The rapid devolution of print journalism is regularly lamented for all the right reasons – among them the losses of investigative voices, institutional memories and checks on the powerful. A less-noted side effect is cities’ loss of revenue from recycling newsprint.
Last year Minneapolis recycled fewer than 10,000 tons of newsprint for the first time since at least 1993, according to the city’s Solid Waste and Recycling department, with residential newsprint pickup accounting for only 5 percent of the total recycling collected by the city. Compare that to 15,000 tons of newsprint recycled in 1998, more than 9 percent of all materials that year.
Everything about newspapers is getting smaller, according to department head Susan Young. “Newspapers are using thinner paper,” Young says. “The pages are not as tall or as wide, and ads [particularly inserts] are way down.”
Minneapolis earns top dollar for its recycling because residents sort by type of material — newsprint, glass, aluminum and so on — whereas many communities, including St. Paul, collect mixed recycling, which is worth less.
In Minnesota, 40 percent of municipal solid waste is recycled, according to Recycle More Minnesota, for an annual payout (as of 2006, including sales of waste to energy facilities) of $10 million.
In 2007, Young’s department added $1.9 million to city coffers by collecting and marketing sorted recyclables. This year, she says she’ll be lucky to clear half that amount, projecting a net income of $800,000–900,000: “My worst year in a while.”
That’s due in large part to declining markets for most materials. But because newsprint and aluminum consistently account for the largest shares of what Minneapolis has to market, she also lays the precipitous decline at newspapers’ doorstep.
Part of the problem: People take papers delivered at home to read on the way to work or on the job, where they aren’t as likely to be recycled — or at least not on the city’s residential collection routes.
Still, Minneapolis is better off than cities that don’t sort and are “hemorrhaging money,” as Young puts it. In Blaine, for example, residents now pay a fee of $11 per month to have recycling picked up.
A representative at Veolia Environmental Services, the private company that picks up recycling in Blaine and eight other local cities, said a single stream of mixed recyclables makes it hard to measure trends in quantities of newsprint. The impact on St. Paul is likewise unclear, where a spokesperson said the recycling point person left the city’s employ late last year.
Both Blaine and St. Paul have their recycling taken to Eureka Recycling for sorting. (Repeated calls to Eureka for this story weren’t returned.)
The impact on cities in which citizens sort their recyclables is likely greater than elsewhere, since they have a more lucrative product to sell. Young proudly asserts that the newsprint Minneapolis collects, however skimpy by comparison to past years, is still a higher-value item than other cities’ “newspaper drenched in beer.”
(Speaking of beer, beverages that come in glass are fueling a rise in tonnage for that material in Minneapolis: from 4 million tons in 2003 to almost 6 million tons last year. And that’s mostly drinks, Young reckons: “You don’t buy pickles [or other foods] in glass anymore.”)
Young will ask the three local recyclers — Allied Recycling, Waste Management and Eureka — to bid for the city’s recycling business when the current contract with Allied runs out next year. She expects the drop in newsprint to make a dent in the size of the offers she receives, but there’s not much she can do about it.
“All I can do is take what people give me,” Young says.
But recycling markets are cyclical like any others, and Young expects even newsprint to stabilize. “People want their local news. Even I, who am supposed to be really tech-savvy, … like to be able to settle in with the newspaper.”
Young has a Friday-through-Sunday subscription to the Star Tribune and expects many Minneapolis residents will keep receiving — and recycling — at least weekend newspapers.
If the bankrupt Strib eventually goes bust? Readers will take the St. Paul Pioneer Press, she says, plus there are the community newspapers.
One community newspaper, The Bridge, won’t be weighing down recycling bins on the east and southeastern sides of Minneapolis. The Bridge just published its last printed edition (it’s now online-only).
That was news to her.
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