Striving to set a better example for recycling, Washington County offices have engaged in an aggressive campaign to divert 70 percent of what's thrown into garbage cans to greener uses.

About 200 county employees now are being asked to sort waste into containers for recycling and compost. A second phase of the effort, beginning in February, will involve all 1,100 county employees at offices in Stillwater, Cottage Grove, Forest Lake and the public works shop in Stillwater Township.

"We're trying to implement it countywide and practice what we preach," said Judy Hunter, the senior program manager in the county's Public Health and Environment division who is leading the effort.

The pilot project began after the county discovered that employees were producing about 57,500 pounds of garbage a year, equivalent to about 52 pounds per person. The project, named "Divert 70," aims to reduce that per-person number to less than 16 pounds a year.

"The intent is to make it very clear, whether you're in your office or workspace, that you need to handle waste differently," said Lowell Johnson, the division director.

Counties have a vested interest in encouraging more residential recycling because of updated state objectives requiring that nearly half of all households must recycle by 2015. State standards will require as much as 60 percent by 2030.

In Washington County, the Divert 70 project is seen as putting the county's house in order even as a team of representatives from several cities develops a "performance scorecard" to measure countywide progress in residential recycling.

Hunter, who's a member of that team, said that improving recycling rates presents a challenge because various haulers serve cities in different fashions and recycling programs vary.

Residential recycling numbers have been decreasing in Washington County, she said, in part because the county has been training its attention in recent years on building its household hazardous waste recycling initiative at its Environmental Center in Woodbury.

"There's not one way to do everything," she said, explaining that it's not necessary to reinvent recycling but to develop more consistency countywide and help residents understand the importance of it.

"The recycling system is mature," she said. "We're trying to refine or get those areas where there are gaps."

Of more than casual importance, recycling in Minnesota supports jobs and supplies material for new products. Nearly 200 businesses use recycled materials to manufacture products, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. One of them is Gerdau Ameristeel of South St. Paul, which makes steel rebar from recycled material; 7 million pounds of rebar from the company was used in the construction of the new Interstate 35W bridge, the agency said.

In Washington County, one of the next big frontiers of recycling lies with composting of organic materials such as food scraps, paper towels and used pizza boxes.

Meanwhile, in county offices, new smaller waste containers distributed to employees for the Divert 70 program leave little doubt of the county's intention to promote recycling.

"The larger the container we have, the more we're going to put into it," Hunter said.