Where has all the trash gone? Minneapolis eyes 'zero waste'

  • Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 12, 2014 - 6:00 AM
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Dottie Dolezal wraps organic wastes into a newspaper in preparation for disposal.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Imagine a city without garbage.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Minneapolis officials are taking early steps toward joining ­Seattle and San Francisco in becoming “zero waste” cities where just about every scrap of trash is recycled.

A public hearing to ban hard-to-recycle foam takeout containers is scheduled for Monday and City Hall is drafting a plan to pick up food scraps and other organic items from every home by next year, something several metro-area cities already do. And Mayor Betsy Hodges has hired the city’s first-ever zero-waste coordinator.

“This is about an aspiration,” said Council Member Elizabeth Glidden. “It’s an important aspiration, but clearly one that we’re only a small part along the road toward.”

Minneapolis has a long way to go to catch up to the West Coast cities that have pioneered zero waste, meaning at least 90 percent of the garbage is recycled, composted or reused. Just 37 percent of its garbage is now recycled and composted, compared with 77 percent in San Francisco and 56 percent in Seattle — cities that require their citizens to do it.

San Francisco also has banned plastic shopping bags, a top contaminant in the ­recycling stream. Minneapolis has no proposal to do that yet, though officials are considering how to work with stores to offer more reusable bags. Some council members also want to require more recycling of construction debris as the city faces a development boom.

For now, the city wants to offer more education and outreach on recycling and composting before taking dramatic steps, like making recycling mandatory.

“Maybe down the line we need to get to some level like San Francisco … for right now the framework is not there,” said David Herberholz, Minneapolis’ director of solid waste and recycling.

Starting early: Packaging

Advocates of zero waste say the concept goes much further than simply driving people to recycle more. Zero waste, they say, requires companies to produce goods that are reusable and durable and use more recyclable packaging, as well as less ­packaging in general.

The movement started in recent decades when recycling professionals “realistically saw that recycling really wasn’t going to get us what we were trying to achieve,” said Susan Hubbard, a former CEO of Eureka Recycling who now runs a consulting firm called Nothing Left to Waste. “We really needed ­people to look at it from the whole ­picture.”

Minneapolis Council Member Andrew Johnson has seized on that idea. He wants to amend a long-standing ordinance to require restaurants to only serve takeout food in “environmentally acceptable” containers. That excludes what’s commonly known as Styrofoam and other materials that are difficult to recycle. Dozens of American cities have passed bans on foam containers, and ­McDonald’s announced last year that it would replace foam coffee cups with paper ones.

While representatives of the packaging and plastics industries are expected to show up at Monday’s hearing to argue against the ordinance, the Minnesota Restaurant Association says it is unlikely to oppose the move, though some members have concerns about the Jan. 1 start date.

Johnson, a former systems engineer at Target, is also drafting a letter to the retail giant calling for it to work more with vendors to decrease waste sent to landfills and reduce packaging.

“If we want to think really big … we need to have our corporate leaders be part of this, and ultimately Target has the most ­influence in our city and our state to drive national results in reducing waste,” said Johnson.

Environmental nonprofit As You Sow has pushed General Mills and other large companies to generate less waste, recently filing a shareholder resolution calling for Golden Valley-based General Mills to stop using unrecyclable plastic packaging for Nature Valley granola bars, Betty Crocker cookie mixes and other goods.

While the organization has promoted fees on corporations to cover the cost of recycling — a system already common in Europe and Canada — As You Sow’s senior vice president, Conrad MacKerron, said cities also have a role.

“They have to motivate their citizens, they have to educate them,” he said. “They’re in a good role to do that by being able to communicate with them locally to change their behavior.”

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  • Dottie Dolezal, who lives in Linden Hills, disposes of her organic wastes by keeping them in a jug under her sink until there’s enough to dump onto a newspaper and put into a green cart by her back door.

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