A compost bin, some leftover home-brewing hops and the misadventures of one curious dog have some Minneapolis City Council members considering additional regulations for residents who compost their waste.
In December, a 2-year-old English setter-border collie mix named April suffered a spate of vomiting and what her owners believed to be a seizure after gobbling down some compost in and near her northeast Minneapolis yard. One $300 vet bill and several headaches later, April's owners, Susanne and Allan Robinson, took their concerns to a neighborhood meeting — and to a pair of City Council members.
The Robinsons want the city to tighten its composting rules, including providing more specific guidelines about covers for compost bins and the distance of those bins from property lines shared with neighbors.
Council Members Kevin Reich and Cam Gordon say they're both interested in reviewing the city's current rules and potentially making tweaks that could do more to protect pets and wildlife from waste.
The interest over where and how people should store their compost comes as the city is encouraging the practice by providing compost pickup services to many homes. The new organics pickup program is starting this year, with a full roll out planned by next year. Gordon, who was involved in the initial development of Minneapolis' compost rules, said it may be time to take a second look.
"I don't think we were [initially] talking or analyzing or taking into consideration this issue of pet safety," he said. "It might be a newer concern that we are discovering now, and I think we should take it into account and review the ordinance."
The city's zoning code does have some requirements about the size and location of individual composting operations. They must be located in the back yard, but specific regulations can vary depending on the area of the city.
The rules do restrict particular materials from compost bins, including bones, fats and oils and meat. There are no specific restrictions on plants, but the city's website does include a warning about some materials that can be dangerous for cats and dogs, including fruit pits, garlic, hops and potato and tomato leaves and stems.
The Robinsons say they believe April ate hops and other waste a neighbor had been composting.
Christa Williams, the veterinarian who treated April, said "garbage intoxication" caused by pets digging around in the trash inside or outside the house is a common problem.
"It's the same risk factors you see with compost," she said. "People don't necessarily think about compost, [thinking] 'I composted the corn cobs, but didn't throw them away.' But you have to remember your dog is thinking those are a delicious snack — and that can be very painful and expensive later on."
Williams said she performed blood tests on April to rule out any significant problems and the dog did not require additional treatment.
She said the case was the first she's had involving poisoning from compost or hops, but she said there are a variety of compost materials that could lead to trouble for pets. Compost that includes lawn clippings or plants that have been treated with pesticides could be harmful, as could yard waste or other items that grow mold. Cocoa bean mulch and coffee grounds can also make pets ill, particularly if eaten in large quantities.
"I don't think this is a rampant epidemic, but I do think it is something to be mindful of," Williams said.
Gordon said he plans to do more research on materials that could cause harm to pets, and will bring the topic to the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council, which could then bring recommendations to the council.
Susanne Robinson said she and her husband compost yard waste and aren't opposed to the practice, so long as it's done with safety in mind.
"Our goal is to not only get [the ordinance] changed, but to alert pet owners to the problem," she said.