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Recycling mandatory at commercial properties

A new state law that went into effect Jan. 1 requires commercial property owners in the seven-county Twin Cities region to have recycling and garbage-collection programs in place.

Any buildings that collect more than 4 cubic yards of waste a week — about 60 standard-size trash bags — will have to fulfill the mandate. A building recycling program, under the law, has to collect at least three materials from the following list: plastic, paper, metal, glass and organic material such as food scraps or compostable paper.

While there may be complications concerning compliance in multi-tenant retail strip malls or smaller structures, the reality is “the law says most buildings have to have recycling,” said Emily Barker, organics and recycling specialist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

Part of the reason for the mandate, she said, is the state’s goal of recycling 75 percent of waste by 2030. It sits at 48 percent now. “That’s a goal we cannot achieve without the involvement of the business sectors — we need them to be partners,” she said.

It’s not just a good thing for the region and the environment, Barker noted. The more businesses recycle, the less tax their haulers pay. In Ramsey County haulers pay a 53 percent county tax and a 17.5 percent state tax on the cost of garbage collection.

“That’s a 70 percent tax on all your trash,” Barker said. “I don’t think a lot of businesses even realized that. It’s a decent amount of money that businesses are throwing away.”

Jodi Taitt, a recycling consultant who works with Ramsey and Washington counties, agrees with Barker. “The garbage lady who likes to talk trash,” as she calls herself, likes to point out to clients that recycling pickup is tax-exempt while garbage is essentially “a tax liability” that can be reduced by improved management of the waste stream.

Garbage haulers charge commercial clients based on weight and volume, Taitt said, so by shifting heavy, wet organics such as food wastes from trash to compost brings down the trash bill. “Fluffy” items such as milk cartons end up costing money because they create volume that could be decreased through recycling, she said.

Both Barker and Taitt say that the response to the law from the business community has been overwhelmingly positive and that many local chambers of commerce and state groups have responded with educational sessions and website or written information focused on businesses.

Cities such as Plymouth have sent out postcards, and counties such as Scott and Dakota have crafted letters to inform businesses of the new law, Barker said. Ramsey County, meanwhile, joined with its eastern neighbor to create the Ramsey/Washington Recycling & Energy Board.

The board’s Biz Recycling program offers a plethora of information on recycling and a five-step process toward creating a recycling business program. Commercial enterprises in either county can get a free assessment, apply for grants, obtain free recycling bins and downloadable labels, said Taitt, who is one of the consultants for the program, along with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Minnesota Waste Wise Foundation.

Businesses looking for help with recycling should contact their county and city officials, Taitt said, to find grants and educational materials. A central repository for all things involving business and residential waste is Rethink Recycling, an effort by six counties offering information and guidance, she added. Another is the MPCA’s “Recycling at your business” website.

One business that recently applied for a grant through Biz Recycling is the 114-unit Polar Ridge Senior Living in North St. Paul. Executive director Nathan Pearson said the community, which opened last April, has the problem of overflowing dumpsters and a small recycling program.

For now tenants have two options — tossing recyclable items down a trash chute or personally taking them down to recycling bins in the basement. Change is on the way.

The senior community’s plan calls for recycling stations in all the common areas and a bin in every apartment. Once a week the bins will be collected from common areas and apartments and taken to the larger recycling bins in the basement, Pearson said.

No sales job is needed to get residents involved. “Tenants have been asking for a recycling program,” he said. “Many grew up in the post-Depression era, and they don’t like to waste anything. When we ask if they will recycle they say they want to do it.”

Despite the effort, many businesses still haven’t paid much attention to the law. Victoria Reinhardt, past president of the Ramsey/Washington Recycling & Energy Board and a Ramsey County commissioner, said she is still “trying to get the word out” and finds many businesses have heard “something” about the law but not much more than that.

“A lot of businesses do not know about this even though the Legislature put in a two-year time period before the law took effect,” she said. “Most businesses do not think much about recycling because there too busy doing the work they do.”

She relates the story of the head of the director of a nonprofit she met who had a small recycling program going but wondered if his organization could do more. One of the issues was that the business had multiple locations in the region.

Biz Recycling has grants available — as much as $10,000 — for businesses, including those with multiple locations, Reinhardt told him. A consultant can design a recycling program for each of the locations based on their layouts, locations and so forth, she said.

As for enforcing the law, Barker said MPCA’s role is more one of outreach and education rather than lobbing fines at businesses for noncompliance, at least initially. “There are not any specific fines for not complying,” she said. When building owners are not in compliance the agency will deal with them “on a case-by-case basis” and strongly encourage the creation of a recycling program.

Perhaps the key message to any business skeptical about recycling is a simple one: It saves money.

“I tell businesses there is no downside to moving forward with recycling,” Reinhardt said. “It’s one of the easiest things you can do to improve your bottom line, even if you’re a nonprofit, because waste is an expense. And you’re helping the environment.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story should have said that Biz Recycling, not Rethink Recycling, has grants as high as $10,000 available for businesses.


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