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Businesses Team Up on Recycling

Minneapolis merchants pool their trash in a pilot program that permits economies of scale. WATCHING WASTE

IT'S 10:30 and most of the breakfast crowd has gone, leaving a few late-starters lingering over newspapers and croissants. So, Barbara Stermer, manager of Pam Sherman's Bakery & Cafe in this ``Uptown'' area of Minneapolis, finally has a moment to sit and discuss something she cares a lot about: recycling. The local business association recently started a pilot program in which her cafe and 250 other small businesses in this artsy urban area join together to recycle their wastes instead of depositing them in landfills. Ms. Stermer is a strong advocate of recycling, and like other managers, she found her employees welcomed the program, too. ``They were all for it and have been very helpful in making it work,'' she says. Those who clear tables toss brown-glass juice bottles into one container and clear (mineral water) bottles into another. Stermer's office paper also is recycled. ``It's not a lot, but we're glad to recycle it, rather than just throw it in the trash,'' she says.

Recycling experts say what's unusual is the approach these small businesses have taken. They realized that by pooling their wastes they could gain greater economies of scale and thus make recycling more economically feasible for themselves and a recycler.

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Although pooling has been done at a few shopping malls around the United States, it's an innovative idea for separate small businesses that share not a common roof, but an association membership.

A couple of doors down from Sherman's, Pat Fleetham of Fleetham Furnishings offers a good example of the benefits of group recycling. He began recycling corrugated cardboard privately in January 1989, at an average monthly hauling fee of $112 - roughly one-third of what he'd been paying to dump the cardboard in a landfill. When he joined the Uptown recycling project, his monthly fee fell to $20. The reason is that the association found a recycler willing to offer members a fee structure set far lower than the normal rate for individual recycling clients. Yet, the recycler still profits by virtue of volume.

Local government, too, saw enough merit in the program to grant $29,000 in startup funds for dumpsters and indoor recycling containers. It's hoped the project will provide a model for the 25,000 small businesses in the metropolitan area.

The Uptown Association, which has 150 members, solicited bids from recycling haulers. Aagard Sanitation Inc., an independent local hauler, won the bid and after several months of planning, the project started in May. It began with collection of corrugated cardboard, glass, and office paper in just one quadrant of this 10-block area. The plan was to add another quadrant every two months to allow time for ironing out unanticipated problems.

But seven weeks later, things were going so well that cans and a second quadrant were added, bringing the total involvement to 19 businesses.

After two months, a check in with participants found them still enthused - with employees happy to give the little extra effort to separate glass bottles by color, break down cardboard boxes, and distinguish which office papers are recyclable.

The greatest challenge has been something Tim Herman, Aagard's vice president of business development, anticipated: contamination - the wrong materials being put into recycling bins. The worst example occurred during the first month while people were still getting used to the program. A stern letter to clients and installation of locks on all containers to stop misuse almost eliminated the problem the second month. At the same time, says Mr. Herman, the volume of recycled materials increased.

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AS in many metropolitan areas around the country, the cost of dumping wastes in Twin City landfills has been rising steadily. Uptown businesses watched their fees triple over the past three years to the current $95 per ton. Meanwhile, local government has adopted policies to encourage reuse or recycling and make dumping or incineration a last resort.

``Recycling is going to be mandated eventually,'' says Carl DeWall, executive director of the Uptown Association. ``We have the luxury now of looking like a trendsetter and of building wonderful PR. Why not do that?''

Indeed, the association is looking like a trendsetter. Both Ms. DeWall and Herman have received calls from other Twin City neighborhood and business associations interested in setting up similar programs.

For more information on this program, contact: Uptown Association, Cari DeWall 1455 West Lake Street Minneapolis, MN 55408 (612) 827-8757 BARTER/MPIRG, Will Nynas or Michael Lee 2512 Delaware Street S.E. Minneapolis, MN 55414 (612) 727-4035

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