What we heard from the community during the first phase of community engagement

Hennepin County’s Zero Waste Plan is being guided by a broad community engagement process with a strong focus on equity and disparity reduction.

During the first phase of community engagement, the county sought to understand the community’s experiences and concerns with the solid waste management system and learn their priorities and ideas for solutions. To gather that feedback, the county worked with a cohort of community groups from February through April 2022 to hold conversations with residents who have traditionally been left out of the solid waste planning process, gathered responses through a variety of online engagement tools, and met with industry stakeholders.

Key findings

The following are key findings from all three feedback approaches:

  • Offer more recycling options and create better, more equitable access to services: Recycling and organics recycling services need to be easier and more widely available. A special focus needs to be put on improving recycling service in multifamily settings.
  • Put the responsibility on businesses and producers of materials: Take the responsibility off individuals and require the producers of materials and businesses to create a system that gives residents more options to reduce and recycle, especially when it comes to plastics.
  • Increase education and outreach: People need more clear and consistent information on what is recyclable, what services are available, why recycling is important, and the impact of the materials we throw away. Messages and messengers should be tailored to resonate with specific audiences.
  • Change the cost structure, offer incentives, and invest in community-based solutions: Adjust the cost structure to emphasize recycling over trash and offer incentives that reward good behavior. Pay people to improve recycling and conduct education in their communities and provide funding for neighborhood-based solutions.
  • Invest in zero waste initiatives and act urgently: Taking urgent action to move toward zero waste is broadly supported, but the challenges need to be acknowledged and a significant investment will be required.

The following includes a summary of who participated in and what we learned from each engagement approach.

Conversations held by community groups

A cohort of 18 community groups received funding to hold conversations with people of color, youth, and other residents whose voices have traditionally been underrepresented in solid waste planning. The community groups held a total of 31 conversations that gathered feedback from 500 participants.

The cohort was coordinated by Antonia Apolinário-Wilcoxon, Ed.D. of Equity Strategies, LLC, a facilitator contracted by the county. Antonia assisted community groups in designing and facilitating their conversations and analyzed the findings to identify key themes.

The following is a summary of what we heard the community wants. You can also see a summary of the community conversations (PDF) and the full report from the community conversations (PDF).

Equitable access and participation

The county should make it clear to the community how environmental justice is racial justice and ensure that overburdened communities don’t continue to get more burdens. The county needs to understand that lived experiences, including with waste and waste management, vary dramatically across racial, gender, and class lines.

Planning efforts should examine how the Zero Waste Plan is received by different communities and cultures and consider how solutions will impact the most vulnerable communities, including those with disabilities and elders.

Recycling and organics recycling services need to be easier and more widely available, especially in multifamily settings. Currently, multifamily residents don’t have access to as many services, and many residents aren’t aware of existing recycling services. There is often a struggle with overflowing dumpsters, recycling collected incorrectly (like in plastic bags), and trash and recycling getting mixed together.

Consistent and relevant messaging, marketing, and educational programming

There is currently a lot of confusion about recycling in communities. People aren’t sure what recycling services are available to them, what the bins are for, and what they can recycle.

Communities need to hear messages that will resonate with them delivered by relevant messengers. For example, some people that said zero waste won’t resonate in their community because it doesn’t feel attainable for them.

Messaging suggestions included:

  • Making what can be recycled clearer, easier, and more consistent.
  • Providing education on where our trash, recycling, and composting goes after being collected, including through facility tours.
  • Communicating the benefits of recycling.
  • Putting a human face to waste management by explaining how what you put in your bin impacts the people who have to manage it.
  • Debunking recycling myths.
  • Clearing up confusion about how to recycle items that are not accepted in recycling at home, such as medicines, electronics, batteries, and hazardous materials.

Participants suggested using better and clearer signage on bins, creating videos showing people how to recycle, and using games and eye-catching graphics to appeal to youth.

They also stressed that employees in the waste management system, including with cities and haulers, need to listen and respond to resident questions and concerns.

