Green city blues

Green City
Minneapolis is frequently ranked one of the ten greenest US cities by national magazines and organizations.
MPR Illustration/Preston Wright

When it comes to the environment we all like to think we do our part. For most people, that means one thing: recycling.

And in Minnesota, that's more than just lip service. Minnesotans have an unusually high recycling rate: 41 percent of their total trash. That makes Minnesota the second best in the nation when it comes to recycling -- just a hair behind Oregon.

And that's something to be proud of. But it's hardly the whole picture. There's a blemish on Minnesota's eco-report card. You only have to look a few feet from your recycling bin to see what it is -- it's garbage.

Mark Rust
Mark Rust has been monitoring Minnesota's trash habits for over a decade. He is holding a bag that represents the amount of waste generated by each Minnesotan every day. It's over six pounds!
MPR Photo/Sanden Totten

"So the bad news is that we continue to create more waste each year." says Mark Rust.

And he should know. He is the garbage guru for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He says, in spite of all the recycling, Minnesotans continue to throw out more junk every year. Last year's average was 1.17 tons per person. Imagine a Volkswagen Beatle with a family of four inside and their pets. That's roughly the weight of the trash tossed out by each Minnesotan every year. It's slightly less than the US average of 1.3 tons per-person, but it's still almost double what countries like Japan or the United Kingdom produce.

"The bad news is that we continue to create more waste each year"

"When you go back to it we are still very much a throw away society" says Mark. "For most people, they have busy lives. How they manage their garbage isn't even on their radar screen."

But to make headway on global warming and pollution, Mark says it's going to take more than good recycling habits. We need to change how we think about almost every aspect of our lives.

If that's the case, then the city of Minneapolis is ahead of the curve. Minneapolis is frequently ranked one of the ten greenest US cities by national magazines and organizations. Not only does it boast a first class recycling program, but over the last five years it actually managed to reduce its garbage. It's a national leader when it comes to green roofs and it gets more of its energy from renewable resources than any other mid-western city.

For Minneapolis resident Gary Hoover, those facts are encouraging. The environment figures into almost everything he does, from the food he eats to the way he gets around the city. You see, Gary drives an S.U.V.

"But it's different than a sports utility vehicle" Gary explains. "This is called a 'sensible utility vehicle' because it doesn't burn any gas and it gives the rider exercise."

It's essentially a giant tricycle with a bench on the back. It can haul up to 800 pounds. Gary uses his trike to carry tools and building supplies. He's a green handy man.

Gary Hoover
Gary Hoover says his Sensible Utility Vehicle keeps him fit. When he goes up a hill he feels deeply the amount of energy it takes. He says car drivers have trouble understanding the energy their vehicles use since all they do is push a pedal.
MPR Photo/Sanden Totten

While riding his tricycle through the city, Gary points out what a difference commuting in the open air makes.

"I love the sky. Today is sunny and I wouldn't want to be cooped up in a car for anything"

Even though it's cold, Gary doesn't seem to mind. What he does mind though is the noxious emissions coming from the cars he shares the road with.

"That's another ironic thing" Gary comments as he pedals down Park Street in Minneapolis. "Because I pedal I work hard so I breathe hard. And I really inhale that exhaust. It makes me feel like I am being punished for doing a good thing."

Gary may feel alone on the road, but when it comes to sustainable action, he's got some good company.

At their home in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, Deb and Doug Pierce are sitting down for a cup of coffee. As they drink they discuss what they can do that day to help spread the word about global warming.

"Maybe I should set up a meeting through the Yahoo! Groups" Doug suggests.

"Do you think that will get more people engaged than having them attend an actual meeting?" Deb replies.

Doug and Deb Pierce
Every morning Doug and Deb Pierce sit over coffee and plan their eco-action for the day. Doug is a green architect and Deb is an author. They say that being green isn't hard if you take it one step at a time.
MPR Photo/Sanden Totten

These kinds of questions are common for the Pierces. For them living green isn't enough. They want others to go green as well. They sit on boards, chair committees and speak publicly about the need for eco-action in Minnesota. Deb says it wasn't that long ago that people were clueless about global warming; now it's front page news.

She holds up a recent copy of the Star Tribune.

"I wanted to take the newspaper the last 2 days and run around the neighborhood meetings with it! Look, look!"

"They gave her so much flack about the global warming position statement." Doug remarks.

These days, people in their neighborhood understand the need for action. Deb feels like a tipping point is coming.

"It's so easy to get discouraged and I have to tell myself you know, I can't control what other people do but I can control what I do."

"It only takes 25 percent of the people to be solidly behind something to turn the tide" she says. "That's all it takes. So we are close, we're very, very close."

But even in a green city like Minneapolis, there is evidence to the contrary. Car commuting is on the rise. The average driver is spending 43 hours a year burning gas in traffic. And while Minneapolis has managed to cut down its energy use, the state's numbers as a whole are going up. When all is said and done, Minnesota is pumping 146 million tons of greenhouse gasses into the air every year.

Gary Hoover admits he sometimes feels overwhelmed by these problems.

"I have to do a lot of self talk and picking myself up emotionally. It's so easy to get discouraged and I have to tell myself you know, I can't control what other people do but I can control what I do."

But that's the fundamental dilemma. Folks like Gary and the Pierces may be doing their part. Even whole cities like Minneapolis are making strides. But in the face of a culture with so many built in bad habits, there is a lot we need to change. And in many respects we seem to be heading in the wrong direction. Depending on individuals to go green may not be enough.

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