Food waste represents biggest recycling opportunity, study finds

Workers sort through trash this past May at the HERC as part of Hennepin County waste-sort study. Photo by Sarah McKenzie

Food waste represents the biggest opportunity for Hennepin County to reduce trash and increase recycling, according to a study released last month.

County residents can also increase recycling by throwing away less paper and cardboard and more frequently utilizing drop-off sites for items that aren’t accepted in curbside recycling programs.

The study looked at trash from the Diamond Lake, Near North and Powderhorn neighborhoods during the week of May 8. It concluded that Hennepin County wouldn’t be able to reach the state-imposed goal of a 75-percent recycling rate by 2030. Achieving a 50- to 60-percent rate is more realistic, the study said, but will still be a challenge.

The county had a 46-percent recycling rate in 2015.

“The results still show that we have a lot of work to do,” said Ben Knudson, a county recycling specialist. “There’s still a lot of obvious things we can do to make progress.”

The study says recycling organics represents one of the biggest ways the county could improve its rate. Hennepin County recovered 4 percent of organic waste at the time of the study, a figure that could improve once more cities implement curbside organics-collection programs.

Households in 13 of the county’s 45 cities participated in organics recycling in 2015, but about 78 percent of those households were in Minneapolis, which began its citywide organics program in August 2015.

The countywide figure could increase in the coming years, however, as Hennepin County begins to increase funding for organics programs. The county plans to nearly double organics program funding in 2017 to about $720,000, which represents about 20 percent of the recycling funds it receives from the state. By 2020, the county will spend 50 percent of its recycling budget on organics, Knudson said.

“The long term vision is that people would have the ability to participate in organics if they want to,” Knudson said.

Minneapolis reached a 40-percent opt-in rate with its organics recycling program in October, with more than 42,500 households participating. The city had collected more than 2,700 tons of organics at the time.

Minneapolis recycling coordinator Kellie Kish said the city’s 40-percent opt-in rate is one of the highest in the country among comparable organics programs. She said a combination of educational outreach, door-to-door conversations and community events have proven effective at increasing numbers

Kish said the priority next year would be to work within cultural communities to promote the program.

St. Louis Park had the second-most utilized organics program last year, with more than 1,460 households participating. The city has a 15-percent opt-in rate, said Public Works Services Manager Scott Merkley, and a goal of about 30 percent.

Merkley said St. Louis Park is hoping it will increase participation in the program by waiving a $10 quarterly fee.

The county’s study also found that residents could more frequently utilize drop-off sites for items that can’t be recycled curbside. These include items such as yard waste, textiles, scrap metal, electronics, mattresses and recyclable plastic bags and film.

The study also found that residents could be recycling more paper and cardboard. It noted that reducing the amount of waste generated in the first place is the most impactful waste-management practice.

Food comprised nearly one-fifth (19 percent) of the trash in the study. Materials less than half an inch in size (6.3 percent) was the next most prevalent category, followed by compostable paper (5.7 percent), diapers and hygiene products (4.9 percent) and pet waste (4.9 percent).

Actual trash comprised 40.8 percent of material thrown away. Organics comprised 24.9 percent, recyclables comprised 13.8 percent and construction and demolition materials comprised 8.9 percent.

The study did not look at commercial trash, which has a higher proportion of recyclable and compostable materials, according to the county.

Visit to learn more about residential recycling in Hennepin County.