There's too much trash, too little recycling and not enough composting going on. And Hennepin County wants to change that.
Unveiling a Zero Waste plan for public comment this month, the county wants to map out how it will meet ambitious goals to empty the trash can for good.
"We need transformative change," said Carolyn Collopy, a supervising environmentalist at Hennepin County. "Our current system is not going to get us there."
It's a monumental task that cuts across industry, consumer brands, habits and state law, but the plan lays out 58 steps to get as much as 80% of the waste stream diverted into reuse, recycling or composting. The so-called diversion rate in Hennepin County stands at about 39% today and has been slow to rise despite years of efforts.
The county produced about 1.3 million tons of trash in 2021. Of that, some 34% went to a landfill, 27% was burned for energy at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, 26% was recycled and 13% was composted.
The county already is under a state statute to divert 75% of waste by 2030, or about double today's amount.
"We've come a long way, but there's still a lot of work to do," Collopy said. The plan's steps range from adding waste and recycling bins in public spaces to expanding grants to help businesses adjust to changing state laws.
The county will put a big focus on food, since about a quarter of what gets sent to the landfill or burned for energy actually is compostable material.
Even though more and more waste haulers offer compost collection services, it's one of those things that will take time as consumers and residents learn how to integrate composting into their daily lives, said Julie Wischnack, community development director for the city of Minnetonka. The city joined others in promoting Hennepin County's Zero Waste challenge and has offered seminars in the past on how to compost. It's been a slow learning curve, but it was once the same way with recycling, Wischnack said.
It's not common at all for the builders of multifamily housing to incorporate compost collection into the building, Wischnack said, pointing to another area that could be improved.
"They have to have the infrastructure for it, and they're not building that into the buildings today," she said.
Minneapolis is at about 50% participation in curbside organics collection. As that grows beyond 80%, the county will have a lot more organic material to recycle and plans to add an anaerobic digester to its Brooklyn Park transfer station. The digester converts organic waste into fertilizer and biogas.
St. Cloud's wastewater treatment plant has used a pair of the devices for years to make biogas out of solid waste and donated food and brewery wastes. The biogas is used as fuel for a pair of biogas generators,said Tracy Hodel, St. Cloud's public services director. That produces enough electricity to power about 450 houses.
Law changes sought
The county wants to see an Extended Producer Responsibility bill pass at the state Legislature; the bill would make producers of consumer brands responsible for the disposal of their product and its packaging. The law would take the burden off government to find solutions for trash, while also encouraging manufacturers to design products easier to recycle or reuse or dispose of safely without hazardous materials.
Similar laws already have passed in Oregon and Maine in 2021 and Colorado in 2022.
The county also backs a repeal of the state law that makes it illegal to put a ban on plastic bags.
Changing demolition practices
Another focus will be collecting and reusing construction materials. The plan pushes for more deconstruction of houses rather than demolition, meaning that a house could be taken apart and its parts reused, rather than torn down and landfilled. Some of that work already is being done by groups like Better Futures Minnesota, a Minneapolis nonprofit that runs the ReUse Warehouse on Minnehaha Avenue.
"Greater or increased awareness that deconstruction is even an option would be helpful," said Alex Baldwin, the waste diversion manager for Better Futures Minnesota.
It takes as much as two to three weeks to take apart a house that could be razed in one day. The benefit is that the materials can be resold or salvaged, and there's the environmental value of reusing items that would otherwise be landfilled.
Baldwin said his nonprofit anticipates doing some 60 to 70 deconstruction projects this year.
Taking it to the finish line
Hennepin County would be a national leader if it hit a 80% diversion rate, said Collopy, but getting to truly zero waste would require changes in technology, consumption and manufacturing. Items like diapers, pet waste and plastics that are a mix of types are difficult to find any solution for other than landfilling.
Consumers need to stop producing garbage in the first place, said Kirk Koudelka, assistant commissioner for land policy at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
"A good example of that is with food waste," he said. "If you can rescue the food while it's still edible, it's 20 times better for greenhouse gases than composting." That could mean that grocery stores build stronger networks with food shelves to donate damaged items before they spoil or that consumers buy smaller quantities to make sure it gets eaten and not thrown out.
"It's something we all need to be a part of," he said.
To read the plan, go to hennepin.us and search for zero waste plan. Public comment is being sought by March 20. Visit BeHeardHennepin.org for an online survey, a virtual community meeting and other ways to share ideas.