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With Zero Waste Challenge and expansions in organics recycling, Hennepin County leads in waste reduction

Prince Jr., top, and Joseph, bottom
Photo by Elizabeth Selton
Ever since joining the Zero Waste Challenge, Sheri Selton has been recycling with the help of her sons Prince Jr., top, and Joseph, bottom.

Just one year ago, Sheri Selton was indiscriminate with waste at her home in Crystal. From soda cans to food scraps, everything went into the trash. She had always wanted to recycle, but she found it confusing, and nobody ever taught her how.

Now, Selton diverts about 60 percent of her waste, sorting it into a solid recycling bin, a composting pile in her backyard, and two buckets for indoor worm composting that her sons, Prince Jr. and Joseph, tend to in their living room.

Selton learned her new habits by participating in Hennepin County’s Zero Waste Challenge. Starting in September 2016, county staff worked with 35 households throughout the area to help them increase the portion of waste they recycled and composted while decreasing the amount of trash they generated in the first place. In doing so, the county is getting a better handle on the challenges individual residents face and what policies and information would help households produce less waste.

Sheri Selton, center, holding her sons, Joseph,left, and Prince Jr., right,
Photo by Elizabeth Selton
Sheri Selton, center, holding her sons, Joseph,left, and Prince Jr., right, as they turn the compost in their backyard bin.

The program is one of a handful of efforts Hennepin County has been developing to try to reach a 75 percent recycling rate by 2030, the statewide goal set for all counties in Minnesota’s metro area.

In August, the county wrapped up the first year of the Challenge with participating households diverting 62 percent of their waste, on average. One month before that, Minneapolis finished its first year of offering curbside organics recycling citywide, a program that other towns in the county, like Wayzata and St. Louis Park, started to offer a few years ago.

Hennepin County Recycling Progress Report, April 2017
In 2016, Hennepin County diverted 51 percent of its waste,
comprising 41 percent recycling, 3 percent organics recycling
and 7 percent yard waste.

Still, recycling in Hennepin County is a good way from 75 percent: In 2016, the total diversion rate was 51 percent, made up of 41 percent solid-waste recycling, 7 percent yard waste, and 3 percent organic waste. Statewide, Minnesota’s diversion rate was only 44 percent in 2015. 

Solid recycling (paper, plastic, etc.) has existed for a while in Hennepin County, but rates haven’t moved much from 40 percent over the last decade. Organics programs, on the other hand, are new and still developing. Though organic diversion rates remain low, at only 3 percent last year, the interest is there. As of July, 43 percent of eligible households in Minneapolis had adopted its curbside organics program, surpassing the city’s goal of 40 percent uptake.

Thus, just as Selton focused largely on composting as she changed her habits during the Zero Waste Challenge, the county’s newest initiatives aim to increase organics recycling among its residents.

“Organics recycling is – pardon the bad pun – low hanging fruit,” said Paul Kroening, recycling program manager for Hennepin County. “A third of what we’re throwing away today could be recycled in an organics recycling program, so we’re working on developing a lot of organics recycling in the next three to five years.”

In a few weeks, the Challenge will start up for a second year with 50 new households. At the same time, the county will release a draft of its 2018 Solid Waste Management Master Plan for public review and comment. The plan will likely require that all major cities in the county offer curbside organics recycling by 2022, and that around 4,000 large businesses in the county begin to recycle their food scraps and other organic waste products. If both requirements are included, Hennepin County may be that much closer to what Kroening calls “a lofty goal” of 75 percent diversion.

“It’s not going to be easy, and we are quite a ways from it right now,” Kroening admitted. “But in addition to trying to do as much recycling as we can, we’re trying to shrink the production of waste, and that’s where the Zero Waste Challenge comes in.” 

County joins nationwide trend of ‘zero waste’ policies

Philadelphia set a goal of being a 90 percent “zero waste” city by 2035. New York City wants to reach 100 percent zero waste by 2030. And with an 80 percent recycling rate that’s already one of the highest in the world, San Francisco has the ambitious goal of achieving 100 percent zero waste by the year 2020.

The concept of “zero waste” has been gaining traction nationwide as cities and states aim to develop waste-management plans at the forefront of sustainability. While much waste planning thus far has focused solely on diversion through recycling and composting programs, the philosophy aims to go even further, by preventing generation of waste in the first place.

Reducing waste through prevention and diversion, advocates say, benefits the environment by decreasing pollution, and helps the economy by increasing recycling revenue and decreasing the cost of producing raw materials that can be reused rather than wasted.

Now, Hennepin County experiments with upping its 75 percent goal to 100 percent as it joins the “zero waste” movement with its pioneering new household challenge.

“We really wanted to get a better idea of the challenges that our typical households were facing when it came to waste reduction and diversion, so this was a program designed to get a closer look at their lives and what they struggled with,” said Carolyn Collopy, the senior environmentalist with the county who oversaw the Zero Waste Challenge. 

Collopy’s department had a vision in mind for what this initiative might look like, but they had never seen a similar model anywhere in the U.S. So instead, they looked to France.

