There are enough plastic bags to send Dorothy shrieking for Kansas.

For this year’s State Fair, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has whipped up a giant tornado made from shopping bags — to show that way too many of them are trashed every day.

The swirling 25-foot “bagnado” will be on display at the Eco Experience building throughout the fair, which begins Thursday.

“This twister features five seconds’ worth of the plastic bags and film thrown away in Minnesota,” said Wayne Gjerde, the state’s recycling market development coordinator.

Altogether, Minnesota chucks 87,000 tons of plastic bags each year, he said. If those bags were recycled, they would create $7 million worth of new plastic for factories each year and could sprout new jobs.

Once recycled, plastic bags become tiny pellets used to make decking, fence boards, lawn products and even new shopping bags, Gjerde said while setting up the exhibit at the fair. Some 250,000 fairgoers are expected to see his tornado.

He hopes they will get the word out that Minnesotans need to recycle bags, a message that grocery stores share. Many even offer recycle bins.

Minneapolis and other municipalities are considering banning plastic shopping bags as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles have, to stop bag litter and minimize landfill woes.

If anyone can get the word out, it’s Gjerde.

He is the guy who last year brought the State Fair a giant ball of tossed paper that was so big, it made the Guinness World Records. In past years, he has also built a tunnel of tossed water and juice bottles and entire rooms made from tossed pop cans.

But the “bagnado” may be his crowning glory.

“I showed it to my wife, and she just said, ‘Oooh. That’s really big!’ ” Gjerde said.

Mark Reum, CEO of Paynesville-based Master Mark Plastics Co., not only likes recycling plastic, his business depends on it.

“That’s pretty cool,” he said earlier this week gawking at the tornado whirling above his exhibit space. “Look at it long enough and you get dizzy.”

Master Mark uses recycled plastic milk jugs, detergent bottles and grocery bags to make deck boards and lawn edging sold to Menards, Ace Hardware, True Value and other retailers.

Currently, he buys the plastic from an out-of-state processor, but he and his partner, Nick Demuth, would eventually like to collect plastic from Minnesotans and make the pellets themselves.

“We want to do the bag collection, which we are not currently doing, and we would like to bring those bags into our facility in Paynesville and to do the densification and to clean it ourselves,” Reum said.

The plan means buying $1.6 million in processing equipment and hiring at least eight new workers at salaries of $12 to $15 an hour. It also means Master Mark would have to ask local retailers to collect and supply him with all the plastic bags he’ll need as a raw material.

“I am hopeful we can partner with Target, [Lunds & Byerlys] and Cub and folks like that, that are great Minnesota companies. I think that would be a neat project,” Reum said.

If successful, his raw material costs would drop. Processed plastic bags from other states cost half the price of virgin plastic. But buying old unwashed bags from a local vendor would lower costs even further.

Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association, said she doesn’t know all the details, but sees Master Mark’s plan as “an exciting concept that warrants more conversation. Wouldn’t that make sense to keep things as local as we could? Wouldn’t that be worth an investment?”

Ninety percent of her members’ 1,100 grocery stores have bins to recycle the bags.

“I have been in their back rooms and seen these mounds and mounds of plastic bags and shrink wrap,” Pfuhl said. “In your typical, traditional grocer in the metro, those [drop-off] bins can get emptied 10 times a day.”

Bill Keegan, president of the waste-processing firm Dem-Con Companies in Shakopee, hopes stores will promote the bins more. He’s found that few people know about them.

Currently, the statewide bag recycling rate is less than 10 percent, said Pam McCurdy, spokeswoman for the Pollution Control Agency.

Gjerde is hoping the bagnado display will help boost awareness both to recycle the bags and that the best place to recycle is at the stores.

If they are put in curbside recycling bins, they often get wet and contaminated and become unusable as a raw material, Gjerde said.

The bags also can clog the waste separation machines at commercial recycling facilities, Keegan said.

“Twice a day we have to shut down the entire system and have workers cut these bags out with knives,” Keegan said. “So not only do the bags not get recycled, they mess up our entire systems and cause a lot of outages and labor.”

The plastics Dem-Con recycles in Shakopee are sold in bulk to manufacturers across the country. Keegan said his company has sold some plastic to Minnesota companies like Master Mark.

“But a lot of [our recycled plastic] goes out of state. I think there are opportunities to process that locally,” Keegan said. “Even though Master Mark is looking to only process the clean stuff as opposed to processing the dirty bags, there is an opportunity for them. The grocery retailers are looking for outlets. It is just about finding that value return for them.”

 

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Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

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