Homeowners do it. School kids do it.
Now, thanks to a law passed by the 2014 Legislature, businesses will have to order the bins and put up the signs for cans, bottles and plastic when recycling becomes mandatory on Jan. 1, 2016, for most Twin Cities commercial operations.
The first major update of Minnesota's solid waste law in 25 years is designed to boost the state's long-stagnant 46 percent recycling rate. More than half of companies in the metropolitan area send their garbage to the dump rather than pulling out such valuable materials as aluminum, cardboard, plastic and steel, according to a survey of 3,600 businesses by Waste Management Minnesota.
"It was glaringly obvious that this needed to be done," said Julie Ketchum, government affairs director for Waste Management. "We want to increase recycling rates and this is a huge opportunity for us do that."
Under the new law, retailers, wholesalers, service companies and other industries in the seven-country metropolitan area that use garbage bins of four cubic yards or larger will have to recycle at least three items. Some industries, including construction and manufacturing, are exempt, in part because their waste is very industry-specific and needs special processing.
Other provisions of the law will require recycling at all sports facilities, mandate that the seven metro counties increase their recycling goals from 60 to 75 percent. Statewide, the annual $14.25 million waste reduction and recycling budget will get a $10 million boost over the next three years.
"That's significant new money," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, a longtime champion of recycling who sponsored the bill.
A key strategy will be convincing business owners that even though recycling can be a headache, there is a payoff — they can save money.
Appliance retailer Warners' Stellian is a case in point. It long ago began recycling cardboard and steel, even the bolts that it uses in pallets. Recently, it has gained notice for its success in figuring out how to recycle Styrofoam, or polystyrene. It was awash in a river of foam that manufacturers use for shipping, said Robert Warner, operations manager.
"It never stops," Warner said. The company found that 70 percent of the waste by volume in its 40-cubic yard waste container was foam. The garbage hauler was coming two or three times a week to empty it.
After checking with the manufacturers to make sure that the foam was likely to be part of their shipping process for the foreseeable future, the company invested in a foam "densifier" common in Europe, but rare in the United States. Now employees methodically take apart all the foam packaging and run it through the machine, a difficult culture change for employees, he said.
"We didn't give them a choice," Warner said. Now, it sells the foam and saves $2,500 per month in lower hauling fees.
Some of the new state funding will be spent on education for other business owners, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The state, counties, haulers and recycling companies will have a year to help businesses figure out what they can do, they said.
"It's going to come down to how do we provide good outreach," said Mark Rust, supervisor of the PCA's sustainable materials division. "More importantly, it's figuring out who is impacted, and getting them lined up with good resources."
In the meantime, the PCA will start figuring out how much of the waste stream comes from business operations — about 50 percent now — and how much recycling increases as more and more companies adopt the practice.
"If we are going to move the needle on recycling, we have to have more commercial material, because there is a lot of it out there," said Wayne Gjerde, the state PCA's recycling market-development coordinator.
The growth of single-sort systems will make it much easier for businesses, as it has for homeowners, said Bill Keegan, vice president of Dem-Con, a Shakopee-based waste processing company. It recently opened a state-of-the-art processing facility designed to sort recyclables.
The owners of Warners' Stellian don't need anymore convincing about the wisdom of recycling.
"It makes business sense," Warner said. "You might want to take a look and see what's going in the trash."
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394