In Roubaix, a town near the Belgian border in the north of France, environmental workers paired up with 100 households to counsel them on waste management, finding that when they worked in direct contact with their residents, they were able to make the most progress on waste reduction. Seeing how 70 percent of participating households in Roubaix reduced their waste by 50 percent, Hennepin County decided to copy the model, inviting its own households to join the first year of the Zero Waste Challenge. 

Taking up the challenge

Moving to St. Louis Park from Guatemala City required a lot of adjustments for Cecilia Rosales – a new culture, new cuisine, new climate, and new waste-management practices.

“When I first visited here, it was shocking how everything was disposable,” Rosales said. “I really wanted to start our new home with organics disposal and recycling, but we didn’t know anything about the system – where to dispose things, where to bring different things.”

So, when she saw a post on Facebook advertising Hennepin County’s Zero Waste Challenge, she was intrigued. After filling out an application, Rosales was one of 50 households chosen from a pool of 200 applicants invited to participate in the program.

The county sought participants that would accurately represent the diversity of households throughout the area. They considered applicants based on level of recycling experience, socioeconomic status, cultural diversity, geographic location, and type and size of household. As a result, participants ranged from people like Rosales, who lived in an urban apartment just off Highway 7 in St. Louis Park with her husband, to Selton, who lives in a single-family home with a yard full of six gardens in Crystal with her mother, her sister, and her two sons.

After a mandatory training session (which many households couldn’t attend, dropping the number of participants from 50 to 35) and a one-on-one meeting with a county employee, the households began the yearlong process of weighing their trash and recycling every week and periodically attending workshops that taught skills like how to grocery shop sustainably and how to make homemade cleaning supplies.

At the beginning of the Challenge, the county focused on helping households improve their diversion on the back end. This meant fielding a lot of questions like whether frozen meal trays were recyclable (they aren’t) or whether facial tissues were compostable (they are). But even before that, it meant helping some families set up home recycling infrastructure in the first place. Selton, who did no recycling or composting before the Challenge, now recycles and does two types of composting in her home. Other households went from doing no composting to composting three different ways (backyard, curbside and worm-aided composting).

By the second half of the program, the county focused more on helping participants reduce the amount of waste they produced on the front end. Selton made changes like buying snack foods in bulk rather than individually packaged serving sizes, and Rosales made adjustments like creating her own cleaning products at home.

“Getting started can be hard, and it can be a little overwhelming to know where to start,” Collopy said. “So we started small and came up with three to five strategies each household could do to reduce waste, rather than flooding them with all these things they can do. If we’re going to make it mainstream, we’ve got to meet people where they are.” 

Getting a realistic view of what it will take 

When Collopy and her colleagues began their department’s Zero Waste Challenge, they had their eyes on 75. 

“This program is really an opportunity for us to get into people’s homes and get a realistic view of whether or not the 75 percent goal is achievable, and what it’s going to take to achieve that.”

The results were promising. On average, the participating households diverted 62 percent of their trash, but some households were able to divert as much as 94 percent of their waste to recycling and composting, just 6 percentage points away from total zero waste. Collopy was reluctant to identify specific lessons, though, because the sample size was small, and situations varied so much from one household to the next. Even so, the program did reveal a few early challenges that would-be recyclers face.

Though nine communities in Hennepin County currently offer curbside organic waste pickup, families living elsewhere in the county must either compost in their backyard, drive their organics to a drop-off location in Brooklyn Park, or in a limited number of cities, contract with a private organics hauling service.

Selton did all the composting she could at her home in Crystal. But without year-round curbside organic pickup, she was limited by how much she could do in the winter months, and by the type of waste she could compost.

“With organics pickup, you can put in stuff you couldn’t put in your outside bin, like dairy products,” Selton said. “If we had curbside organics pickup, we would have no trash whatsoever. The plastic encasing around jumbo toilet paper packages would honestly be our only trash.”

The county hopes to make that a reality for Selton through the proposal that all major cities develop a curbside organics recycling program by Jan. 1, 2022. The stipulation might exempt smaller, class four cities, but it would compel many large cities like Minnetonka, Bloomington, Edina and Eden Prairie to comply.

Hennepin County Solid Waste Management Master Plan Board Briefing
While nine communities in Hennepin County already offer curbside organic pickup services (in blue), a potential new requirement would compel many large towns (in yellow) to offer the services by Jan. 1, 2022.

But even in a town that does offer curbside organic pickup, people living in multifamily homes are often unable to take advantage of the services, as Rosales encountered during the Challenge. Her building, like most multifamily buildings, sent its waste to private contractors who didn’t offer any options for recycling organic waste.

Undeterred, Rosales took composting upon herself. She posted a message seeking a family to take her organic waste to use as fertilizer in their home’s garden. When the city of St. Louis Park learned of Rosales’ posting, it saw an opportunity to increase organics recycling.

Roughly 40 percent of St. Louis Park residents live in multifamily homes. To accommodate them the city started a pilot program in which they placed a number of organics drop-off bins around the city where apartment residents could bring their organic waste. So far, 100 families have signed up for the program since it began July 15, and the city will consider expanding it at the end of the pilot period this October.

