Bag Lady

Susan Young loves garbage. She loves to study it, plan for it, talk about it. As the director of solid waste and recycling for the City of Minneapolis, Young eats, sleeps, and breathes a single prime directive: If you put it on the curb, whether it's a bag of newspapers, a sack of leaves, last night's leftovers, a dead battery, or a refrigerator, her crews must "make it go away."

As she charges around her downtown Minneapolis office--itself something of a waste-collection site crammed full of biology textbooks, file folders, periodicals (BioCycle magazine?), city maps, photos, and children's crayon drawings--Young is an imposing figure. She rattles off statistics about Minneapolis and its trash. "Minneapolis is a core urban city, and its solid-waste issues are different than in the suburbs," she begins, then ticks off some examples. Forty-eight percent of the city's dwellings are rental units. There's a big raccoon problem. There are at least 58 different languages in use. Every year some 9,000 tires are illegally dumped. The list goes on and on.

Yet despite those urban complexities, during Young's ten-year tenure Minneapolis has become one of the country's premier examples of efficient solid-waste collection. "We're considered by the industry to be one of the best," she says, beaming with pride.

So how, one might wonder, does a person rise to such an exalted position as a national garbage guru? In Young's case, she started out getting undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology, geology, and chemistry. "I used to do dirty water," she quips. "I've come up in the world."

After working on issues of sludge removal in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she moved on to handling landfills and where to put them, and she soon instituted that city's first programs to collect recycling, yard waste, and hazardous waste. And she didn't do it by just sitting at a desk. "You don't understand garbage until you've gone through several tons of it piece by piece, in 110 degree heat," she recalls.

In 1991 Minneapolis recruited Young. The woods and lakes remind her of her childhood home in upstate New York, and she quickly fell in love with the area. She's been here ever since, living in Forest Lake so that she can keep horses. During that time, she's become a mother: Daughter Wendy, who is six years old, always accompanies Young to community meetings and neighborhood cleanups.

And there have been garbage milestones. The number of tons of waste collected has risen steadily; in 2000, for example, more than 180,000 tons of garbage, recycling, yard waste, scrap metal, and appliances were picked up in Minneapolis, compared with 147,000 tons in 1993. Young has also developed an interesting perspective on society from the city's back alleys and garbage trucks, especially as the state has passed regulations aimed at reducing waste and taking care of hazardous materials.

"There are a lot of ways you can do solid-waste management," she says. "In Minnesota it's kind of been social engineering on the back of the garbage truck. You're asking the garbage guy to change people's behavior." That's because the garbage collectors are supposed to cite residents who put out too much refuse, or garbage that's considered unsafe (refrigerators, fluorescent bulbs, etc.). But, as Young points out, that doesn't solve the problem because most people won't get their garbage bills until two months after they bought the stuff that created the garbage.

"You don't create your behavior change," she says. "I'm a single mom. I'm as environmentally aware as anyone in the world. But when I'm at the grocery store at 7:00 p.m. and I'm hungry and my girl's hungry and we've both had a long day, the last thing I'm thinking about is how much my garbage bill is going to be two months from now."

As a result, Young's focus is less about garbage reduction and more about keeping the city clean. "What is the city's responsibility in taking care of debris in the metro?" she asks. "When push comes to shove, it's more important to me to make the stuff go away and increase public safety, rather than reduce waste."

It's a simple policy, but it doesn't always make Young the most popular person in Minneapolis. "She's extremely good at what she does. She has very high standards and very definitive ideas about service," offers City Engineer David Sonnenberg, Young's boss. "She's very inflexible in terms of service requirements, and that doesn't always go over well." When conflicts arise between Young and garbage crews, he adds, the focus is usually waste that didn't get picked up. "Her expectation is that it goes away."

And while there are remarkably few complaints about waste collection in Minneapolis, Young has noticed that people will call her office to rant about what seem like very minor details--from a truck being ten minutes late to a crew failing to put the top back on a recycling bin. "Minnesota is a fascinating place to deal with garbage," she says bemusedly. "I've never been in a place where people care about garbage so much."

And in Minneapolis, especially, garbage collection is a surprisingly contentious topic.

For years Young has been one of the city's most vocal proponents of changing its system of garbage collection. Since 1971, when the city first moved toward organized collection, the job has been split in two: Half the city's trash is picked up by Minneapolis crews, and the other half by private haulers who belong to a consortium called Minneapolis Refuse Inc. The contract has never been opened up to a competitive bid process, which aggravates Young. Every few years the city renegotiates its contract with MRI, and the topic of competition bursts into controversy--especially because the garbage contract, at more than $5 million annually, is a huge chunk of business. This year has been no exception.

The last time the city renewed its contract with MRI was 1997, and that agreement doesn't expire until the end of 2002. But earlier this year, MRI requested that the city begin negotiations early because an unanticipated rise in costs was making it difficult for the private haulers to make money under the 1997 terms. As directed by the Minneapolis City Council, Sonnenberg's staff started the negotiations last spring. But in September, council members postponed a decision on the new contract, asking city staff to draw up a report that would examine the cost of Minneapolis's crews taking over the entire city. That report, which estimated yearly savings of anywhere between $180,000 to $676,000, was discussed by the city council in December. After heated debate council members voted--by a narrow 7-6 margin--to renegotiate a new five-year contract with MRI.

Young had made no secret of her wish to have the city take over MRI's half of the collection, or at the very least to have a competitive bid process to make sure customers are getting the best service for the best deal. That, as you might expect, did not make her a favorite of MRI during the months of debate.

At the November 28 meeting of the council's transportation committee, Chuck Kutter, chairman and CEO of MRI spoke passionately about the consequences of changing the city's garbage system. "People are throwing my livelihood, and that of 31 other companies, away like a stale loaf of bread," Kutter said. If the city chose to ask for bids on MRI's half, he added, huge national companies would undercut the small local competition only to jack up the prices in later years.

Kutter continues to express confusion about the rationale for changing a system that until now seemed to have worked very well. "MRI and the City of Minneapolis are doing one hell of a service, cheaper than the surrounding suburbs," he says, adding that complaints on both sides of the city are tiny compared with the national average. "It seems preposterous that they would think about changing that and creating problems. They seem to think it's their job to drive private industry into bankruptcy."

Regardless of what the city council decides to do about the garbage contract, Young will continue her push to improve waste-removal service in Minneapolis. Her goals are to reach out to the city's many immigrant populations and offer education about garbage disposal, to tackle the illegal-dumping problem, and to get neighborhood groups more involved in keeping the city clean.

"I like what I do," Young proclaims. "You can do something five days a week, however many hours a day, and not be passionate about what you do. I love it. I really do." Case in point? Just before Thanksgiving Young visited her mother in Rochester, New York. But even the holiday trip was to be infused with garbage; Young planned a stopover with Rochester's solid-waste director.

"He's doing some neat things with automated collection," she said eagerly in the days before the trip. "I've been wanting to pick his brain for a while."

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >