Organics recycling is slow to catch on in Hennepin County

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 8, 2013 - 10:07 AM

St. Louis Park becomes the 12th Hennepin County city to offer a residential program. Advocates hope others will soon join in.


Food waste was added to a hopper for mixing with yard waste at Specialized Environmental Technologies Inc. in Rosemount on Tuesday.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Garbage bins are filling with rotting vegetables and oily pizza boxes all over Hennepin County, yet few cities are doing anything to cut the waste that could be converted to environmentally friendly compost.

Despite a decade of pilot programs, organics recycling is slow to catch on because of the cost, logistical problems and reluctance among homeowners, said John Jaimez, the county’s organics recycling program manager.

The number of cities with organics recycling reached a dozen this week, when the St. Louis Park City Council unanimously approved starting organics recycling this fall. Recycling advocates say the city’s experience may prompt others to join in.

Organic material makes up about 30 percent of Hennepin County’s garbage.

“It is the largest portion of the waste stream that no one is doing anything about,” Jaimez said. “Basically it’s getting people to understand this is compostable — put it in this container.

“It’s not rocket science.”

Last year, Hennepin County produced about 1.4 million tons of garbage. About 40 percent of that was handled through conventional recycling, with another 3 percent going to organics recycling. Of the organics sent to recycling, little came from homes: Almost 99 percent was recycled by businesses, schools and other nonresidential properties.

Besides St. Louis Park, curbside organics recycling is available in parts of Edina, Minneapolis, Minnetonka, Orono and Shorewood and in all of Loretto, Maple Plain, Medicine Lake, Medina, St. Bonifacius and Wayzata. That’s an estimated 17,300 households in a county with more than 300,000 single-family households with curbside collection.

Other cities are watching

Still, officials think St. Louis Park’s approval of organics recycling could get other cities to follow.

“Tons of cities have contacted me,” said Ginny Black, organics recycling coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

A lack of capacity also limits organics recycling, Black said.

State rules require commercial composting sites to abide by many of the same rules as landfills. More commercial composters are expected to open if the state allows less expensive measures to protect ground and surface water, something that could happen later this year. The state’s goal is to divert 15 percent of waste to organics recycling by 2030.

Last year, almost 14,000 tons of Hennepin County’s organic waste went to Specialized Environmental Technologies in Dakota County. Anne Ludvik is director of organics development for the firm, which sells compost as the Mulch Store.

“There are a lot of cities talking about this behind the scenes, but some of them are waiting to see what St. Louis Park does,” Ludvik said.

St. Louis Park’s action followed resident requests for organics recycling, said Scott Merkley, who oversees solid waste for the city. Collection begins Oct. 1. Residents will subscribe to the service, paying $40 a year for compostable bags and a cart to hold yard waste and bags of organic waste.

Commercial composting sites accept meat, bones, dairy products and other waste that is unsafe for back-yard compost piles, which don’t get hot enough to kill pathogens. Paper cups and plates, pizza boxes, egg cartons and other items rejected by other recycling programs are also accepted. Keeping organic recyclables “clean” is important, which is why the city wants to enroll only paying residents who are willing to learn the system.

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