Mohamud Roble, a Hennepin County recycling champion, shows tenants in his building an item that can be recycled during a demonstration on October 7, 2023. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

Plastic pollution bothered Mohamud Roble enough in his native Somalia that he became involved in campaigns to reduce waste there. 

“You see a bunch of plastic bags hanging on trees,” he recalled. 

Mohamud, 37, came to the United States in December 2020, and moved into an apartment building off Lake Street in Minneapolis last September. When he received a postcard from Hennepin County asking for apartment building residents to become “Recycling Champions,” it piqued his interest. He’s spent the last six months educating his neighbors and encouraging them to recycle more. He says seen improvement. 

“Now, people are doing very well,” Mohamud said. 

The Recycling Champions program is a campaign by Hennepin County to boost recycling rates at multifamily buildings. The state’s most populated county recently adopted a zero waste plan aiming to divert 90 percent of all waste from landfills and incinerators. The county has no set date on when it hopes to hit that goal, but all metropolitan area counties have a state-mandated target to divert 75 percent of their waste by 2030. 

Today, only around 40 percent of all waste in Hennepin County is diverted through traditional and organics (food scraps) recycling; the rest is sent to landfills or burned in the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) incinerator. Community members are fighting to close the HERC and say the incinerator’s emissions cause health problems for Minneapolis residents. County officials say increasing recycling rates is a critical step to closing the HERC, which commissioners recently said they are determined to do. 

Mohamud Roble, a Hennepin County recycling champion, gathered several tenants in his Minneapolis building together for a demonstration on October 7, 2023, about how to recycle properly. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

But about 14 percent of what is trashed today are glass, paper, plastic and metal products that could be recycled, according to the county’s zero waste plan

Recycling reduces energy consumption needed to produce new materials. That lowers greenhouse gas emissions, the primary driver of climate change. It reduces the need to cut trees for paper products and mining for metals, and decreases the amount of litter that pollutes land and waterways. 

About one-third of county residents live in multifamily buildings and recycling rates at those buildings are lower than at single family homes, county staff say. 

“Contamination is a big issue at multifamily properties,” said Carolyn Collopy, Hennepin County’s supervising environmentalist. 

Typical issues include putting recycling in plastic bags, or trying to recycle black plastic containers common for carryout food, which can’t be recycled due to difficulty sorting it at processing facilities. 

A constant theme throughout the zero waste plan’s development was that people wanted to be involved in solutions, Collopy said. The county recruited 25 champions and paid them a $1,500 stipend over six months to promote recycling in their buildings. The buildings range in size from 300 to 60 units, and are mostly located in environmental justice areas where most residents are people of color or low-income, according to program coordinator Andre Xiong. 

“What we heard is that communities want to hear from within their communities,” Xiong said. 

Champion strategies 

For champion Alicia Brandon, the best method has been approaching people directly and passing out information. Brandon lives in a large apartment tower with about 200 units in the Seward neighborhood of south Minneapolis. Like Mohamud, she saw the postcard from Hennepin County and was interested in helping recycling efforts. 

Alicia Brandon, pictured on October 17, 2023, is a Hennepin County recycling champion. She is responsible for educating her neighbors in the Seward Towers on how to properly recycle, and places informational flyers throughout common spaces in her building. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

Brandon, a self-described neat freak, was bothered by the litter around her building, and wanted to address it. She and the other champions took a recycling education class and were given materials to distribute in their buildings. 

Before the program, Brandon said she didn’t know where the recycling room in her building was. As she learned more and started to educate her neighbors, she found that her experience wasn’t unique. “A lot of people in the building didn’t know we had recycling,” she said. 

Being a champion requires a certain personality, and the ability to take rejection, Brandon said. But she’s outgoing, and found good ways to connect with neighbors. The building has a large East African population, and she looked up how to say basic greeting phrases in Somali and Oromo. They perked up a bit at that effort, she said.  

Brandon, who jokingly refers to herself as a recycling queen instead of a champion, likes to keep it short. She asks people if they recycle, and if they don’t, she tells them where in the building they can do it. She distributes pamphlets on what can and can’t be recycled in multiple languages and hands out free, reusable tote bags from Hennepin County that have recycling guides printed on them. She also put up a big poster in the lobby directing people to the recycling room. It’s been a successful effort, she said. 

“Our room that was virtually empty when I first started, it’s overflowing with recycling now,” she said.  

The recycling room at Seward Towers in south Minneapolis, pictured on October 17, 2023, is decorated with flyers from Hennepin County that provide a quick guide about what is recyclable. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

Mohamud approaches people individually, but prefers events where residents can learn about recycling. He hosted an event in his Lake Street building’s community room on a Saturday afternoon in October. Six women listened to him speak in Somali about what is and isn’t recyclable, and why recycling more is important for the environment. He went over a slideshow on recycling in Somali and told them that just 41 percent of what goes in the trash today is really trash. The rest is either recyclable material or organic waste. 

He scattered a pile of waste on a table: a plastic jug of the orange-flavored beverage Sunny D, glass jars, pop cans, and plastic bags. Throughout his presentation, he held up items and asked residents which products could be recycled. At one point he raised a plastic bottle half-filled with salad dressing and asked if it could be recycled. 

It needs to be cleaned first, the women responded. They were right.

Andrew Hazzard is a reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew returned...