Reduce, Reuse and Rental Could Solve a Growing Solid Waste Problem

In December 2022, Reuse Minnesota, a nonprofit association dedicated to working on behalf of repair, resale and rental businesses to promote the reuse economy in Minnesota and beyond, released a report that has gotten too little attention. Done in collaboration with British-based environmental consultants Eunomia, the report aims to measure the beneficial impacts of reuse, repair, repurposing and rental on Minnesota’s economy.

Reuse Minnesota advocates for extending the life cycle of our objects and goods. The report documents the economic value of these strategies for our state as we hope to move toward a “circular economy“; that is, “a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible.”

We should think of a circular economy in the context of what is known as the “waste hierarchy” — often pictured as an upside down pyramid from most favorable to least, top to bottom:

  • Prevention: avoiding/reducing waste in the first place by consuming less
  • Reuse: repair, reuse, rent, share, resale
  • Recycle: turning waste into a new item
  • Recovery: waste to energy
  • Disposal: landfill
Source: The Open University, licensed under Creative Commons

The top level of the hierarchy is probably also the most complicated, as it seems to contradict the capitalist basis of our entire economy which pressures us to constantly buy more stuff. It is probably safe to say that no one wants more waste — but it may be less clear that we adequately recognize the impact that our buying and consuming habits have on the environment. We feel virtuous when we recycle, but it is not the most preferred way to avoid waste. Recycling processes consume energy and not all materials can be recycled multiple times, and ultimately may end up as waste.

It is the second tier of the waste hierarchy — reuse — that Reuse Minnesota’s mission is focused. Emily Barker, executive director of Reuse, told me that the organization is busy doing education and advocacy for reuse, repair, sharing and other activities that extend the life cycle of the objects in our lives. After if she was happy with how the report is being received, she said, “I think that the appropriate people in government are seeing it.”

Benefits of Reuse, Repair and Rental

Reuse Minnesota and Eunomia analyzed data on over 13,000 Minnesota reuse businesses. The results showed that reuse, repair and rental combined allow us to:

  • Avoid approximately 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year.
  • Generate between $3.1 and $4.7 billion in revenue per year.
  • Create between 36,000 and 54,000 jobs per year.

Those figures support the assertion that even an economy that isn’t based on constant growth and consumption can provide opportunities for businesses.

The report comes at a time when, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States generates nearly 300 million tons of municipal solid waste every year, or just under 5 pounds of waste per person per day, a figure that has tripled since 1960.  The components of that waste include everything from paper, glass and metals to food and yard waste. Recycling has increased in recent years, but most of the waste (roughly 60%) is either combusted or put in landfills. (To add to the problem, the United States is facing a landfill crisis, as space for them shrinks, especially in the our most densely populated places.)

In addition, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) has just released a draft of a 20-year plan aimed at reducing the amount and toxicity of solid waste produced in the metropolitan area. The report “estimates that annual garbage generation in the area could reach 3.92 million tons by 2042, and it projects that remaining permitted landfill capacity could fill up in five to 14 years absent changes.” It prioritizes reducing consumption and expanding reuse as the most effective waste prevention strategies; according to the report, two-thirds of our waste could be reused or recycled. (The PCA is looking for public input through the remainder of the summer.)

Residential garbage trucks dumping a load in Savage, Minnesota (Licensed under Creative Commons)

Barker added that there is more to be done, and revenue is needed to support a variety of reuse strategies. “We all pay a solid waste tax [9.75% state tax, according to my latest waste invoice] and then the state distributes the revenue to counties, who redistribute it to cities,” she said, “but very little of the revenue goes toward waste prevention and reuse.”

Barker noted that Reuse had a big victory at the Legislature this year with the passage of a “right to repair” law, an initiative that they’ve worked toward for many years. The legislation requires manufacturers to provide the information and parts needed for individuals and independent operators to repair products, starting on July 1, 2024. Asked about who opposed this legislation, Barker said that some (but not all) manufacturers want to retain the repair of their products in their own hands. John Deere, for example, opposed the legislation with the argument that individual farmers or third party repairmen might do something that would render the equipment unsafe.

Their opposition may be more accurately based on the desire to retain control of the diagnostic process and access to parts. Barker thought that it was especially odd to suggest that farmers aren’t able to repair their own equipment, since they have always done so. Obviously, all our machines are becoming more sophisticated, but to prohibit even a third-party expert from working on machines and equipment doesn’t make sense. As she pointed out, “We’ve let independent mechanics repair our cars for many years!”

Coincidentally, the day I talked with Barker, the Star Tribune ran a page one story on schools hiring students to repair laptops and Chromebooks. (Google, the manufacturer of the Chromebook, has made repair of the machine quite easy, in contrast to Apple’s tight control over its products’ fixability.)

Fix it Clinic (Sasha Aslanian / MPR News)

Learn More

If you are interested in Reuse Minnesota, you can learn more and participate in some of their work:

  • On August 15, a member meeting will examine refurbishing pianos and how libraries (the original reusers!) are now lending non-book items.
  • On August 17, Barker will be leading a workshop on August 17 about how to host swaps and fix-it clinics.
  • On October 4, Reuse will host a conference aimed at  educating, inspiring and connecting professionals in the reuse, repair and rental sectors. If you are interested in the conference, read more and register here.

About Dan Gjelten

Pronouns: he/him/his

Dan was born and educated in Iowa but has lived in St. Paul’s Highland and Merriam Park neighborhoods since 1974. He has run, biked and walked tens of thousands of miles around the entire Twin Cities and elsewhere in the last four decades. He is a retired academic librarian and writes about bike touring ( with his wife, Lisa. Main interests: music, literature, long distance biking, trees, rivers and fresh air.