Pressuring mom to compost

Personal ties key to expanding participation in organics recycling

Birds flock above compost piles
Birds flock above compost piles at the organics recycling facility in Rosemount, which was toured by Kingfield and Tangletown residents in October. Submitted photo

It’s been four years since Minneapolis launched its citywide curbside organics recycling program, and by all accounts it has been a success. According to the latest available city data, an average of 46% of eligible households are composting, annually diverting more than 23,000 tons of organic waste that would have otherwise been incinerated or sent to the landfill.

After substantial growth in the first few years of the program, additional sign-ups are flattening out citywide. “The city talks about reaching a threshold in terms of sign-ups,” said Sally Bauer, executive director of the Tangletown Neighborhood Association. The city’s participation rates range from 25% to 67% with Tangletown on the higher end, at 61%. “I don’t think Tangletown is at that threshold yet,” Bauer said. “But at a certain point [our work] is about getting people who are already composting to do more.”

In addition to participation saturation, there are other limitations to the city’s green cart system. As noted by Andrea Siegal, co-chair of Tangletown’s environmental committee, the city does not provide curbside services to individual residents in buildings with more than four units, a limitation which is often a prohibitive obstacle for renters. And, while curbside composting is simple and convenient, it still relies on sending food waste to industrial-scale facilities outside city limits. Backyard and other hyper-local composting options could better position Minneapolis to close the loop in a more cyclical food waste system.

Composting by neighborhood

Still, the green cart program is by far the best option for most Minneapolis residents who want to make changes in their contributions to the city waste stream.

In late October, the Tangletown and Kingfield neighborhood associations organized a trip to the organics recycling facility in Rosemount as part of their efforts to boost neighborhood composting sign-ups.

Bauer is well aware that “the people who go on a tour like that are probably already converts to organics recycling.” And so, as Bauer posed, “If our goal is to get more people participating, why are we hosting events for people who are already participating?”

But the Rosemount tour was about more than preaching to the compost choir. As Bauer explained, there is power in the opportunity to connect personal commitments to all the visceral, biological and smelly processes that turn countertop scraps into garden nutrients. “We want people to become a conduit of information,” she said. “When you see it in person … it makes you become a storyteller for your own actions.”

These stories don’t have to travel very far to be effective. For Bauer, she simply had to travel to her childhood home in Lynnhurst, where her mother, Jill Schubert, still lives.

Schubert, a recent composting convert, has been a Lynnhurst resident since 1979. Her path to composting began through a combination of observation, personal guilt and some loving familial pushes.

Bauer first approached Schubert about organics recycling in early 2019 when the Tangletown Neighborhood Association was conducting interviews to supplement their application for a Hennepin County recycling grant. According to Bauer, their conversation surfaced a simple yet fundamental question for Schubert: “What’s stopping me from doing it?”

As Schubert added, “I had this guilty feeling every time I drove up and down the alley seeing green carts behind everyone’s houses and not mine.”

Once Schubert’s interest (and a bit of guilt) was piqued, Bauer didn’t let up. She invited her mother to an organics recycling workshop and offered gentle yet consistent reminders. “We probably had the conversation three times before I said OK,” Schubert said. It was at that point that Bauer took action and signed her mother up.

For Schubert, it wasn’t just that the invitation was personal — it was from family. “As a parent it’s important to support the things that are important to your kid,” Schubert said firmly. “And I knew this was an important part of Sally’s work.”

Given Schubert’s long-held environmental practices, composting didn’t come as too much of a stretch. A self-professed “child of the ’60s” Schubert raised her two daughters with an attentive eye toward environmentalism. She remembers Sally participating in the neighborhood Kids for Saving Earth Club, a youth environmental organization founded in the late 1980s to educate and empower children to act for a healthy planet.

For Bauer those lessons remain lodged deep — particularly when it comes to recycling. “Recycling was drilled into me as a child,” she said. “I would carry a metal can around with me in my backpack all day rather than throw it away.”

As a grandparent, Schubert hopes to set an example for her grandchildren that mirrors the ideals she instilled in her own kids. She said she doesn’t want her home to be a source of mixed messaging, even if that confusion is about a banana peel that goes un-mulched. “Sally is teaching this to her children,” Schubert said. “How can they come to their grandma’s house and all of the sudden they have to throw their compost in the trash or down the garbage disposal?”

Now, with three months of curbside composting firmly under her belt, Schubert plans to spread the word to her friends and neighbors. “That [personal] invitation is a great next step,” she said. If someone invites you to do something, I think it would reduce resistance.”

In addition to these tactful routes, as Schubert observed wryly, it turns out repetition and a small dose of guilt, really may be the ticket to upping participation in city composting programs. “Obviously I’m more susceptible to peer pressure than I ever imagined.”