Over the past couple of years I have had several conversations with Jon Mitchell and Brian Sams as it relates to recycling in the area. Both have made very convincing arguments about the value of the program, and they have also expressed how challenging it can be to be successful in the effort.
Yet, over the years, Redwood County has continuously been held up as an example for the rest of the state, as its recycling rates were well above the average.
While good education definitely can play a role in the endeavor, the reality is that the only reason why a recycling program sees any kind of success is that people like you and me decide not to throw things that can be recycled in the garbage. It takes an extra effort to not just throw plastic water bottles, cardboard, glass and tin cans into the trash can simply because it is easier.
I think the reason why Redwood County has seen such success over the years is that people found a way to identify with recycling, and they knew what they were doing, even in small ways, was making a difference for the future.
After all, every piece of material that is recycled is one less that ends up in a landfill.
Although there have been times when the markets have been strong, as people were willing to pay for those materials being collected, I would argue that the recycling program was never intended to be a money making venture. It simply has been and still is an act of good stewardship.
So, in recent weeks we all have heard about the material recovery facility jointly owned and operated by Redwood and Renville counties and the fact that it has been faced with budget challenges all along the way.
The latest decision is a hard one to swallow.
After all, I was there at the meetings when the plans for the new facility were laid out. I traveled to St. Paul with local leaders where they talked about the potential that exists.
I was there when the ribbon was cut and when the doors were officially opened. I believed in what was happening, and I still do. Yet, I think along the way a change in the program really hurt what was happening.
For most of my life I was taught that when you recycled you needed to keep things separate, but then as part of the new process that message went away. I understand not having to sort recycling is much more convenient, but I also think it took away some of the personal responsibility.
Although I know that there have always been people who throw their garbage in with the recycling, because recycling is free and garbage pick-up is not, but I wonder just how many more people figured they could get away with throwing more of their garbage in with the recycling because they did not have to sort it anymore. I think that took some of the air out of people’s connection with recycling.
I know it did with me.
Although the most recent decision is changing the local program, the good news is that recycling will continue in Redwood County, and glass is being accepted again. (I want to express my disappointment with the people who shared myriad times that they didn’t care if glass was not being accepted. They were going to put it in the recycling anyway.)
The markets are bad right now. Jon told me recently that the market for aluminum is as low as it has been for some time. That material has been the bread and butter of recycling programs for years.
The solid waste program is subsidized by an annual assessment that is collected from county taxpayers, and Jon has argued the need to increase that assessment. Other local decision makers will argue the assessment in Redwood County is higher than most in the region. Those funds don’t just cover the costs of recycling.
Jon provided a laundry list of activities that the solid waste funds cover from the operation of a household hazardous waste program to the work in the municipal solid waste transfer facility for two counties. (An average of 13,000 tons of garbage comes through the local facility and is then transported to the Lyon County landfill each year.)
I will, and am sure I already have, admit that I have been lax in recycling for the past couple of years, but I have not given up on the program. I am with Jon in the belief that things could turn around for the program.
I am also with him in another option I think could really make a difference. I agree that we all need to focus more on reducing the amount of material that comes into our homes and businesses. I get frustrated when I notice the amount of material that is wasted in packaging for the items our family buys at the store.
I want to encourage all of you to really think about what you are buying and whenever possible to make a statement by not buying those items that use excessive packaging to market their products.
The message has never just been to recycle.
It is reduce, reuse and recycle.