Minneapolis switching to single sort recycling

Recycling in Minneapolis is about to get a whole lot easier. 

The city’s Public Works Department is poised to finalize plans for a switch to single sort recycling after a city committee voted 5-0 in mid-May to finally change the city’s 23-year-old curbside recycling program. It’s an effort to increase recycling and lower costs. 

City staff is still working out the finer points of how the program will look, but David Herberholz, the city’s new director of solid waste and recycling services, said residents could be wheeling out one big cart with all of their recyclables as soon as this winter. 

“We are going to move forward as quickly as we possibly can,” said Public Works Director Steven Kotke. “We’re going to work wherever we can to shorten that timeframe for implementing the system.”

Under the current recycling program, residents are supposed to separate bottles, plastics, glass, magazines, newspapers and cardboard into separate bags. A single sort system would allow residents to put everything into one big bin. 

The Transportation and Public Works Committee’s decision came after it was given a consultant’s report showing the city’s recycling rate at just 18 percent, while St. Paul recycles at a 30 percent rate and Portland at a 34 percent rate. Hennepin County has set a 35 percent goal for the city. 

The consultant, David Stead of Resource Recycling Systems, said a single-sort system would lower the city’s annual net recycling operation costs from $900,000 a year to $717,000 a year while increasing the city’s recycling rate to 32 percent. He based that estimate on other cities that implemented a single sort program as well as results from the ongoing pilot programs in the ECCO and Willard-Hay neighborhoods of Minneapolis.

The city would gain revenue by selling more material and lower costs by speeding up the pick-up process, but also lose money from increased costs of processing the recyclables. 

Kotke said it would cost about $8.3 million for the city to buy eight new trucks and to replace recycling bins with rolling carts. Kotke said the Public Works Department could handle the capital costs without borrowing, although he will bring back a full implementation plan and budget in June. 

“It appears, given the fund balance that we have, we should be able to manage this without issuing bonds,” he said. 

Herberholz said he doesn’t expect garbage and recycling fees to increase as a result of the new system. 

“Frankly, I never expected that almost on every single data point you look at, the direction goes to single sort as the right answer,” said City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (Ward 8).

Glidden and other council members said they often get questions and comments from residents asking why the city doesn’t already have a single sort system. 

 “There is so much appetite in the communities I represent to move in this direction and there is so much enthusiasm,” said Council Member Robert Lilligren (Ward 6). 

Herberholz has been on the job for three months. He said that the reason single sort has taken so long to adopt in Minneapolis is because new technology at processing facilities has lowered the cost of sorting recyclables. 

“The technology has caught up,” he said. 

The big challenge, Heberholz said, will be increasing education to residents. When cities go to a single sort system, residents tend to throw more un-recyclable materials into their carts, forcing the city to pay for those materials to be disposed. 

“And that’s why education is of the utmost importance,” he said.

The prospect of single sort recycling was good news to Robert Messinger Jr. On a recent mid-May afternoon, he was picking up cans, bottles, plastics and paper from a Powderhorn Park-area alley and dumping them into several different compartments of the city recycling vehicle he staffs. 

He said that when it gets cold and snowy, the job gets treacherous. He sometimes has to sort recyclables in the alley for residents who didn’t do it themselves. Then he has to maneuver around snow banks and ice. 

“I hope they do [single sort] before winter,” Messinger said.