By Andrew Tellijohn
Sometimes, when private companies work with public entities, turf wars and bureaucratic red tape get in the way. Other times, serendipity steps in and projects seem almost easy.
Such was the case when the City of White Bear Lake sought to clear the mess of trash and multiple dumpsters in a parking lot behind a commercial block on Washington Square. Just as the city was trying to make progress, it was approached by Tyler Conrad, owner of a local business called Goodthings, in search of a solution to the same problem.
“It gave us an opportunity,” says Ellen Richter, city manager of White Bear Lake (population 24,159). “If the city goes in and says, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ that’s more problematic. It helped that it came from a business owner. He volunteered to work with all the other business owners. For the city, you have to find a champion to say, ‘As a business person, I’m going to tell them what we’re trying to do.’”
The collaboration resulted in the Washington Square waste consolidation project, which ultimately involved 17 public and private partners working together on a shared recycling and organics program that cleaned up the parking lot, reduced the collective cost of waste removal for the involved businesses, and created a model through which other blocks in the city may eventually be improved. The project was the winner of a League of Minnesota Cities 2017 City of Excellence Award.
“We really cleaned things up a lot,” Richter says. “They had a great reduction in waste. It’s more efficient. And it was a partnership that was really strong on both the business and city ends.”
Benefits of the project
Now, instead of a mess of containers and trash cans, all the compost, recycling, and waste are consolidated into a single concrete block enclosure, which the city owns and maintains. The parking lot now has pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and outdoor seating for a restaurant where dumpsters previously sat.
Furthermore, since early 2016, the businesses are now composting more than 45 percent of their waste and recycling more than 18 percent. The 24 cubic yards of recyclables picked up each week are up 31 percent since the change.
“There were a few businesses that were reluctant initially,” Richter says. “That was primarily because it’s not as convenient. They have to walk further to dump their garbage than they used to.”
But the involvement of Conrad, along with an organization called Waste Wise, helped increase participation and ease concerns.
Conrad championed the project, working to convince local businesses of the benefits of collaborating on a waste reduction effort. Staff at Waste Wise, a nonprofit affiliate of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce that aims to reduce waste, worked with individual businesses on waste audits, helped with grant applications, and consulted with owners and city officials throughout the process.
Ultimately, the benefits of a cleaner parking area, the opportunity for restaurants to compost, lower waste costs, and Conrad’s willingness to receive and divvy up the monthly bill won most of them over.
“They were motivated by cleaning up the back parking lot area. The inconvenience didn’t outweigh the benefit,” Richter says.
The city led the design and construction efforts, first meeting with Aspen Waste Systems, which had won a competitive bid between waste haulers. Next, it applied for a Ramsey County Public Entity Innovation Grant, ultimately receiving $96,760 to cover the cost of design and construction of a shared enclosure in the parking lot. The city then partnered with Rust Architects on the design and Rust Construction Services to build the enclosure.
In the winter of 2015-2016, Waste Wise and Conrad worked with 11 businesses to apply for grants through Ramsey and Washington counties. They received eight, worth $31,400, with the proceeds used to purchase color-coded recycling and organics bins, compostable bags, signage, tools for educating staff, and equipment for transporting waste to the enclosure.
Conrad says he is thankful for the challenging work that the city and Waste Wise did applying for grants, soliciting design and construction bids, and handling details.
“I might have been a proponent in getting everybody together, but they did all the legwork,” he says, adding that all who played a role in this project “really did a great job.”
Challenges along the way
There have been a few challenges. Educating users on making sure the garbage, recyclables, and organics get into the correct containers has not been as easy as one might expect, Conrad says. There has also been some illegal dumping from individuals and businesses that aren’t a part of the program, though that decreased when Conrad installed signs indicating the area is under video surveillance.
Another challenge was getting all the businesses on board. Participation still isn’t unanimous. There are a couple of holdouts, including one national chain that has not received corporate approval, Conrad says. Otherwise, all the businesses on the block and a couple from the next block over are participating in the program.
“Some businesses that are not even on the block wanted to participate,” he says. “We’ve got some people walking down the block.”
Then there was the question of paying the bill, but Conrad quickly stepped up to handle that. Each month he divvies up the cost and collects money from all the participants.
Waste Wise plays key role
Richter and Conrad each credit the participation of Waste Wise as vital in making the plan reality. The city, the business owners, and Waste Wise worked closely throughout.
“We discovered there was an opportunity to help the businesses with this project,” says Jill Curran, executive director. “Our role was in engaging the businesses and helping them find a way to handle their waste collectively, more effectively.”
In the process, she adds, the businesses collectively reduced the taxes they pay on their waste bill by 70 percent, because recycled materials are not taxed.
The Minnesota Waste Wise Foundation contracts with five metro area counties, including Ramsey and Washington, to consult on waste reduction and recycling efforts. The county pays for the services, Curran says, so there is no charge to the city or the businesses involved with the project.
“Our goal is helping businesses divert as much trash from the waste stream as possible and get things recycled and materials composted,” she says. “Ultimately, the goal of the contracts is to have us help businesses [reduce waste].”
Anywhere Waste Wise has a contract, the organization’s role is typically that of implementation assistance, working with businesses to find solutions that bring down costs and increase recycling.
“There are a lot of opportunities to do what we did in White Bear Lake,” she says. “We’re here to help businesses recycle more and thereby help the counties achieve their commercial solid waste goals.”
White Bear Lake leaders are proud of the Washington Square project, and they are looking to transform other spaces in the city that are cluttered with trash cans, Richter says. This project will be used as a model for finding solutions in other areas. That includes finding a business owner to serve as champion, whatever the project might be.
“We try as hard as we can to partner with businesses because then there is that trust that we understand their interests,” she says. “If you partner with them, it makes it easier to get things done.”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.
* By posting you are agreeing to the LMC Comment Policy.