Incentives to reward people for doing the right thing

People said we need to incentivize recycling and reward good behavior rather than penalizing bad. They said it doesn’t make sense to have people pay for recycling, especially in low-income areas. They also suggested offering incentives for getting involved in keeping the community clean, such as emptying public bins or cleaning out storm drains. Suggested incentives include gift cards and discounts on bills.

Funding for collaborative efforts across neighborhoods to build communities

People involved in the conversations were motivated to learn and change behaviors and were interested in collaborating with others to create a cleaner and healthier community. They were interested in having funding and technical assistance available to implement neighborhood-based solutions.

One solution suggested was having recycling captains in neighborhoods and buildings that are paid a stipend to meet and educate new tenants, conduct education, improve services, and manage issues. People were also interested in youth leadership opportunities and employment as well as neighborhood accountability groups.

Provide more information about HERC and the impact on the surrounding community

People want more information on the health impacts of the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) and who is most impacted. Some people said they want HERC to shut down or move to eliminate the health impacts and free up space for development to ideally replace HERC with something that is community controlled and regenerative.

Continued community engagement in the process to ensure transparency and accountability

Overall, the community groups said this process was a valuable opportunity for neighborhoods and other community-based organizations to come together, receive quality education about waste management, share ideas, and make commitments to do more. They appreciated the diversity of the group and being able to learn together and identify solutions. They said the community conversations were helpful for participants to get their questions answered and meet neighbors.

Many wanted to know what happens next. They wanted to know how the information was going to be used and if it would actually change things. They wanted to see a Zero Waste Plan developed that includes the community’s voices and creates something that works for everyone – that is cost-effective, time-effective, and accessible for everyone. They also wanted more time as many thought the process moved too fast.

They said the county should be honest about the challenges of getting to zero waste. They felt a bigger investment is needed by state and local governments to make this initiative successful. They wanted to understand how tax dollars are used and why waste management is an extra fee.

They said space is needed for residents to share insights and report back on their experiences as changes are being made. They suggested offering more training, conversations, and education in the community, such as at churches, apartment buildings, schools, and with neighborhood groups. They were also interested in more data, especially at the neighborhood level, on key metrics.

Hold producers, businesses, and property managers responsible

People said recycling services and zero waste solutions need to be made easier, and the responsibility needs to be taken off individuals. They said companies creating packaging in the first place should be held more accountable. Businesses and suppliers should be required to reduce packaging and use sustainable packaging, and they should face taxes or fines if they don’t. They also wanted property managers to be held responsible for providing effective services and to face taxes or fines if they don’t.

Online and general community engagement

A variety of tools were used on a new engagement platform, beheardhennepin.org, to gather feedback from the general public. In total, 457 site visitors contributed in a variety of ways, including a survey with 257 responses, stories shared by 26 people, ideas contributed from 14 respondents, and polls with 242 responses. Feedback was also gathered though the Hennepin Environment Instagram and at the Minneapolis Community Connections Conference.

The participants that offered feedback online reflected the audience we typically engage through our environmental communications. Most respondents said they are white, identify as female, and are between 25 and 64 years old. We heard from residents of 29 cities in Hennepin County, with 51% of respondents living in Minneapolis. The following is a summary of what we heard from these respondents. You can also see the online engagement findings report (PDF).

More recycling options are needed

The majority of respondents said recycling is very important and they recycle everything they can. Respondents said they are satisfied or somewhat satisfied with recycling services available, but they said more materials accepted in their recycling at home would be the most important thing to help them recycle more. Common items they want more options for include organics recycling, plastic bags and wrap, textiles, batteries, and scrap metal.

They said more information, clarity on what is recyclable, more frequent recycling pick-up, and more convenient drop-off locations would also help. Additionally, they said the county should work with multifamily properties to improve recycling and organics recycling services and to invest in historically marginalized communities. 

Plastics are the most confusing and frustrating

Respondents said they find plastic packaging and to-go containers from restaurants to be the most confusing to recycle. When asked what they wish they could recycle, most people focused on recycling plastic items, including plastic film, black plastic, candy and snack wrappers, and Styrofoam.

