Throwaway Politics

MINNEAPOLIS'S EXPERIMENT IN treading boldly where no recycler has gone before is history: The city will no longer be picking up what's known in the biz as "plastic tubs, jars, and microwave containers." Officials didn't make much of the announcement, tucking it into a routine update flier distributed to mailboxes last week. But there's a story behind the change.

Though not a lot of people remember it now, it's actually illegal in Minneapolis (and St. Paul, and four other Minnesota cities) to sell plastic containers that are not refillable, recyclable, or reusable. Ordinances to that effect were passed with much fanfare in the late 1980s; they faced bitter opposition by the plastics industry, whose lobbyists beat a door to City Halls on both sides of the river for a while. Throwaway packaging bans were considered in many cities around the country at that point, and the industry considered Minnesota something of a nip-it-in-the-bud battleground. Opponents warned that--since reusing was, they said, too complicated, and recycling not feasible--city dwellers would end up having to drive to the suburbs for yogurt and TV dinners.

Then, when the ordinances passed, plastics recycling was suddenly all the rage. "The lobbyists were here day in and day out, lobbying every city council member, lobbying the mayor's office" to start programs, remembers Mary Tkach of St. Paul's Neighborhood Energy Center, which runs the city's recycling program. "They were going, 'Just trust us, this is going to be great. You're going to be able to recycle everything, pick up everything.' But none of the reports that we could unearth said that this was going to work."

St. Paul never bit on the plastics-recycling idea. But Minneapolis did, seeing a no-risk proposition when a group affiliated with the plastics industry offered to buy all the collected materials for the first six months. As it turned out, though, that was the extent of their commitment; ever since then, says Jack Yuzna of the city's Solid Waste and Recycling office, the material has been collected, sorted, baled--and stacked in ever-growing storage piles, most of them outdoors. "We've been going around and around on it," he says. "[The city's recycling contractors] say that they move it, but they don't move it very fast. All this time, we were all waiting for the markets to mature, but they still haven't."

So the city finally decided to bail. As you'll hear when you call the recycling program (where they got so many confused inquiries they finally pre-recorded a message), city trucks will still pick up plastic bottles, as in "almost anything with a neck." They're also adding "boxboard" (cereal cartons, etc.), office paper, and mixed mail to their collections. But plastic containers are out. As for the ordinance--well, Minneapolis could go the route of St. Paul, which over the years has quietly written exemptions for pretty much any product from its own plastics law. Nonenforce-ment is also an option; the measure could just become one of those forgotten laws left on the books for future generations to chuckle over. Perhaps they'll appreciate it more: By the time today's infants are grandparents, the most optimistic forecasters say, the planet should be close to running out of "virgin" plastic resin and other petroleum products.

 
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