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Friday, May 13, 2011

Minnesota is Creating Jobs Using Recycled Glass

Article by: DEE DePASS , Star Tribune Updated: May 1, 2011 - 5:10 PM

Water squirted and the grinders screeched Thursday as three workers at the Rust Brothers plant in Minneapolis guided diamond polishers over their handcrafted masterpieces: stunning glass countertops made from recycled windshields, soda bottles and window panes.

The tiny shop generates more than $500,000 in sales a year and diverts about 4,000 pounds of busted glass each month from landfills. It also creates jobs, buying tools from Park Industries in St. Cloud and colored glass chips and resins from recyclers in Minnesota, Illinois, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Utah.

The terrazzo-like slabs sell for $3,000 or more. Customers, which include architecture firms, Whole Foods and Microsoft, "like that they're keeping glass out of landfills," said Rust Brothers co-owner Jason Branson. It "has generated a renaissance in glass countertops."

Today Rust and other recycling manufacturers are generating an economic renaissance of sorts that's rippling across Minnesota. A recent survey by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) found that more factories are swapping "virgin ingredients" for recycled materials such as old bottles, newspapers, oil, carpets, cans, tires, shingles and the like. The rubbish is converted into attractive new products that sell for big bucks and create much-needed jobs.

Minnesota manufacturers consumed more than 2.5 million tons of recycled materials in 2010. In the process, they created 15,221 factory jobs and $1.96 billion in wages and salaries, according to the MPCA.
Factor in the economic impact from recycling suppliers, haulers and trickle-down consumer activity, and recycling manufacturers helped create an additional 21,760 jobs, the agency estimates.

Not just for tree huggers

Combined, raw-material processors and recycling manufacturers and product sales create an estimated $8.5 billion in gross economic activity to the state, which "is substantial," said Wayne Gjerde, the author of the report and MPCA recycling market development coordinator.

Recycling's not just for tree huggers but is a serious economic development tool, Gjerde said.

Among the recycling heavyweights: 3M Co.; Rock-Tenn Paper; Dotson Iron Castings; Dem-Con Cos., and Gerdau Ameristeel, which melts rusty old cars and curbside soup cans to create miles of construction rebar.

Recycled content has such potential that the Blue Green Alliance in Minnesota is urging President Obama to set targets that increase the national recycling rate for all materials and industries.

"It has a double benefit," said David Foster, the alliance's executive director. Recycling keeps junk out of landfills and puts people to work. The sources for savings range "from paper in offices to scrap metal in factories to even things like capturing and recycling waste energy in manufacturing," he said.

Consider St. Paul-based Viking Drill and Tool, Foster said. Viking recently started shipping drill bits to customers in shredded packaging made from cardboard boxes coming into the plant. It also invested in equipment that recycles factory lubricants. The new machine sifts out metal shards and dirt so the firm can reuse the oil in the plant.

"They saved money, reduced the number of big dumpsters going out of the plant each month from four to one and added workers" to operate the new equipment, Foster said.

That story is multiplied in various ways across the state, producing impressive results, Gjerde said. Still, companies can do more, he insists.

Minnesotans chucked 3.2 million tons of solid waste into landfills in 2009, according to the MPCA's analysis of county records. If just 1.1 million tons of that waste was processed, it could have gleaned an estimated $285.9 million in material sales and thousands more jobs for the state. "Instead, we actually spent $200 million to basically throw it away," Gjerde said. "That's miserable."

Green jobs growing.

Foster agreed there is more people can do. "Our current national recycling rate for solid waste is approximately 33 percent. Increasing that to 75 percent would create 1.1 million new jobs with over half of those in manufacturing."

Mark Phillips, Minnesota's new commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said many people only think of "green jobs" as relating to work on biofuels or energy savings.
"But jobs are being added because of recycling efforts in manufacturing. These are things we should be encouraging," he recently told an audience at a conference at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.

Phillips, who worked at Kraus Anderson construction until joining the department in February, said the firm is currently building a plant in Florida that will recycle car batteries from Minnesota and other states. Recovered metal plates, rubber, and acids will be reused in new batteries. "In the old days, batteries created big pollution," Phillips said. Now, "they are a huge green job [creators]."

Consider By-the-Yard. The Jordan, Minn., company melts tons of plastic from old milk jugs to fashion "lumber," Adirondack chairs, patio tables and park benches that are sold around the country and featured in home and garden shows.

Bedford Technology in Worthington, Minn., has been making plastic benches and playgrounds for 17 years. But four years ago, it started converting post-consumer plastic into thick, 24-foot boards. Today they are used to make commercial boat piers, pylons and ship bumpers in the Great Lakes, East Coast and Hawaii. The company's boards are also used in locks and dams in Louisiana.

The boards started as curbside recycled milk jugs, soap bottles and "anything else made with the No. 2 high-density polyethylene plastic," said CEO Brian Larsen.

"Every year we've had continued growth, even in the bad years of 2008 and 2009," he said. "There's a green movement going on and more people really want to use recycled products. Of course that falls right into our laps. We have added people."

Back in Minneapolis, at the Rust Brothers plant, Branson pointed out 48 white buckets lined up on industrial shelves, each holding 50 pounds of sparkling glass chips.

"For a couple of average kitchens we burn through 800 to 2,000 pounds of glass," he said. With four countertops freshly polished and ready for shipping, it was time to buy more glass.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725
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