Black plastic yard bags are on their way out. State law will require compostable bags for most of the metro area.
The black leaf bags bulging on Twin Cities lawns, curbs and alleys are on their way out -- for good. A new state law will require most metro area residents -- except those in Minneapolis -- to use only compostable bags for their yard waste beginning in 2010.
All seven metro counties are included except Dakota, which already bans the plastic leaf bags by county ordinance.
While a precise count isn't available, it's fair to say that the change will affect "tens of thousands" of residents who bag their yard waste for pickup, said Julie Ketchum, spokeswoman for Waste Management, the state's largest trash and recycling hauler. About one-third of Waste Management's metro customers have yard waste collected, she said.
Some cities and waste haulers are already putting out the word on websites, newsletters and bill inserts, urging homeowners to use up the plastic bags this fall because they won't be allowed for yard waste once the snow melts next spring.
Plastic bags are a problem, said Rep. Paul Gardner, DFL-Shoreview, sponsor of the law, and he's not talking about environmental concerns. They are a problem for the state's waste haulers and composting operators. Haulers must pay more to dump the bags, because they must be emptied or separated from the waste at the composting sites. Composters don't make as much money because their finished product is contaminated with shreds of plastic.
"It's not an anti-plastic thing," Gardner said. "It's trying to add value to industries in Minnesota and deal with our solid waste problem at the same time."
At least three firms that make compostable bags or ingredients for them, he said, and numerous composting plants could sell a lot more compost if it was cleaner.
Prepare to pay more
Paul Kroening, supervising environmentalist in Hennepin County's public works department, said that compostable bags are about twice as expensive as plastic bags, but he expects the price will drop a bit by next spring as retailers stock up to meet demand.
"They won't be as cheap as plastic because they're made from bioproducts like corn," said Kroening. "They may be 33 to 50 percent more expensive."
Compostable bags are either paper, made of the same brown paper as grocery bags, or plastic, often with a clear or green-tinted opaque color. They are marked as "compostable," and have an ASTM seal.
They are NOT the same as biodegradable bags, said Susan Young, director of solid waste and recycling services for Minneapolis.
"This has been a huge problem for citizens," Young said. "A lot of stores are selling degradable bags that are not going to be legal as of Jan. 1. All 'degradable' means is that they fall apart into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic," said Young, but they don't disintegrate.
Minneapolis is considering a city-wide organics collection system, she said. It received a three-year exemption from the state law to work that out.
Some ways around new bags
Not all residents are affected by the new law. Some have no yard waste, or keep it and compost it themselves. Others drive to a composting facility and empty their bags themselves. Still others use no bags at all, but put yard waste into carts for commercial pickup.
"The law only applies to those who bag materials," said Ginny Black, organics recycling coordinator at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. "They can still use a rolling tote, or cart, if their waste hauler has that option and they don't use bags."
Dakota County has required compostable bags for yard waste pickup for several years, said Ketchum, and Waste Management has had no problems with that system. "We expect a fairly seamless transition to a more metro-wide use of the compostable bags," she said.
Dean Elstad, who works in Minnetonka's public works department, said city residents are being informed about the compostable bag requirement so that they don't buy too many plastic bags this fall for use next spring. The city posted a notice about the law change on its website two weeks ago. "I haven't heard any concerns yet," Elstad said. "It's kind of early and people haven't started looking at prices [of bags] yet."
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388