Respondents wanted more options for recycling and avoiding plastics, especially single-use plastics, and wanted to see businesses make it easier for consumers to avoid plastics.

Hold businesses accountable for the materials they create, especially packaging

When asked what actions the county should make a priority to reduce waste, many respondents said businesses should be held accountable for the materials they produce. They explained that there is only so much they can do as an individual, and the current system makes it impossible to avoid some types of waste. They especially focused on the need to reduce or eliminate packaging and single-use plastics.

They suggested producer responsibility legislation, banning certain plastics and packaging, making sure products are sold in recyclable or compostable packaging, and making it easier for consumers to avoid single-used plastics by offering items in bulk or loose instead of packaged. Others wanted regulations to ensure businesses produce high-quality goods, eliminate planned obsolescence (in which where products are designed to become outdated and replaced quickly), and design products so they can be repaired.

Increase education and outreach

People said education is needed on a variety of topics, including what is accepted for recycling, how to recycle, how to reduce waste and buy less stuff, how to do organics recycling and composting, why recycling is important, and the environmental impacts of trash. They called for broad advertising campaigns, local outreach through community organizations and neighborhoods, and messaging that made recycling fun and cool.

Change the cost structure and offer incentives

People wanted to see the cost and incentive structure for waste management change to emphasize recycling over trash. They wanted to see the cost for trash go up and the cost for recycling and organics recycling be subsidized or offered for free. They also suggested offering incentives for recycling, organics recycling, composting, and reducing waste.

Focus on better consumption and reuse over recycling

Several people want the county to focus on better consumption and reuse over recycling. They said a cultural shift is needed to focus on buying less, investing in high quality goods, buying used goods, repairing items, donating or otherwise reusing instead of putting things in the trash.

Industry stakeholder meetings

Feedback was gathered from a wide variety of industry stakeholders through a series of 10 meetings to understand major obstacles, gaps, and opportunities for the county to achieve zero waste. More than 170 people representing processors, haulers, environmental advocates, construction and demolition businesses, multifamily properties, small and large businesses, the reuse industry, and others attended a meeting in April and May 2022.

Resource Recycling Systems, the solid waste consultant hired for the development of the Zero Waste Plan, held the stakeholder meetings and analyzed feedback to identify themes. The following is a summary of what we heard from the industry stakeholder meetings. You can also see a summary of the industry stakeholder meetings (PDF).

Zero waste is supported, and urgent action is needed

Industry stakeholders support the goal of zero waste but acknowledged it would take significant time, effort, and investment to achieve. Given that, they said the county should act urgently. They said the biggest benefit is the opportunity for the county and its residents to maximize the use of resources while reducing waste.

The current system is not equitable

Industry stakeholders said the current solid waste management systems places unfair economic burdens and costs on some communities, results in uneven access to services and opportunities, and creates pollution that unfairly impacts certain communities and neighborhoods. Conversely, stakeholders reported that the solid waste industry, large corporations, and affluent neighborhoods and homeowners benefit from the current system. They said that increasing access to programs and services and offering financial support or other programs for lower income residents will help to reduce some of these burdens and inequities.

Barriers to zero waste need to be addressed

The county will need to address several key barriers in order to achieve zero waste. Industry stakeholders identified the following key barriers:

  • The need for significant behavior change
  • Packaging that is designed for single use and is hard to recycle or reuse
  • Lack of knowledge and need for increased education and engagement on recycling
  • Costs and amount of funding needed to be successful

There are many opportunities to move toward zero waste

Industry stakeholders contributed more than 400 ideas for how the county could address barriers and implement solutions to move toward zero waste. The following themes emerged in four key areas:

  • Access: Improve access by making the system easier, increasing options, and addressing inequities.
  • Infrastructure: Develop infrastructure through capital improves, optimize existing infrastructure, and invest in public-private partnerships.
  • Policy: Pursue policies that hold producers responsible for the materials they make, create economic incentives and rebates, establish disposal bans and diversion requirements, and make programs mandatory.
  • Outreach and education: Increase knowledge, improve awareness of programs and services, and address behavior change.
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