In recycling, she found new uses for her ideals

Nancy Lo
Nancy Lo works for Hennepin County environmental services.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

What if someone gave you the chance to do the job that you really loved? What if that job involved digging in the trash?

Last fall, after getting laid off from my old job, I discovered that my ideal work was out there waiting for me. I began an 11-month service position with the Minnesota GreenCorps, an AmeriCorps program focused on environmental initiatives. I was assigned to the Waste Reduction and Recycling Unit of Hennepin County's Department of Environmental Services. Here are six things I learned:

1. Recycling (and other sanitation) jobs are hard work.

I was closely involved in a pilot program aimed at simplifying recycling in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. Every other Tuesday, I'd ride along with the two-man recycling crew for eight to nine hours, tracking the number of residents who set out paper, bottles and cans. I learned that sanitation work is physically strenuous, repetitive and perilous.

Indeed, collecting trash and recyclables remained the seventh most dangerous job in America for the second year in a row in 2010, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data. And those workers are out in the hottest and coldest temperatures that Minnesota has to offer. Alleys are narrow, and in the winter they're treacherously icy. People are injured when they slip under the garbage trucks. In the summer, you'll see sweat pouring off the workers as they lift heavy bins brimming with glass bottles, wrestle trash alive with maggots and answer residents' questions, all while trying to work quickly and efficiently.

Next time you see workers picking up your recycling, yard waste or trash, thank them. They're largely unnoticed, and they do an essential service for all of us.

2. We have to recycle more paper.

If we want to raise our recycling rate, which sits at about 41 percent statewide, paper and organics (food waste) are where it's at. Both are heavy, and rates are calculated by tonnage.

People are pretty good about recycling bottles and cans at home, but I consistently see recyclable paper thrown away. Perhaps it's because paper recycling is more confusing: There are pizza boxes, fridge and freezer boxes, shredded paper, wrapping paper, egg cartons, envelopes with windows, glossy paper. For a full list of everything paper-based that's recyclable in Hennepin County, go here.

3. If you leave the bottle caps on plastic bottles, they WILL get recycled.

That's a relatively new development. But you must leave the caps on the bottles. Otherwise, when they get to the materials recovery facility and go through the sorting lines, the caps fall through the screens and off the conveyor belts. Same with beer bottle caps; they can be recycled, but you should put them into a steel can and smush the top closed.

4. Breaking out of your rut can lead to growth.

Really. I moved from an assembly-line-like job to the unfamiliar territory of project planning. During my service, I shepherded two big projects (a media event for school composting, and a video on how to collect organics in your home), and both had many moving parts. I had to triple-prepare every detail, and I saw that effort pay off. Yes, doing new things is scary, but it's also very rewarding.

5. Working with likeminded people is awesome.

I didn't truly realize this until I experienced it. At my last job, when I would try to get people to recycle more and waste less, I was told to focus on our company's main mission. I constantly felt like I was fighting the tide. Now I was with coworkers and supervisors who shared my goals and embraced my ideals.

Case in point: I overheard that eight semi-trailer trucks full of cardboard, wood pallets and display board were coming to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center to be incinerated. With my last work experience fresh in my mind, I hesitated to say anything. But when I finally got up the nerve to ask the assistant director whether we shouldn't recycle that material instead, lo and behold, I got the green light. And 9.7 tons of cardboard were diverted.

6. It's best to lead by example, in a pleasant, nonharassing way.

People like that, and they'll be receptive to your ideas, allowing you to plant that little seed of change. One small behavior change can lead to big ones, as one person tells 10 others what he's learned. One of my fellow GreenCorpsers now brings reusable containers and utensils wherever she goes. She'd seen me do that at a training session. Who knows how many people she'll influence in turn?


Nancy Lo is now employed by Hennepin County's Department of Environmental Services' Waste Reduction and Recycling Unit. She chronicles her efforts at

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