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Eureka: The offbeat recycling company that wants to go way beyond recycling

Mears Park is a lush little oasis in the middle of St. Paul's Lowertown. Alive with trees, gardens and running water, it's also surrounded by sustainability-minded folks--and food. At the new Faces Mears Park, chef David Fhima [see our profile] uses local, sustainably-farmed ingredients. The St. Paul Farmers Market is a block away--everything sold there is produced within a 50-mile radius Right next to the farmers' market is Heartland Restaurant, a local-foods favorite with chef Lenny Russo at the helm that recently moved down the hill from the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood and opened a new market and deli.

Lowertown is also the heart of St. Paul's arts community. It's full of lofts, the artists who live in them, and home to the semi-annual St. Paul Art Crawl. So when a group including the City of St. Paul, Public Art St. Paul and Eureka Recycling came together to figure out a way to reduce waste in Mears Park--which, at lunch hour, brims with people, their beverages and to-go containers--it turned to local artists and business owners to find out what would work best in that community.

The result: an arts-based recycling and education project for which two St. Paul–based artists were commissioned to help. Veteran public artist Seitu Jones designed art objects that doubled as recycling bins. To call attention to the value of recycling, The City of Saint Paul's official artist-in-residence, Marcus Young, created a neighborhood recycled-gift program. Local restaurants and businesses contributed by reducing the amount of waste they produce and, by placing stickers on bottles and cans, directing customers to make use of the recycling bins in Mears Park once they're done drinking.

This place-specific, community-driven initiative is working. Garbage in the park has decreased. People are using the public recycling bins, which neighbors appreciate. In other words, this waste-reducing project is sustainable, and that's just what Eureka Recycling--a nonprofit whose mission is "zero waste"--is aiming for in its efforts to improve quality of life in the Twin Cities.
A World Without Waste?

Eureka Recycling isn't your average recycler. Originally the recycling branch of the St. Paul Neighborhood Energy Consortium (now the Neighborhood Energy Connection), it became an independent business in 2000 and received nonprofit status in 2001--but Eureka's mission has always been zero waste.

Just like all resources are reused in nature--where there is no waste--the zero-waste philosophy calls on us to redesign the way we use resources so that everything is reused, so that there is no "trash." "We're here to demonstrate that waste is preventable, not inevitable," says Tim Brownell, CEO of Eureka Recycling, which has created 100 green jobs that didn't exist ten years ago. The organization is one of only a handful of nonprofit recycling and zero waste service providers in the country. (The others are in similarly sustainable-minded places like Boulder, Berkeley, and Ann Arbor.)

In order move toward zero waste, Eureka is working on many levels with communities, consumers, business owners, cities, public organizations and manufacturers--and looking toward producer responsibility for preventing waste in the first place. "Zero waste calls on producers and the whole system to change, not the consumers to change their behavior," says Dianna Kennedy, Eureka's director of communications.

Eureka Recycling receives no subsidies or grants. All of the nonprofit's revenues come from fees for services. While Eureka may be best known for its big green trucks that collect recycling for cities including St. Paul, Roseville, Maplewood, Arden Hills and St. Louis Park--Eureka sorts the materials at its own processing center--it offers a range of other services.
 Eureka Here, Eureka There
Eureka handles hundreds of zero-waste events throughout the year, including Rock the Garden at the Walker Art Center, the Living Green Expo and the St. Paul Classic Bike Tour--dramatically reducing the footprint of such big gatherings.

For the last 15 years, Eureka has run the Twin Cities Free Market, an online service that predates Craigslist and Freecycle. There, furniture, appliances, electronics, landscaping materials--virtually anything--can a find new home and stay out of the landfill or incinerator. One in six households in the Twin Cities uses the service.

When residents of St. Paul's Macalester-Groveland neighborhood expressed interest in composting, Eureka started teaching backyard and worm composting workshops and helped start a neighbor-to-neighbor education program. Currently, Eureka is testing various compost pickup programs there and studying how they stack up against each other. It collects compost--defined as anything from a tree or plant--by bicycle from 200 households, by truck from others and it offers a compost drop-off center. "When homeowners have access to full recycling and composting services," says Brownell, "they can easily reduce their waste stream by 75 to 85 percent."

Eureka offers commercial composing services, too: In a single project with Minneapolis' Mill City Farmers Market, the Mill City Museum, and all of the tenants of the mixed-use Mill Ruins Building, Eureka composted a total of 984,000 pounds of material in 2009 alone.
Rethinking the Restaurant
Eureka would love to provide composting services to restaurants in St. Paul, like those sustainability-minded spots on Mears Park. But current regulations prevent it. Across the river in Minneapolis, though, Eureka provides composting and zero-waste services to nearly 40 businesses.

Eureka helps businesses look at not only what goes out the back door at the end of the day, but what comes through the door at the beginning of the day. Can a restaurant order products in bulk? Can they be delivered in compostable, recyclable or reusable containers? Which vendors are willing to help cut down on the trash?
Some of the businesses Eureka has worked with have reduced their waste stream by a mind-boggling 90 percent--or more. "Not only does zero waste save businesses money, it allows them to communicate their footprint and their commitment to their customers," says Brownell. "It helps with branding."

At places like the Common Roots Cafe, Matchbox Coffee Shop, Birchwood Cafe, Bryant Lake Bowl, Sen Yai Sen Lek and Restaurant Alma, some customers cheerfully scrape their paper and food waste into dedicated compost bins while others take their leftovers home in compostable containers. You can see a list of participating restaurants at Eureka's "Make Dirt, Not Waste" site.
A Different Kind of Bottom Line
Through all these efforts, Eureka is aiming to shift our communities from managing waste to eliminating it. As Brownell says, it's important that we realize we have options for what we're purchasing and what we're disposing of. When we make choices to decrease waste, it has a big impact.

"Zero waste is sustainability," says Brownell. "It's an environmental necessity and an economic necessity. Resources are finite and growing scarcer. Extraction of resources has an impact on all of our lives. If we can move toward systems that replicate natural systems, that will feed our economy, our environment, our spirit."

Karen Olson's most recent feature for The Line was a profile of Minneapolis' small, eco-friendly design school Vesper College. A former editor of Utne Reader, she now freelances and edits Public Art Review.

Photos, top to bottom:

A Eureka composting bike/truck gathers material to "make dirt."

The company hopes to extend its compost-collecting program to Saint Paul's restaurants.

A Mears Park recycling collection point, created by veteran public artist Seitu Jones

The big green trucks that spearhead Eureka's no-waste efforts

Recently relocated to Mears Park, the Heartland restaurant recycles with Eureka as part of its earth-friendly brand.

Top two photos courtesy Eureka Recycling; all others by Bill Kelley.

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