Turning scraps to soil

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2010 - 10:21 PM

A St. Paul neighborhood is a pilot project for the next frontier of recycling, going beyond the back-yard compost bin to keep food waste out of the trash.


Mikey Weitekamp of Minneapolis cycled to his next stop to collect curbside food waste in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul. The project is a three-month experiment for Eureka Recycling. Several communities and haulers have launched compost pickup programs.

Photo: Brendan Sullivan, Star Tribune

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Every Friday morning in St. Paul's Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, Sonya Ewert is on the move. For two hours, she hauls a trailer by bicycle to collect smelly and sometimes juicy food waste from curbsides for composting.

Her route is the new frontier of efforts to shrink the nation's garbage piles. Less food in the trash means less garbage in landfills, and more compost for landscaping and gardens.

"It's the next step beyond traditional recycling," said Ginny Black, organics recycling coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The Mac-Groveland project is a three-month experiment to see whether residents are motivated enough to make it worth Eureka Recycling's while to collect food waste separately.

The timing is good and the potential is immense. Interest is increasing both locally and nationally, Black said. More people are asking about composting and several communities and haulers have launched compost pickup programs, sometimes for an extra fee.

Food waste is about 12 percent of the waste stream, Black said. Food-contaminated paper and cardboard is another 10 percent.

Office paper, newspaper, glass and aluminum that can be recycled constitute about 50 percent, she said.

Weekly pickup service provides an outlet for people who want to toss less garbage in their carts but don't want decaying compost in their back yards, Black said.

About 4 percent of metro residents compost vegetable clippings, coffee grounds and other degradable wastes at home, she said. But those efforts cannot handle odorous meat and dairy products that attract rodents, or soiled paper products that don't break down easily.

No twist-ties allowed

Ewert uses a 27-gear bike to pull a custom-made trailer holding two full-sized garbage carts. At the curb, she looks for a knee-high green container and dumps its contents into her carts. In the mix with putrefied lettuce and banana peels and chicken bones are egg cartons, pizza boxes and paper towels. Her gloved hands gingerly pull out any material that is not allowed, such as twist-ties, Styrofoam plates, foil or plastic. She tags compost bins with notes if they hold unacceptable materials.

"It's been a bit smellier than I anticipated, but in general if I get paid to bike around, I can't complain about that," Ewert said, making her way last week beneath the shady trees along Wheeler Street.

The neighborhood experiment is the work of Eureka Recycling, a nonprofit St. Paul recycling organization that selected 600 homes and provided free educational materials, bins and compostable bags. One-third of the homes have their bins emptied weekly by bicycle collectors Ewert or Mikey Weitekamp. Another third have waste picked up by truck, and the last group can drop compostable waste off at a special site. The collections are free, and the wastes are stored temporarily at Macalester College, then trucked to a commercial composting firm near Rosemount.

"We'd like to move towards a zero-waste city by 2020," said Tim Brownell, Eureka's CEO. Eureka will collect data on homeowner participation, the amount of food waste composted, the economics of different collection methods, and what people learned about composting from fliers and workshops last spring. Collections began last month and will continue until mid-September.

The benefits could be huge, said Brownell, because food waste sent to landfills produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and what's sent to incinerators sucks up immense amounts of energy to burn.

Hutchinson, Wayzata and Elk River have citywide programs to collect food waste, Black said, and individual haulers in other communities offer collection, although sometimes for a fee. Several school districts also collect food waste for composting or for livestock feed, she said, and restaurants are increasingly joining in.

Hurdles ahead

However, large-scale composting overall is new territory, Brownell said. State pollution officials need to revise solid-waste rules and permit requirements, he said, so that more commercial composting operations can develop.

In southwest Minneapolis, the nonprofit Linden Hills Power and Light organization worked with the city to start a food waste collection program in September 2008, and 900 households signed up the first month. Executive director Felicity Britton said about 1,260 households now participate, about half the total number in the Linden Hills neighborhood.

"Lots of people put their black [trash] carts out only once every two weeks because there's so little in them," she said.

Britton said some people were skeptical, but participation has grown steadily and several other neighborhoods want to start their own programs.

Dianna Kennedy, spokesperson for Eureka Recycling, said the company is seeing a similar reaction in St. Paul as people get used to the idea.

"We're grappling with many of the same issues we saw with recycling 20 years ago before it took off," she said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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