Eureka Recycling: “There is no such thing as waste”

JuliaEureka200Eureka Recycling tipped its 1 billionth pound of recyclables onto the floor of its Northeast Minneapolis recovery center today – according to its data from 15 years of collection efforts.

Nearly half of that material has been recycled into new products in Minnesota. For example, paper and cardboard becomes boxboard at WestRock in St. Paul, “and is back on the shelf as a new cereal box in less than four weeks,” reports Eureka.

Minutes before that 1 billionth pound was deposited, members of the City’s Transportation and Public Works Committee unanimously approved the recommendation of the RFP selection process of the Solid Waste and Recycling department — that Eureka Recycling become the city’s recycling collector for the next five years. The full Council vote will come on February 12.

Eureka Recycling truckOn this Groundhog Day of 2016, Eureka saw a new day dawn on a paradigm shift its co-founders and 90 employees have been building toward since the company incorporated in 2001.


The Paradigm Shift

That shift is about a new line of conversation: “There is no such thing as waste.” And about a new line of questioning: “How do you define profits?”  

An older paradigm is that the recycling industry is not sustainable financially. As Waste Management CEO David Steiner told the Wall Street Journal in 2015, “It isn’t profitable for us, and we have to react by shutting down plants.”

Yet Eureka has paid nearly $50 million in salaries and benefits to its employees “for good, green, local jobs” since opening in 2004. Landfills — which is where Waste Management generates its profits (partly because it requires less labor) — brings the company $14 billion in revenue, according to a 2015 Mother Jones article.

[See here: 4 Big Recycling Myths Tossed Out]

Co-founder Tim Brownell says Eureka operates with a triple bottom line. “We need to be financially sustainable, environmentally beneficial, and supportive of the community – internally and externally. If we do only two of those things, on the backs of the people who are doing the work, that’s a problem.”

Eureka believes in “not wasting people” any more than it does in not wasting the bottles and cans that come to its center. Its employees earn a living wage with full-time benefits, which is rare in the industry. “People need a reliable schedule so they can plan their lives, plan their budgets, have health care,” Brownell said.


Widening the Conversation Further

Another shift Eureka hopes to see in the not-so-distant future: Manufacturers increasingly becoming part of the solution.

Rather than rely on consumers and city budgets to pick up the tab for disposing of packaging that makes products look pretty on the shelves and catches our attention, Brownell says, we need to be more educated as a community about requiring smarter design, because we are the ones who pay to dispose of those products and packages.

Eureka sees itself as a demonstration lab – part of a feedback loop in ever-widening conversations — that offers transparent insights into what works, and what doesn’t, for recycling and composting.

Lynn Hoffman, Eureka’s Chief of Community Engagement, pointed out that not long ago PLA bottles were touted as a green solution, yet discussion in the recycling industry revealed that it was not. Partly because its components negatively impact the plastics recycling stream. [To learn more, click here

Ultimately, the mission of Eureka is to help more of us see that “waste is preventable, not inevitable.” Through its zero-waste events – like Rock the Garden – the non-profit is helping residents and city leaders see recycling as “not just a service,” says Brownell, “but as part of a broader social movement.”

He’s been heartened over the past six months to hear more “zero waste” dialogue in Minneapolis – including from the Mayor’s office, as part of her original campaign pledge. There seems to be a growing recognition that the steps we take toward making a more sustainable city today are part of the social justice and green employment movement as well, he said.

As co-founder Bryan Ukena put it, as in Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day fashion, we might finally be learning what we need to learn to get out of the ‘same old’ stuck loop. Zero-waste in Minneapolis is beginning to be seen less as “hippies talking to each other” and more as a smarter, long-term investment that makes financial and social justice sense for cities and communities. “It’s a very exciting time.”

— written by Mikki Morrissette, founder MPLSGreen.com and “Sustainable We” forums

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