Hennepin County is digging through your trash.

A handful of men and women in hard hats and jumpsuits are sorting almost two tons of garbage in a downtown Minneapolis warehouse. The stink wafts from the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center’s tipping floor and is nauseating behind closed doors, but they’ve gotten used to it.

The sort is part of a weeklong study to figure out what people are throwing away. Or more importantly, how we can throw away less and recycle more.

“If we’re going to reduce what we’ve been doing, we have to know what’s in the trash stream,” Commissioner Randy Johnson said.

The plant burns 365,000 tons of garbage every year, generating enough energy to power 26,000 homes, said Dave McNary, HERC’s assistant director of the Solid Waste and Energy Division in the Department of Environment Services. However, the state wants the metro area to recycle 75 percent of its waste by 2030.

In 2015, HERC recycled almost 50 percent of its waste. Still, Ben Knudson, a HERC recycling specialist, said the state’s goal is ambitious.

“In general we’re finding we could do better on recycling, but we’re doing a pretty good job,” Knudson said. “The answer seems to be composting.” The county expects the report to be published in July.

Ramsey and Washington counties completed a similar study in 2014, finding that household trash is made up mostly of food waste. Hennepin County expects similar results, but the report will include more information about how to educate residents about composting and recycling opportunities.

“Something that’s new with this study, that others haven’t done, is we’re doing a secondary sort. We’re sorting it into what we call ‘retail categories,’ so where the items are found in a department store,” Knudson said.

Since the project began on Monday, the sorters have found mounds of books, shoes, clothes and reusable bags, which could be donated or repurposed. Some well-intentioned recyclers contributed to a “contaminated waste” pile, made up of peanut butter jars that hadn’t been rinsed out and takeout containers with cemented curry. These “contaminated” recyclables end up in the landfill, too.

“We know more about consumer habits,” Knudson said. “What they’re buying also gives us clues about where the waste is generated in the home. This will help us identify opportunities and challenges for recycling in the future.”

On Thursday a group of city officials and contractors met to discuss possible solutions to the trash problem. Suggestions ranged from garbage inspectors imposing fines on bad recyclers to banning straws.

“We would like to put ourselves out of business,” said Paul Kroening, HERC’s recycling program manager.


Zoë Peterson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.