Pushing for zero waste

Neighborhood leaders on campaign for a ‘Zero Waste Uptown’

EAST CALHOUN — A group of southwest Minneapolis neighborhood leaders are coalescing around an ambitious goal: cutting their community’s 
collective waste stream to 
next to nothing.

Leaders from the East Calhoun Community Organization, the East Isles Residents Association, the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association and the Calhoun Area Residents Action Group recently formed a group called Zero Waste Uptown that they hope will serve to promote aggressive waste reduction efforts in the area.

The group plans to approach owners of multi-family buildings, businesses and event organizers in the Uptown area to see if they would be willing to adopt so-called zero waste policies that seek to keep recyclable and compostable material from ending up in the trash.

Their immediate targets include events like the Uptown Art Fair and the Uptown Farmers Market, as well as property owners who can amend their contracts with haulers to include compost pick-up and developers who are planning to move into the area.  

Sarah Sponheim, the president of the East Calhoun Community Organization and a leader in the zero waste effort, said the group was created as a way to build on waste reduction efforts already taking place in the area. The city runs curbside composting projects in the East Calhoun and Linden Hills neighborhoods.

“In my mind, the next natural step for our neighborhood is to tackle this bigger market,” Sponheim said.

Group leaders are applying for a Hennepin County grant to create promotional materials and potentially pay for a staff member. For now, though, they are working on a volunteer basis and making their pitch on an individual, grassroots level.

And while group leaders acknowledge their efforts may seem limited in a county that generates 1.5 million tons of waste a year, they say they want to do their part to put a dent in a seemingly never-ending waste stream and show that community-led zero waste efforts can be successful.

“Too many people see this as a big, scary idea,” Sponheim said. “We’re still pretty idealistic, and we may find that it’s very difficult, but we want to create a model so that others can see that this is replicable.”

But while the community-wide model may be largely untested, there are several examples of zero waste programs in the Twin Cities that show such efforts can work.

The Mill City Farmer’s Market, Rock the Garden and nearly 100 other events held in the Twin Cities each year are now branded as “zero waste,” with recycling and composting available to visitors. Officials at Eureka Recycling, a St. Paul-based company behind many of the efforts, say waste can be reduced by as much as 99 percent at such events.  

Now more than a decade old, Eureka also works with around 100 businesses that have embraced the zero waste model. Their clients include the Uptown restaurants Barbette and Common Roots.

At least one Uptown apartment building — Solhem Apartments, on Holmes Avenue — has also embraced the zero waste idea. As much as 70 percent of the waste from the 60-unit building is diverted from the landfill because residents are given a separate container for compostable materials and recycling on every floor, according to owner Curt Gunsbury.

Across Hennepin County, nine communities now have curbside composting programs and around 120 schools are now composting.  

John Jaimez, an organics and recycling specialist at Hennepin County Environmental Services, said the county is now composting around 11,000 tons of organic waste a year — a dramatic increase from seven years ago, when few schools or businesses had composting programs.

“It is steadily increasing, and we’re very happy to see that,” Jaimez said.

Yet organic materials still make up around a third of the waste generated and incinerated at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in Minneapolis, which officials say is a waste of a valuable resource that could be turned into compost for community gardens or other uses.

Organic material that ends up in a landfill can also contaminate groundwater and produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

While its impact may seem minimal, groups like Zero Waste Uptown are an important part of the solution because they spread awareness about the issue and show people that not everything needs to go directly into the garbage.

Tim Brownell, the president and chief executive officer at Eureka Recycling, said such realizations could lead people to pressure local officials to consider policy changes, and producers to change the way they package and sell their products.

“The moment people realize something else is possible — that there’s a different paradigm — they start to demand it,” he said.

Ultimately, Brownell said, such pressure could help build support for the concept that waste is “preventable not inevitable” and that it shouldn’t be thought of as something to be “managed.”

“What the zero waste approach is saying is that there really does not need to be waste — that waste is actually a choice of bad design,” Brownell said.

That doesn’t mean getting there will be easy, though.  

Even incremental changes like those being sought by Zero Waste Uptown pose logistical challenges.

For example, Gunsbury said replicating the system in place at Solhem Apartments could be costly and impractical at an older building given code requirements. Solhem has separate chutes for residents to get rid of their compostable material and a dedicated space for the material.

Still, “passion solves many problems,” Gunsbury said. “And if it’s a question of education, we can always learn new behaviors.”

And for Sponheim, the Zero Waste Uptown leader, any progress that is made is a step in the right direction.

“I understand it’s a goal and an aspiration, but we could be doing a lot better than we are now,” she said.

More information

Want to learn more about Zero Waste Uptown? E-mail Sarah Sponheim at sfsponheim@yahoo.com. Zero Waste Uptown and the Calhoun Area Residents Group is also hosting an event at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 29 at Bryant Square Park, 3101 Bryant Ave. S.. to talk about recycling and organic collection. The event will feature Rod Muir, the founder of Waste Diversion Toronto.