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Government tries to curb waste by eliminating (real) trash cans

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. - One county government wants to eliminate waste, a noble - and necessary - goal.

So, some 3,000 workers returned one morning to find their trash cans replaced with what amounts to glorified Big Gulp cups.

The "cans" came with a logo stamped on the side: "This is all the GARBAGE I make!"

"They removed the normal waste containers from all the offices and replaced them with these small garbage-can-shaped quart containers with lids," said Danny Nadeau, chief of staff to Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson. "And the whole idea is that we would no longer generate trash."

Makes perfect sense.

County environmental and property services staff this past fall deposited the quart-sized mini-bins to go along with a recycling program aimed at achieving a 20-percent reduction in the 144 tons of annual waste generated in the building.

The environmental edict applies across the board - from clerks to commissioners who work in the government center, including judges. But Watchdog Minnesota Bureau found the drastic reduction in capacity has led some employees to circumvent the system while appearing to comply.

"While I am not aware of any employees going around the system or using their own bags, it is altogether possible," Mary Beaque, facility manager for Hennepin County Property Services Department, said in an email. "If we were to learn of such instances, we would remind them of the program, emphasize the benefits and encourage them to try."

An elected official tweeted a photo of the mini-can, which he held in his hand.

"I have used it for a variety of things over the last months. It's a great Big Gulp for my pop when I'm really thirsty. I use it as a pencil holder," said Jeff Johnson, a county commissioner. "So it's got a lot of usage, just not garbage. You can't fit any garbage in it. I don't use it for garbage. I use my real garbage (basket)."

A few months into the experiment officials insist the program is on track and poised to expand. Besides promoting recycling, the program aims to reduce pest control problems and lead to more tidy work spaces. The mini-cans promote physical activity for staff who must dump the baskets in a central repository, found on every floor of the 24-story building.

"In the first four months alone, we saw an 11 percent reduction and that will continue to grow," said Beaque. "Hennepin County will have additional savings as the mini-bin program is rolled out to other county facilities this spring."

The idea has led some workers to break bad; they point to excess waste squirreled away under desks and out of sight. Call it the garbage underground.

"This bag is my solution," said one country worker who, worried about showing a reporter a half-filled grocery bag, asked not to be identified. "And every couple of days, I take my paper bag out from under here and get rid of it. I do recycle a whole lot more, though."

Some workers eat less, too.

"I mean, you can't get a paper plate in one of these little containers. If you were going to have lunch at your desk you can't even put it in your container," said Nadeau, who admitted to trashing his mini-bin for a conventional wastebasket. "So they're not very effective, but I think they made people think about the amount of trash they generate, probably."

Hundreds of residents doing county business every day also must use the mini-bins, leaving staff to empty the tissue, napkins and cups crammed into the undersized receptacles.

Some workers complain the lack of trash options makes for even more of a mess.

"With regards to sanitary concerns of handling the mini baskets with Kleenex in them, employees are encouraged to clean them out – either with disinfecting wipes, using warm water (and) soap in the restrooms or kitchenette areas," said Beaque.

In the long run, county officials expect the program to pay for itself in savings from increased recycling and lower waste-disposal costs. The outlay for the mini-bins, recycling containers and collection carts came to about $20,000. In the first four months, officials say taxpayers realized more than $11,000 in savings on trash liners for wastebaskets and trash hauling.

Still, the feel-good rhetoric rubs against reality.

"They're more novelty items at this point, I think. I've never seen anybody carrying one down the hall to empty it. That's all I know," said Nadeau. "... For sure I've never seen a commissioner carrying one. "


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