You have to keep them separated

Minneapolis advises I must separate my recycling, and leaves a yellow “nastygram” on my trashcan if I do something wrong.

For recycling alone, I need to track 9 categories of waste flows (see table at bottom). If each requires 2 square feet, that is 18 square feet of real estate per household in space devoted to temporarily storing recyclables. This 18 square feet might be slightly off, but measurements in my house put it as about right.

At $100 per square foot (typical of real estate), $1800 of space per house must be devoted to storing recycling. At 168,352 housing units in Minneapolis (2000) , this is $303,033,600 of space devoted to storing recyclables.

Minneapolis says:

Why Must I Separate All My Recycling?


Sorted recycling generates the biggest revenue. Revenue from recycling provides money for:

  • Large item pickup
  • The voucher program
  • Clean City programs
  • Ongoing operating costs

If the City of Minneapolis used singlestream recycling (all recycling in one bin, as some areas do), the higher cost of processing these materials would result in lower revenue, and possible cuts in other waste services.

The question is, is the Net Present Value of the future stream of lower revenue anywhere near $300 million? I don’t think so. A simpler recycling program for users would allow more of my house to be devoted to things other than storing recycling (on the theory that I sort at time of disposal, rather than separate to prepare the trash for transshipment after already premixing). It might also increase compliance.

Recycling is a good thing. I hear Minneapolis is considering singlestream recycling.. This is an especially good thing. Now if they could go to weekly instead of fortnightly, we might be making real progress.

Material and Energy Flow management at the household is quite complicated. I counted the following Inflows:

  • Water
  • Mail
  • Electricity
  • Natural Gas
  • People
  • Food
  • Other goods

And Outflows:

  • Electricity
  • Returned on AC
  • Wastewater
  • Stormwater
  • Compost
  • Boxtops for Education
  • Unseparated, Unrecylcable Trash (which ideally would be close to zero)
  • Recycling:
    • Paper
    • Aluminum
    • Glass
    • Plastics
    • Batteries
    • Garden waste (branches, grass clippings)
  • Recycling the city does not do:
    • Plastic bags from grocery stores
    • Lightbulbs
    • Waste Electronics
    • Water filters
    • Toner cartridges
    • Bulk goods
  • Reuse
    • Old Clothes
    • Bulk goods
  • Mail
  • People

And I am sure both lists are missing things. Perhaps if we had competitive trash services, private firms would figure out the optimal mix of mixing and separation.

The following table is provided for easy reference.

All recycling must be placed in separate paper bags, as follows:




Place in Paper Bag


Cans; food, beverage & aluminum foil

Rinse, clean and remove all caps or lids.


Glass Bottles & Jars

Rinse, clean and throwaway all caps or lids.


Plastic Bottles

Rinse, clean and throwaway all caps or lids.



Keep dry. Ads are accepted.

Yes, or bundle with string or twine.

20 lbs.

Magazines and Catalogs

Keep dry.


20 lbs.

Dry Food Boxboard, Office Paper & Mail

Flatten boxes, remove plastic, and keep dry.


Household Batteries

Tape ends of lithium contacts to prevent fire.

No, but Place in clear plastic bag, on top or inside the bin.

Phone Books

Keep dry.

No, but Place on top or inside the bin.

Corrugated Cardboard

Flatten each box. Remove and throw away plastic, tape and packing material.

No, but must be bundle with string or twine

20 lbs.

3ft. x 3ft.

4 thoughts on “You have to keep them separated

  1. You can use St. Paul for comparison; we do indeed have competing trash services. My intuition is that this results in additional energy use and road wear, as, for example, my block of perhaps 20 houses is served by at least three different companies operating on different days.


  2. @MEB, I agree, there must be some additional energy use and road wear. In part it depends on the fixed cost per house vs. the cost per distance traveled. Given the fixed cost per house (idling, etc), I suspect that 3 companies would result in much less than 3 times as much energy use. Road wear is more likely to increase linearly, but there are solutions to this, including properly charging for roads (charging trucks a weight (per axle) X distance charge, which is technically feasible, but has to date been avoided in most places, in large part since we have socialized roads too).


  3. Have you seen the documentary “Waste Land” yet? There you’ll see the opposite extreme, with it all completely unsorted and a class of the poor that picks/scavenges through it all for subsistence living.
    Or you could move to Brooklyn: we have only three sorts, not nine. And if you’re nice I’ll let you autograph my copy of your book.


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