As Zero Waste highlighted, changing the way people deal with their garbage is largely an external issue dependent on the kind of waste management infrastructure available. Changing the way people produce waste, on the other hand, is largely internal. This proved more challenging to address.

“We definitely saw an increase in recycling, and in organics recycling,” Kroening said. “Actually getting them to think upstream and do activities that reduce waste – that’s more difficult. To ask people to rethink the patterns of their daily life, and what in those patterns generates waste, is not an easy thing to do.” 

Zero Waste fits into county’s broader plans

From potato skins to paper towels, the largest component of what we throw out is compostable organic material. A 2013 waste characterization study found that 31 percent of garbage in Minnesota is organic material, meaning that reaching 75 percent diversion without composting would not only be difficult, but potentially even impossible.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency 2013 Waste Characterization Study
Based on a study of garbage at six different facilities across the state, 31 percent of what Minnesotans throw out is organic, 25 percent is paper and 18 percent is plastic.

That reality has motivated the county to push all its major cities to develop curbside organics programs by 2022. On its own, that rule would only address the issue of household waste, which makes up less than half of the waste generated in Hennepin County. To tackle the rest of waste, the county would need action from businesses.

Thus, the county is also pushing for a requirement that businesses that generate a large amount of food waste – restaurants, grocery stores, hotels and other businesses generating more than 1 ton of trash every week – must begin recycling food waste by Jan. 1, 2020.

That would be a significant expansion on the current business organics-recycling program in the county. Since 2013, Hennepin County has provided $1.5 million in grants to businesses and organizations looking to improve their recycling and organic waste infrastructure. Close to 200 businesses have received grants so far, but Kroening points out that that’s only a small fraction of the more than 40,000 businesses that operate in the county. If the proposed ordinance makes it into the 2018 plan, about 3,000 businesses will need to start composting.

Though the plan is still currently in draft form, and neither the curbside nor the business requirement is yet guaranteed, Kroening said it’s likely that both will stay in the final document. In advance of writing the draft, his department met regularly with affected cities and businesses, and conducted public opinion polls to gauge receptiveness to the two proposed changes.

When they spoke to cities about the curbside organics ordinance, Kroening said most cities were open to it, and had seen the requirement coming.

“A lot of the cities have been contemplating doing it on their own, so this will be the impetus to get them going,” Kroening said.

Hennepin County Solid Waste Management Master Plan Board Briefing
In a survey of residents in cities that might be required to
offer curbside organics recycling by 2020, 62 percent were
“very likely” to adopt the program.

Additionally, the county polled residents in the cities that would fall under the requirement, and 82 percent of respondents said they would be “likely” or “very likely” to participate in a curbside organics recycling program in their community.

Similarly, the county conducted a focus group with around 20 businesses that would be affected by the new requirements, and most thought the requirement made sense. In fact, the requirement was originally going to give businesses until 2022 to adjust to the change, but the focus group questioned the need to wait so long, prompting the county to push the goal forward to 2020.

Though the county had not yet conducted financial analyses for either policy, Kroening provided a few cost estimates. Citywide curbside organic programs would be funded through recycling fees charged on residents, though grant money from the county could cover some of the costs. The fee ranges between $2.50 and $3.50 per household per month, which is about the same as the cost for curbside recycling currently. Businesses, on the other hand, would be responsible for paying for their own organics recycling, though Kroening estimates the companies should recover all or most costs by decreasing the amount they pay for trash services.

50 new households gear up for second year of Challenge

The Challenge may have ended for Selton, but only in name. She plans to keep up her habits and continue discussing strategies on the Zero Waste Challenge Facebook group. Soon, her support network will grow even further, as 50 new households begin their own Challenge and join the Zero Waste Facebook group.

Phase two of the Zero Waste Challenge begins next month. This time, the Challenge will last eight months instead of a full year, and participants will no longer receive the incentive stipend offered in the first phase. Collopy said the county got rid of the stipend as participants didn’t find it hugely motivating, and it represented the most expensive part of what is otherwise a very low-budget program.

Though the county does not have an exact time frame for how many years the Challenge will run, Collopy said they plan to take it year by year. For now, they only have the capacity to include 50 households at a time, but Collopy said expanding it to accommodate more families could be one longer-term goal.

One way that could work, according to Kroening, is by involving Hennepin County’s Master Recyclers and Master Composters. These are certified individuals throughout the county who attend trainings and volunteer their time to support recycling efforts in their towns. Since the Zero Waste Challenge currently relies on the assistance of the limited number of staff members in Kroening’s department, bringing in more outside support would enable more households to participate.

If the second Challenge proceeds as the first, and if the organics recycling expansions make it into the final draft of the 2018 Solid Waste Management Master Plan, Hennepin County may have a shot at its 75 percent goal. That would be more than double the national recycling rate, which was only 35 percent in 2016. 75 percent would even put Minnesota ahead of Germany, whose 65 percent recycling rate in 2015 was the highest of all countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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