Thriving in a Land of No Waste

Time, to an atom locked in a rock, does not pass. The break came when a bur-oak root nosed down a crack and began prying and sucking. In the flash of a century the rock decayed, and X was pulled out and up into the world of living things. He helped build a flower, which became an acorn, which fattened a deer, which fed an Indian, all in a single year.

— Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

It is a romantic notion that all the elements of our world are interconnected, as Wisconsin author Aldo Leopold captured in his 1949 ode to our ecology. But, it is also an accurate notion. This is, after all, how the cycles of our world have survived, century after century, adapting and adopting new formations of atoms and cells.

A scientist I met at a conference a few years ago put it even more simply. He is a liver pathologist who looks into microscopes at cancer cells all day. For someone like him, he said, it is easy to see that our “selves” are transformed into other selves all the time. Nothing about the make-up of our foundation is permanently “us.” We share bacteria with others. Pheromones, sweat, breath, all extend the boundaries of self. We eat and drink that which largely comes from plants. So why, he wondered, do we tend to see the biology of a “self” as an independent entity? Aren’t we more like a cluster of always transitioning, interconnected bodies?

Like a flock of birds migrating south, we are a constellation of networked elements shifting together as one. As much as anything, that is what the “Sustainable We” forums and column are about. Reminders of the ways that what we do here entangles with what happens there. That we are universally responsible for sustaining each other.

The Eureka Moment

Julia - EditedThe co-founders of Eureka Recycling understand this concept. It is an innate aspect of their business model.

I visited Eureka the day before its 1 billionth pound of recyclables was tipped into its Northeast Minneapolis facility. The City Council was deciding whether to accept a staff recommendation that the non-profit be awarded a 5-year contract to collect Minneapolis recyclables. [EDITOR’S NOTE: They did, and shortly thereafter, so did St. Paul.]

Shortly after we sat down for a conversation, co-founder Tim Brownell said: “In nature, there is no such thing as waste.”

Ultimately, he said, 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 works with residents, companies and city leaders to see recycling as “not just a service, but as part of a broader social movement.”

Eureka wants to work with more consumers and manufacturers in getting smarter about creating recyclable products and packaging. In the end, Brownell said, it is consumers and city budgets that pick up the tab for disposing of the packaging that makes products look pretty on the shelves.

Brownell’s childhood in Philadelphia was rooted in a family in which re-use and thrift was “a way of life.” He grew up questioning why the human element in nature “gets to generate waste. What is our allowance for that? There is no allowance for that.” We forget that in the natural order, “one thing leads to the next.”

In other words, we aren’t supposed to be creating products that can’t be cycled into something else.

Solvent Green Is People

Brownell graduated with a degree in economics from Tufts University, prior to working on the first wave of recycling efforts in San Francisco, and eventually Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the meantime, the concept of a zero-waste society was also gripping Bryan Ukena in another part of the country.

As a young adult in Key West, Ukena was intrigued by a hill that rose up from the flat landscape as the sun set each evening. Eventually he learned that the hill was, in fact, a haystack of incinerator ashes, roughly 10 stories high.

“It was my aha moment,” says the affable Ukena. He went back to his home state of Arkansas, fired up to be part of a different solution. There he and Susan Hubbard set about to create a new system of dealing with waste. “We were wild young things who needed to get something going,” he says. “We marched down to the state Capitol, into [then-Governor] Bill Clinton’s office, and told him what we needed in order to create a new infrastructure.”

After doing similar work in Boulder, Colorado, Ukena reconnected with Hubbard in the Twin Cities — an area of the country she had determined was ready for progressive policies around waste. Together with Brownell, they formed Eureka in 2001.

Eureka’s vision is that the life cycle of a community’s sustainability is not only about not wasting the bottles and cans that come to its center, but also in “not wasting people.” Its employees earn a living wage with full-time benefits, which is rare in the industry.

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,” he said. “If we do only two of those things, without benefitting the people who are doing the work, that’s a problem.

Paradigm Shift

Nearly half of Eureka’s processed 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.”

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.

Eureka Recycling truckIt reflected a paradigm shift in city waste efforts that Eureka’s co-founders and 90 employees have been building toward since the company incorporated in 2001.

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]

Widening the Conversation

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]

Brownell has 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, “Sustainable We” columnist for Southwest Journal, founder of