Ali DeCamillis and her young St. Louis Park family were already thoughtful about how they reduced household trash. The plan included recycling and backyard composting.

But a hands-on, nearly yearlong “Zero Waste Challenge” initiative in Hennepin County — modeled after a successful program by a city in France — became a real eye opener for how much they could do.

“We are such a consumer-based society,” said DeCamillis. “It’s easy to bring things into your home and not think about how it gets disposed. We couldn’t have tackled this without the county’s help.”

Her family was one of 35 households picked from among 200 applicants for the program. The commitment included attending several workshops and weighing their waste every week. A county staffer frequently met with the households, assessing waste patterns to develop a reduction plan.

Even with relatively few households in the program, its results were significant. Participants cut the amount of waste they produced by 20 percent. On average, they recycled or composted 62 percent more of their waste stream, which is nearly 20 percent higher than the countywide diversion rate.

“We know everybody has a busy life, and really thinking more about how to change waste habits is a tough tide to turn,” said Carolyn Collopy, a senior environmentalist with the county.

Minnesota has set a statewide goal to divert 75 percent of waste to organics and recycling by 2030. Hennepin County decided it wanted to analyze the products used by county residents that impede greater waste reduction, she said.

Officials weren’t able to find an appropriate model for the study in the United States, but discovered an interesting approach in Roubaix, a town in the north of France. The French model found that direct contact between environmental workers and consumer households yielded the best results.

From waste to wellness

Hennepin County started out with 50 openings in its program. Out of that group, 15 households were dropped because they missed mandatory training.

The county offered more than 20 workshops to participating households, ranging from the pet waste disposal to shopping for products with less waste.

The DeCamillis family learned about the challenge online, and it seemed like a logical step to increase household wellness. She got “buy-in” from her husband, Joseph; 8-year-old son, Luca; and 5-year-old daughter, Siena.

“This really needed to be a family effort,” DeCamillis said.

Change started with some simple education. Participants discovered that they’ve been putting products in the recycling bins that can’t be recycled. They learned to make environmentally friendly cleaning products. They paid closer attention to the shelf-life of food. And they planned meals in ways that produce less waste.

Decreasing the amount of plastics they bring into their home proved to be a more difficult challenge, DeCamillis said, noting that many children’s products come in plastic packaging.

The weekly weighing of waste showed just how much was going into the trash.

“It makes you feel a little guilty,” said DeCamillis. “You can’t turn your head away.”

Now a year into the challenge, she said it has seriously reduced to volume of waste that goes into the trash. Her family signed up for a bin to recycle organic products and now only needs the smallest trash can the city offers. They recently received notice that their trash volume has been cut so dramatically that the city only needs to pick it up every other week, DeCamillis said.

The challenge has been fun for her children, she said. Luca loves math and likes to see the waste weighed and the recycling numbers go up. Siena is more hands on, so she enjoys making environmentally friendly cleaning products.

The program is undergoing some changes. There will be fewer workshops, less weighing of waste and no stipends. (The county found that the participation rate wasn’t driven by money.)

DeCamillis said she has told family and friends that even relatively small efforts can benefit the environment.

“The county has made an investment and now I’m more invested in my community,” she said. “I feel like we are ambassadors for the program.”