Editor's note: While Minnesota's discussion of environmental policy seems to have narrowed to sulfide mining on The Range and vicinity--and for the DFL, whether or not to talk about it all--Bluestem Prairie thinks that we have more to talk about when we address concerns about progressive environmental policy in the state.
Afraid of the shadow of the Range, the DFL has reduced "messaging" this cycle to talk of economic issues--as if matter like climate change, renewable energy, soil health and water quality have no relevance to talk of jobs.
Since the environmental discussion seems to have been "focus grouped" out of campaign plans in 2014, it's up to the rest of us to have this discussion. We've asked friends to contribute posts for our summer reading series centered on the question: "What would environmental policy look like if Minnesota were a progressive state?"
Their opinions are their own, just as the assessment of the lack of discussion of environmental issues during an election year is that of the editor of Bluestem Prairie.
Guest post by Paul Gardner
During the 2014 Minnesota legislative session, environmental policy victories mostly passed under the radar. For example, some of the most significant and positive policy changes in 25 years took place on recycling.
Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis) led the charge with legislation that:
- Set a new 75% recycling and composting goal for the Twin Cities metro area by 2030
- Requires most businesses in the metro to recycle
- Made a substantial increase in grants to all Minnesota counties to support recycling and composting
In addition, Rep. Melissa Hortman and Sen. John Marty expanded a ban on mercury-containing devices and placed a disposal ban on syringes and similar devices, or “sharps” that pose hazards to workers in the waste industry.
There was also an afternoon-long informational hearing in January in Rep. Wagenius’ House Environment, Natural Resources & Agriculture Finance Committee that aired additional topics including extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging, composting, and zero waste. The MPCA also released a cost-benefit study on container deposits, although a bill was not introduced.
Minnesota Was Already Above Average
The Perpich Administration created the Select Committee on Recycling and the Environment (SCORE) at the end of the 1980s as old dumps and landfills fell out of compliance from new federal regulations. The results from SCORE and subsequent legislation are something that most states would love to have today.
- The legislature required all counties to provide “convenient” opportunities to recycle and for all cities above 5,000 in the Twin Cities metro area to have curbside recycling.
- We have a hefty solid waste management tax (SWMT) of 9.75% on household garbage service and 17% on commercial garbage service. Of the roughly $70 million generated annually from the SWMT, 30% has gone to the General Fund (boo), $14.2 million goes to counties for “SCORE” grants, and the rest supports the MPCA’s solid waste activities including cleaning up old landfills.
- That landfill clean-up funding and state bonding over the years allowed the MPCA to buy up more than 100 old dumps and landfills and clean them up faster and more cheaply than federal Superfund actions.
- SCORE set recycling goals of 50% of all municipal solid waste (MSW) for the Twin Cities metro area and 35% for Greater Minnesota by 1996. The metro has gotten close to 50%, but Greater Minnesota blew past 35% years ago.
That public commitment spurred millions of dollars of private investment. Minnesota’s recycling economy is substantial. Three paper mills (Duluth, St. Paul, Becker) use more than half a million tons of recycled paper a year. A steel mill takes our steel cans and turns them into reinforcing rod for construction, including all the rebar for the new 35W bridge. We have a high concentration of plastic decking manufacturers that use old milk jugs and other plastics in places like Albany, Worthington, and Paynesville. In total, about 15,000 manufacturing jobs in the state owe their existence to a steady stream of recycled material.
We have a budding composting industry that can use more food waste and other compostable material, and some big companies like Walmart (love them or hate them) are pushing for anaerobic digestion of their grocery store food waste to create renewable energy.
Biggest Changes in 25 Years
Rep. Frank Hornstein—who was a Clean Water Action organizer against waste-to-energy facilities (aka garbage incinerators) in the 1980s—suggested to me that we get environmental groups together to see if there was an appetite for legislation to increase recycling and composting. Over the course of the summer we found a lot of interest. Hornstein brought in local government representatives and drafted a bill that would increase our recycling and composting goals for the Twin Cities metro, require metro businesses to recycle, and put additional money generated by the SWMT back into recycling. Much to my surprise, it all passed! Here are the deets:
- The seven-county metro must hit a recycling goal (which includes composting) of 75% by 2030. The MPCA had already suggested this goal and now it is in statute.
- The MPCA will distribute an additional $4 million next year to counties and $3 million in future years over the existing $14.2 million budget. Half of that must go toward composting. Many cities in the metro are already doing this, especially in Hennepin County.
- Most businesses in the Twin Cities metro that generate more than four cubic yards of MSW per week must recycle.
- The above items were embedded in the omnibus budget bill. The business recycling requirement was opposed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Republicans introduced a successful floor amendment to strip it out of the bill. However, Rep. Hornstein had the provision amended on the floor to a different waste-related bill carried by Rep. Melissa Hortman (SF663). Sen John Marty carried the companion bill but the Senate only went with an increased budget to counties of $750,000. The Senate accepted the House language and settled on the $4 million increase.
Rep. Melissa Hortman has been a strong advocate for getting mercury out of the environment. In the 2007-2008 session, she passed legislation that banned the sale of mercury-containing devices such as blood pressure monitoring equipment. (Rep. Erik Paulsen protested on the floor and asked, “What the heck is a sphygmomanometer, anyway?”) Her bill (sponsored in the Senate by Sen. John Marty) this year extends the ban to a wider scope of products. The bill also makes it easier for manufacturers of mercury thermostats to collect old devices and tightens the ban on formaldehyde in children’s products. Rep. Diane Loeffler got an amendment passed on the House floor to prohibit the sale of triclosan in anti-bacterial soap.
I don’t want to neglect the efforts of Rep. Mike Sundin and Sen. Chris Eaton who passed legislation in 2013 to make paint manufacturers pay for the hefty taxpayer cost of recycling and safely disposing of old paint. The paint industry is now behind this kind of legislation and laws have passed in eight states so far. Sundin and Eaton worked with the MPCA to also create similar legislation for carpet (opposed by the carpet industry) and single-use batteries (supported by three of four battery manufacturers), but those provisions were stripped out in Senate committee.
How is Rural Minnesota Doing?
Much of this year’s new legislation focuses on the Twin Cities metro. However, many rural counties have or will receive state bonding funds to upgrade their recycling centers. Redwood County should have a regional center completed soon, and this year’s bonding bill included money for a new Becker County facility.
Open burning of garbage continues to be a major problem, and it is the largest contributor to dioxin pollution in the United States. The MPCA has pushed education on local governments for many years, and the situation has improved somewhat.
To sum up, the state legislature did more in the last two years on waste issue than it has for many years.
Thank you to all the legislators who made it happen!
Paul Gardner, Executive Director of Recycling Reinvented, served in the Minnesota House of Representatives, District 53A, 2007-2010. He was the Executive Director of the Recycling Association of Minnesota from1997-2006.
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