Talk turned to trash at the Hennepin County Government Center this week when surprised employees discovered their standard-size garbage cans replaced by tiny new ones.

"I wasn't sure whether it was a toy or a marketing tool," said Mark Thompson, Hennepin County District Court administrator, of the diminutive cans, which appeared in offices and courtrooms Monday morning.

The recycled-plastic, quart-size containers are neither. Designed to encourage less trash-making and more recycling, they limit what employees can toss before they have to dump the collection into a bigger can down the hall. On the side of each can is written, "This is all the GARBAGE I make!"

The sudden and extreme transition in the busy downtown Minneapolis workplace has not come without ­complaint or ridicule.

Thompson got so many e-mails from the county's five dozen judges and their staffs this week that he sent them an e-mail telling them to stop sending him e-mails about the cans.

Even those who wear black robes and stiff looks in the courtrooms had some fun circulating a picture of the old and new trash cans, together with the words, "This may sound insensitive, but size really does matter."

One judge devised a tongue-in-cheek top-10 list of reasons to like the super-soda-sized cans, among them, "This has to be a shot in the arm for the 'novelty' industry, and that's great for our economy" and "Since the new receptacles are similar in size and shape to a specimen jar, if we ever go to mandatory workplace [urinary analysis tests], we're already set!"

County Commissioner Gail Dorfman looked on the upside: With little space for trash, she may end up eating less in her office.

Advocates: Don't trash the idea

Despite the jokes, the change was made with earnest good intentions. The entire county has now switched to one-sort recycling — papers, cans and bottles all go into the same container. Cartons, yogurt and beverage cups and deli containers can also be recycled. The aim is to reduce county trash by 20 percent. Even before the switch to the little trash cans, county workers recycled 1,000 tons last year.

The county's environmental and property services departments delivered the cans to the offices of 3,000 mostly unwitting workers in the Hennepin County Government Center last weekend. An official rally heralding their arrival and making a pitch for their proper use came Thursday.

Employees are told to empty the cans at a centrally located receptacle on their floor. "This short walk will help the county save money, stay healthy and protect the environment," said an informational flier given to workers.

Judy Hollander, director of property services, led the plan for the new cans. "As we create more recycling, the amount of trash goes down," she said.

But she recognizes that "it's a hard change for folks," she said. "When we mentioned it at the department heads meeting, there was a large gasp."

County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin called the change "walking the walk."

With visitors, cans overflow

County and court workers may be able to adjust to less trash space, but thousands of other people come to the courthouse weekly to renew driver's licenses, get passports and go to court who also need somewhere to throw their refuse.

The Government Center is split in two towers, with county administrative offices in one and courtrooms on the other side. On the county side, most who enter are employees, but people who are under court supervision also come through to visit probation officers and provide urine samples.

"There's a lot of concern about what we're going to do with court litigants who bring trash to court," Thompson said. "When you get a notice to come to court, we're not going to talk to you about what you can and can't bring. We don't have control over what they bring in, nor should we."

Everyone who goes into the towers must pass through a weapons-screening checkpoint and metal detector.

But no one is stopping them from bringing in things they'll have to throw away. As Thompson put it, "You name it and in my 19 years, we've found it in the garbage." That includes dirty diapers, personal hygiene products and soiled clothing. So he's working on options.

"We have to have a place for their personal garbage, or it's going to wind up on the floor," he said.

Already, lawyers report seeing the little trash bins overflowing after a single large coffee cup and a banana peel go in.

Complaints and unexpected problems that arise from use of the new cans aren't just going to be — well, tossed out. Hollander said the administration is open to alterations as the workers adjust to the new system.