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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Forget coronavirus for a moment, let’s talk trash

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 3/25/20

“We’re interrupting regular programming to bring you breaking news on… garbage! Steve Pellinen, from St. Louis County’s Department of Environmental Services, delivered the …

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Forget coronavirus for a moment, let’s talk trash


“We’re interrupting regular programming to bring you breaking news on… garbage! Steve Pellinen, from St. Louis County’s Department of Environmental Services, delivered the latest information on how we’re handling a quickly growing “solid waste stream” that if left unchecked could threaten the environment, and even our way of life! Our regularly scheduled broadcast of Gunsmoke, Dr. Phil and Judge Judy will resume after this important news update.”
On March 4, Pellinen was invited to the Crescent Supper Club by Cook’s Northern Progressives group, to present in-depth information on recycling regulations and processing operations at the Virginia sanitary landfill. He detailed the do’s and don’ts of individual household recycling hoping to educate attendees on how to sort and appropriately dispose of various kinds of waste. The audience came prepared with questions and some brought common examples of household waste that stumped even the most avid recyclers.
Pellinen artfully explained why our best intended behaviors to recycle “anything and everything just to keep it out of the landfill” is in fact, counterproductive! With graphic descriptions Steve brought to life the manual sorting process that occurs in most recycling centers, including ours on the Iron Range. Workers are stationed at conveyor belts hand-sorting reject materials from mounds of recyclables. He explained how certain “unacceptable” types of plastic can contaminate batches of suitable ones, rendering entire batches of “would be use-ables” into “trash” destined for the landfill. The point was well made. Properly sort your recyclables before you deposit them in the bin!
Markets are a key factor in our waste disposal and recycling system. It costs money to process and transport waste materials. Demand exists for only certain categories of waste. The markets determine how economically feasible it is to cull various types of waste. China was once a major buyer of American recyclables but recently became less willing to take it. Although it’s a big issue, the loss of the Chinese market is not our biggest waste problem.
The world’s population has more than doubled in the past 50 years. Combine that with the expansion of a global capitalist economy, one that depends on ever-increasing production and consumption of material goods, and you get a mind-boggling volume of waste that’s tripled over the same time period. Mountains of garbage now exist on the borders of every major city.
But according to an article, “The End of Trash”, appearing in the March issue of National Geographic, there is hope. It examines disposal strategies based on a new system of production that’s being adopted in some European countries. They’re working toward the goal of completely transitioning to “circular economies” by 2050. Ingenious engineers and entrepreneurs are developing production cycles that mimic nature where “repurposing” is built in to the lifespan of everything manufactured and nothing goes to waste!
Pellinen did an excellent job of raising our awareness about what we’re doing locally and how well (or not) we’re doing it. According to Steve, we’ve done a great job with glass, most of which is 100 percent recyclable. With a few exceptions like window glass, lightbulbs and ceramics, recycling centers are able to to take just about everything we can bring them. The market is big because we’ve discovered a lot of uses for recycled glass. For example, “Glass 5 Gravel” is used on roads connecting the Virginia sanitary landfill’s multiple structures.
As for cardboard and paper, the future’s also bright. There are adequate markets to receive product from both of these waste streams. But for it to work, we must heed a “No List”. It includes pizza boxes and other paper and cardboard packages that contain any food residue. No waxed boxes found in many frozen food and milk cartons. No plastic coated paper plates. No egg cartons as they are made from 100 % already recycled material that renders them unable to sustain another “round of recycling” — but they are compostable! More good news — tin, steel and aluminum are all recyclable.
Plastics are a whole different story. Their sheer volume is due primarily to our over-dependence on polymers in the manufacturing of almost everything, what some describe as an addiction. Globally, we throw away annually billions of plastic eating utensils and an estimated one million beverage bottles every day! Close to three trillion cigarette butts (yes, they’re made of plastics) are strewn across the planet where they remain forever, washing into streams and polluting our oceans — a few small examples among countless others of this stubbornly persistent problem, and it’s growing!
Many plastic items are labelled for type by a triangle symbol with a number inside it, but many are not. Pellinen explained that our sanitary district can only accept items labeled #1 and #2 because there are industries that need these materials for production of their goods. #3’s are not recyclable because they contain polyvinyl chlorides (PVC’s). These items (i.e. cling wrap, shampoo bottles, toothbrushes, etc) are known as “single use plastics” and end up in the landfill. #3’s pose one of the biggest challenges in the waste stream but substitute packaging is being developed. Until then we should conserve our use, reuse, or seek alternatives to reduce their volume as much as possible. #4’s are those pesky shopping bags. Recycle bins do exist at some locations, but bringing our own reusable bags is the best solution.
Only a few landfills take #5’s, used in containers for margarine, cottage cheese and similar products. Our local solid waste system lacks the special facilities and sufficient volumes needed to make recycling #5 plastics economically feasible. For now, we’re asked to treat these like garbage to be buried in a landfill.
Anything made of styrofoam is a #6 and not recyclable. So avoid using foam “packing peanuts” and restaurant “doggy boxes”. Substitute newspaper for filler and for those take-home leftovers, ask for an extra napkin or better yet, bring your own reusable container whenever you dine out. A few more items on the “No list”… no plastic coat hangers, discarded toys, or other items missing the numbered triangle symbol. And please, no used motor oil containers!
Here was Steve’s closing reminder, “Whenever in doubt, throw it out.” Keep out of the mix those items that have to be eventually culled and do it before you dispose of your recyclables. Conscientious sorting is good for the environment and that’s the goal!
The global population is now at 7.2 billion and with capitalist systems on the rise, scientists state that this extraordinary pressure on the planet threatens the quality of our air, water, and soil and may be moving us toward a tipping point that could threaten our very existence.
Pellinen brought the reality of our local waste stream into sharp focus. He left us the message that we can make a difference, but only if we become more conscientious in our own behaviors. Since listening, I’ve been paying closer attention to the stuff I purchase and where I toss it when I’m done with it. I’ve tried to imagine that world where nothing goes to waste! Sounds farfetched, I know. But I read once, “Something’s only impossible if you think it is!”
Sure, a lot of things feel beyond my control (especially at times like these) but Steve’s talk convinced me that my trash isn’t one of them. As for now, I think I’ll just skip Dr. Phil. 


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