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Blog: Improving Recycling in Minnesota

Multifamily Recycling Success: How Minnesota Is Making a Difference

From college dorms to apartment buildings, multifamily properties often pose unique challenges when it comes to recycling efforts. But four Minnesota communities are proving that education and outreach can have a significant impact on recycling when they are tailored to residents’ needs. Thanks to seed grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 and support from The Recycling Partnership, the communities undertook pilot projects designed to enhance multifamily residents’ recycling literacy and reduce contaminants in the curbside recycling stream.

The resulting efforts reached more than 393,000 households and successfully helped reduce contamination and increase recycling participation. With support from The Partnership and local agencies including the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the educational materials, resources, and lessons on best practices are spreading statewide.

“Because recycling service at multifamily housing is typically underserved and under-studied, we wanted to focus on identifying learnings that could benefit all communities,” said Elizabeth Schussler, Senior Director of Social Change, Behavior, and Impact at The Partnership.

The participating communities included metropolitan areas, a university, and rural counties: the City of Minneapolis, the City of St. Paul, the University of Minnesota, Lyon County, and Pope/Douglas County. While each community brought different perspectives and challenges, what they all shared in common was “a unique vision for deepening data-backed work in their programs,” Schussler said.

Lessons from the Local Level

Each community developed strategies to address their particular needs, sought input from residents and property owners, conducted outreach and education efforts, and measured their impact. For example:

  • In Minneapolis, 62 multifamily properties without recycling implemented new collection services in their buildings as part of the pilot. The city sent direct mail to residents and utility bill payers, knocked on doors, and distributed materials on doorknobs and recycling carts to educate property owners and tenants about recycling. As a result of this effort, the properties diverted 3,945 pounds of recyclables during the pilot period – the equivalent of more than 15.8 tons per year.
  • In rural Pope/Douglas, efforts began with surveys and onsite waste and recycling audits at four properties serving 123 units. This assessment found that most people wanted to recycle, but lacked clear information and tools to do so effectively. By holding presentations and creating ample signage, handouts, and tote bags with simple, clear messaging and images, the project educated residents about effective sorting and recycling. Participating assisted living/independent living facilities also instituted “recycle days” for residents with mobility issues to have their recyclables collected from tote bags placed outside their doors. These strategies led to increased recycling, decreased contamination, and interest from other multifamily buildings. The success of the pilot also helped advance new ordinances in Pope/Douglas requiring certain recycling services in multifamily buildings for the first time.
  • At the University of Minnesota, recyclable materials were often found mixed with trash, and student surveys indicated a desire to recycle but confusion about how to properly recycle in the dorm setting, especially for cardboard. The project addressed students’ most common challenges and provided clear instructions for sorting and recycling in residential halls, such as providing a map for where to drop off large recyclable pieces of cardboard. The project also found peer-to-peer communication especially effective, with trained students educating other students through events, personalized notes in dorms, and door-knocking. By the end of the pilot, the amount of recyclables thrown in the trash decreased by 20 percent.

The Partnership’s support in these projects “helped facilitate change,” said Kayla Walsh, State Program Administrator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “Grant partners have told us how grateful they are for the opportunity to focus on better access to recycling and behavior change in those communities.”

Collaborating for Statewide Success

At the heart of Minnesota’s efforts was collaboration – especially in identifying universal needs and messages that could be used statewide. Working with the state’s Recycling Education Committee, The Partnership engaged with numerous stakeholders to gain input and ideas.

The committee identified top contaminants in Minnesota’s recycling bins and also noted the need for more translated materials to reach diverse ethnic populations. The Partnership helped equip recycling coordinators with trainings and resources, including co-hosting a workshop with the Recycling Association of Minnesota, providing an online toolkit with creative assets like a recycling IQ quiz and shareable videos, and developing materials in languages including Amharic, English, Hmong, Karen, Oromo, Somali, and Spanish.

The Partnership also engaged the Waste Wise Foundation, a program of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, to ensure Minnesota recycling programs have continued access to these resources for future use in their communities.

“By building upon Minnesota’s culture of recycling and spirit of collaboration, we were able to work together to make a real impact,” said Alita Kane, a Community Program Coordinator at The Partnership.