Many locals view Minnesota as an exceptionally green community -- and why not? The recycling rate here consistently ranks among the nation's top five.

But Minnesota Green Corps -- a new statewide program that's training a fresh crop of environmentalists -- wants to dissect a different statistic: why the rate has not improved in nearly a decade. To learn more about its residents' recycling habits, and work to reignite the green campaign, the corps launched a 12-month project aimed at providing answers.

The work began last week, with workers sorting and analyzing trash from 100 houses in Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood. It's a dirty job -- part of the day's "fun" included maggot races -- but it's a project that Minnesota Green Corps, a division of Americorp, believes will make a difference.

"How can you really tell people what to do if you don't know what's in there?" said Pam McCurdy, a strategic marketing specialist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which runs the Green Corps program. "You have to get in there," she said, looking over an assembly line of navy blue trash carts.

And get in there they did. Working out of an old unused Public Works Department garage, the four Green Corps members and a few volunteers sifted through coffee grounds and crunched TV dinner sleeves. They picked out sheets of newspaper and crumpled paper towels. They pulled away banana peels and broccoli stems. Each smelly article was meticulously separated into blue bins by category, and then the bins were weighed and recorded.

The Hennepin County recycling project is one of 26 programs for the fledgling Minnesota Green Corps, which sent members to 25 local governments, nonprofits and educational institutions statewide this year, its second year of operation.

The effort has four prongs: energy conservation and air quality, waste prevention and recycling, green infrastructure, and a "living green" outreach. While working to help communities in need, the program also places high priority on training and educating its members, many of whom are transitioning into new, environmentally oriented careers. They work for next to nothing: $11,400 for 1,700 service hours. But they are driven by the conviction that their efforts will someday represent meaningful change.

"I like the idea that everyone really can do something," said Nancy Lo, a full-time Green Corps member who will be seeing the project through from beginning to completion. "It's easy to say, 'Gee, I throw away a lot of stuff, but when you actually put numbers on it, it makes you stand back and go, 'Wow.'"

With this project, the Green Corps will be able to deduce which kinds of materials are being consistently recycled. "We've hardly found any aluminum or glass [in the regular trash]," said Paul Kroenig, a supervising environmentalist for the county's Department of Environmental Services. And they'll learn what's not making it into the recycling bin and base their new messaging efforts on those targets. For example, McCurdy said, about 12 percent of generated trash is recyclable paper.

"You kind of have to make it easy for people," said Green Corps member Rose Buss, who called the project "both interesting and gross," noting that recycling is not always easy or convenient.

"I think I do a better job than most, but I'm still not inclined to look up 'What do I do with this, how do I get rid of this?' Changing habits is hard and it will take some thinking and some trying, but eventually it will become second nature."

The idea of recycling began getting a lot of attention in the 1970s, when the first environmental policies were established. The concepts gained steam in the '80s with new mandatory recycling laws and heightened awareness. But while consistent recycling has become the norm, efforts to improve have become stagnant in many states.

For its part, Hennepin County is working to make things easier. In about two weeks, many areas, including the Seward neighborhood, will be downsizing from the current mandatory eight recycling categories to requiring separation into just two: paper and fibers, and everything else. Down the road, the county hopes to instigate a recycling plan for organic matter.

"There is a really high percentage of food waste," Kroenig said, noting that projects like this indicate that it's about 30 to 35 percent of total waste. "That's the next generation of recycling you're going to see."

With such hopes in mind, the Green Corps members systematically sorted through bag after bag, their putrid contents strewn across rows of plywood.

For those up to their elbows in cigarette butts and fly-specked gobs of tomato sauce, there are occasionally some impure thoughts.

"I'm all for wasting water tonight," Buss said, her soiled and gloved arms akimbo. "My shower? I'm thinking about 20 minutes."

Amelia Rayno • 612-673-4115