainable and Safe Recycling: Protecting Workers Who Protect the Planet is a 2015 report on worker safety in the recycling industry by GAIA, the Partnership for Working Families, MassCOSH, and the National Council for Occupational Health and Safety. The report found that:
“[R]ecycling workers face above-average injury rates and are sometimes even killed on the job. Many recycling sorters are employed by temp agencies, further increasing the likelihood that they won’t have the training or experience needed to do their job safely.”
With input from its long-time workers, Eureka has implemented safety provisions that include redesign of sorting facilities and rotation of workers to different positions on the line every three hours to minimize repetitive stress and injuries.
Eureka has handled St. Paul’s recycling since the beginning, some 14 years ago. The non-profit, committed to zero waste, has grown and changed in response to St. Paul’s changing priorities, such as the city’s decision to move to single-sort recycling. A 2013 study by Wilder Research found that “More than 9 in 10 residents rated their curbside recycling service as excellent (62%) or good (31%).”
The Sustainable and Safe Recycling report recommends that, “when entering into new recycling contracts, cities can and should consider the company’s safety record, the caliber of the company’s health and safety program, whether the company pays its employees a family-supporting wage, and whether the company provides opportunities for stable, full-time employment and career advancement.”
On all those counts, St. Paul and Minneapolis should choose Eureka.