Over the past decade, Minneapolis has cultivated a reputation for being one of the cleaner cities on the map. Having briefly lived in Chicago, I can tell you that it definitely smells better here and that there are far fewer puddles of mysterious goo. Still, our city has become sluggish in its efforts.
It may have an incredible bike path system and expanding public transit routes, but few residents are even aware of the stagnant recycling rate of 20 percent, which rests below the national average. By comparison, San Francisco touts a 77 percent diversion rate, something accomplished through a citywide goal to develop a zero-waste economy.
To remind those who may have forgotten, “zero waste” does not actually mean no waste, but a system in which 98 percent of all garbage is recycled, along with the encouragement to reduce it altogether. By redesigning its waste-collection system to ensure that all materials are recycled or composted, San Francisco has accomplished something we should definitely be able to pull off. The prospect of ditching those smokestacks of burning trash next to our baseball field is enticing enough to at least give it a shot, right?
Why isn’t it happening? The simplest answer is that not enough people are getting involved or are even aware that they need to be. Individuals on average seem to be enjoying healthier lifestyles, made possible by co-op grocery stores and city-mandated programs like single-sort recycling. These are great examples of how citizens and local politics result in positive change for everyone — by influencing the way businesses operate, people can create a larger change that goes beyond their front step. What’s happening now is a lag in support for local change, because it’s easy to see the most recent improvements and consequently not feel the need to go any further.
“Zero waste” is often made into a partisan issue, but let me be clear in stating that supporting it is not the same thing as pledging allegiance to a belief in global warming or giving lawmakers more control over the way we live. The simple thing of it is that garbage doesn’t exist until we create it, and the rule of recycling, as we all learned in elementary school is reduce, reuse, recycle. Households may be recycling more on average, but the focus should be on reducing the amount of garbage produced — and that means implementing better policies.
As a canvasser, I frequently encounter people who agree wholeheartedly with the idea of a zero-waste economy, and even applaud our efforts as being valiant or amazing, but they decline to support the cause beyond a verbal pat on the back. Usually, they feel that the issue is too large for them to make an impact or that they are simply doing enough personally. What many people don’t realize is that it doesn’t take much to support grass-roots organizations that serve as the rare link between individuals and government action.
Information spreads quickly, and in my seven months of covering the subject, I have seen an increase in education about the subject through local publications as well as in schools. The number of kids who inform their parents about the benefits of composting is noteworthy, although the medium doesn’t matter when it comes to enlightenment.
The important thing to remember is that there’s a significant difference between saying you support something and actually supporting it. When all of those folks who wish for political change actually put their name to it, we will finally have the weight necessary to push bigger and better policies.
Ali Goldberg, a writer and field organizer, is a Minneapolis native.