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Minnesota joins other states pressuring packaging firms to make materials recyclable

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Minnesota lawmakers are looking at proposals to pressure packaging companies to make their materials recyclable. Lawmakers are recycling an idea from other states. Yeah, other states have taken up this idea, so let's check in with Minnesota Public Radio's Clay Masters.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Sporting a colorful hard hat and reflective vest, Eureka Recycling co-president Katie Drews walks through this busy processing and sorting facility in Minneapolis.

KATIE DREWS: All the residential collected material from St. Paul and Minneapolis - so all Twin Cities residential material comes here.

MASTERS: There are mountains of recyclable material that trucks dump here at this nonprofit center - cardboard boxes, plastic containers and paper - 400 tons a day. It all quickly moves through a system of conveyor belts.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECYCLABLES TUMBLING)

MASTERS: There are people physically sorting the various materials - even robots that pull contaminated material off the line. Once sorted by product, the materials are put in a compactor, baled and sent off to be produced into something else. Drews says consumers don't always know what is recyclable or not.

DREWS: Individual action to decide to recycle something and put it into a recycle bin rather than a trash can really matters, but we really need that policy to actually move the needle forward.

MASTERS: That policy Drews is talking about is what environmental groups call an extended producer responsibility. California, Oregon, Maine and Colorado have already passed these kinds of measures. Lawmakers in these states say they're concerned about waste, climate change and the level of microplastics showing up in humans.

SYDNEY JORDAN: There are estimates that Americans consume, on average, one credit card worth of plastic every week.

MASTERS: That's the sponsor of the legislation here in Minnesota, Democratic State Representative Sydney Jordan. Here's how it would work. And advisory board would come up with ideas for reducing nonrecyclable packaging materials. Packaging companies would have to register with a new organization and pay fees as early as next year, with an end goal of making sure all packaging would be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2032. Here's Representative Jordan again.

JORDAN: It shifts the cost for paying for those recycling and disposal fees onto the producers themselves, saving Minnesota taxpayers money in their taxes that they pay to their local governments for disposal and recycling.

MASTERS: The bill has been supported by localities with landfills that are filling up and, nationally, has faced pushback from packaging and retail industries arguing it would cost more for consumers. Tony Kwilas with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce says the state already has high rates for recycling.

TONY KWILAS: We range anywhere from ninth to 12th in the nation. There is a structure in place, and it is adequately well funded here in the state of Minnesota.

MASTERS: Some Republicans, like representative Josh Heintzeman, question whether this is a proven method for reducing waste.

JOSH HEINTZEMAN: I would argue, based on what we're hearing now, that that's actually not the case.

MASTERS: Maine is the state furthest along. They passed a bill years ago and are now in the process of drafting rules. Vanessa Berry is with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which worked closely with that bill's sponsor.

VANESSA BERRY: You need a law that is very comprehensive and includes a lot of different methods for towns to participate in recycling programs. And then also, we had to think about all of the different things that we want to incentivize in packaging material.

MASTERS: Back in Minnesota, the legislation is churning its way through the lawmaking process this spring. If it passes, the law would join a small set of states looking to find a solution to cut back on all that packaging waste that's become such a part of the American consumer's life.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in St. Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.