Hennepin County offers recycling carrot

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 24, 2011 - 9:36 PM

Hennepin County's new policy would make recycling easier - and would pay cities to comply.

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At Allied Waste, which does the recycling for Minneapolis, workers sorted out cardboard, one of the first steps in the process.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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With more aggressive state recycling targets just around the corner, Hennepin County has developed a new recycling funding program to make it easier for cities to recycle more things than ever before.

The biggest impact will be on the county's single biggest garbage producer, Minneapolis -- which, officials say, is not recycling nearly as much as it should.

Under a policy that's expected to win final approval from the County Board next week, single- or double-sort recycling -- rather than the elaborate multi-sort model that Minneapolis uses -- will be the standard for participating cities. Most, if not all, suburbs already do that.

Single-sort requires no sorting of recycling materials at all, and double-sort means simply separating paper from other items.

The county program also is expanding the kinds of acceptable recyclables to include juice and milk cartons and more rigid plastic containers.

The immediate goal, said county Environmental Services Director Carl Michaud, is to boost communities to an average of 725 pounds of recycling per household annually.

The new policy is based on the feedback county officials got from city officials. "The one thing we did hear was that we should make it easier to recycle, they wanted to recycle more materials, they wanted less sorting and they wanted more education," Michaud told the County Board last week.

Communities won't be penalized for not following the county policy. But for those that do, the county awards thousands in funds that it gets from the state for recycling efforts. The funds are allocated to cities based on the number of households that get curbside recycling service.

This year, Hennepin County gave $2.9 million to cities for recycling. Last year, about 100,000 tons of recycling were collected from 345,000 households throughout the county. The county spends about $7 million annually on recycling, including the state funding.

But the county's recycling rate is 38 percent. Under the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's long-range solid waste plan, Hennepin County should be recycling at least 45 percent of its municipal waste by 2015. That's 132,000 tons of waste.

Steve Kotke, Minneapolis' public works director, on Tuesday will recommend to the City Council that the city explore switching to a single- or dual-sort system. The city has conducted a couple of pilot programs this year in neighborhoods to test simpler sorting; most other cities already have turned to it, he said.

"We have our own sustainability goals, and we also are putting some aggressive goals in place to get our recycling up," he said.

Besides, Kotke added, the city got $880,000 from the county this year. "That's certainly a big carrot," he said.

Minneapolis is among the bottom quarter of the county's cities in terms of recycling. That's partly because it has more renters, but also because of the multi-sort system that residents have used for 20 years. The system sorts everything separately, ensuring that unclean objects don't contaminate others and therefore make them impossible to recycle.

Minneapolis has "arguably as complicated a recycling system as any in the Western Hemisphere," Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who represents south Minneapolis, said this summer.

"No more of this eight bags for eight different things," said County Board Chair Mike Opat, who represents a portion of north Minneapolis.

But recycling processing technology has made significant strides in recent years, making possible contamination less of a problem than it used to be. City officials now believe that simpler sorting will increase Minneapolis' amount of recycling.

The county's efforts to increase recycling also will include more public education, Michaud said. Print materials will be distributed, presentations will be made and tours will be offered of recycling facilities, he said. There are plans to use social media to get the word out.

"We need to re-energize the public a little bit and try to do that with some of the efforts that we're making ... coupled with the simplification that Commissioner Opat talked about," McLaughlin said last week. "Data across the country is pretty clear that if you make it simpler, people will recycle more."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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