Gass column: The Three E's

You've heard of the three R's — reduce, reuse, recycle — but how about the three E's?

Chris Gass, Minnesota GreenCorps Service member, works on tree survey. Submitted photo
Chris Gass, Minnesota GreenCorps Service member, works on tree survey. Submitted photo

Reduce, reuse, recycle. A common idiom lends itself to be heard and stated so much that you probably give it little actual thought and instead just let it go in one ear and out the other. I know for me, it dates back to elementary school where it first entered my long-term memory.

These days I have nothing negative to say about the three R’s, as they outline the exact concepts and hierarchy we need to strive for, both communally and individually. Giving greatest priority to reducing our overall waste creation in the first place then looking towards responsible management through reuse and recycling.

However, the three R’s don’t exactly allude to the benefits gained or for what cause we make the effort towards. You could say we have the tools but what’s the target? We can all make ties to the environment, but is that really the single avenue where we stand to gain? Let me address that.

Here we introduce the three E’s: energy, economy and environment. This is the target we should keep in mind. Every time you bother to recycle, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, you make contributions that benefit the three E’s. Here are some numbers to make sense of that:

Starting with the big picture, the profit alone from recycling is significant in our state. According to a 2013 review on recycling by the MPCA, over 2.5 million tons were collected in that year and provided over $690 million in profit. For scale, Carlton County’s expenditures for 2018 was a mere $58 million while Duluth’s in the same year were nearly $295 million.


Consider now that about 1.2 million tons of reclaimable materials were thrown away, but could have easily been recycled to provide a profit of $285 million. Adding insult to injury, we paid over $200 million to throw it away into landfills, amounting to a $485 million net loss.

That's 70% of the $690 million we gained from what was actually collected.

Said another way, we could have netted over $1 billion by simply bothering to recycle properly. Imagine what that money could be used for and how that could bolster our public projects.

Let me point out, too, that about 37,000 jobs were supported via the reclaimed material sector, which provided nearly $2 billion in wages. For reference, Carlton County has a little over 35,000 residents, of which Sappi North America employs about 730.

Alright, now let’s get a quick glance at the efficiency here. It takes 90% less energy to make an aluminum can from recycled material compared to new material. Glass? Nearly 50% less. Paper? About 75% less energy. Keep in mind that the energy sector is publicly subsidized for both conventional and renewable sources alike.

Furthermore, we can almost infinitely reuse metals and glass. It doesn’t lose its purity or manufacturability when re-smelted. But if you throw it out, we lose that material for good and pay with our wallets in turn.

Last mention: recycling is only possible with clean and accepted materials. Not everything is able to be reclaimed which means follow the rules of your hauler and don’t wish-cycle (i.e. contaminate). Let’s boost our public funds by managing our waste appropriately.

Chris Gass is the conservation education and outreach coordinator for the Carlton Soil and Water Conservation District. For more information about the Carlton SWCD and any of the staff's or supervisors' work with natural resources, call 218-384-3891. Find more information about Carlton SWCD on Facebook and at

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