Tons of food scraps now being burned in a downtown trash incinerator would be transformed into fertile soil if the state’s largest experiment in residential organics collection succeeds in Minneapolis.
The program, expected to roll out next year, will test the resolve of city residents to put items like egg shells and orange peels in a separate container, on top of their existing recycling duties. It puts Minneapolis on track to catch up with many large cities across the country that are already making strides on organics collection.
“Curbside organics recycling is the next step toward a Zero Waste Minneapolis,” said Mayor Betsy Hodges, who announced the initiative in her budget speech in August. “It’s something residents voted for, and the pilots have been incredibly successful so far.”
More than 100,000 homes across the city will see a $48 hike in their annual trash bills next year largely due to the program. City officials only expect 40 percent of those households to participate, even though every homeowner will be paying for it.
At least one prominent critic is concerned homeowners will be forced to shoulder the costs of the program as apartments and commercial properties — which produce a major share of the city’s garbage — get a pass.
“It’s going to collect a very small amount of waste for a very high cost on very few people,” said Sandy Colvin Roy, a former City Council member who recently chaired the city’s public works committee.
Minneapolis is following several smaller communities, like Wayzata and St. Louis Park, in implementing a curbside organics program. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have also recently opened organics drop-off sites, though St. Paul officials said they do not envision curbside pickup until 2017.
The city only has direct control over trash collection at single-family and one- to four-unit homes, about 65 percent of the households in the city. It does not track the composition of all trash generated within its borders since apartments and commercial properties are handled by private haulers. Hennepin County estimates that 38 percent of what ends up in its trash-to-energy incinerator, where most of the city’s trash goes, is compostable.
Since compostable material is also often wet, it actually cramps the burner’s ability to generate energy.
Beyond food scraps, compostable items include food-soiled paper, tissues, dryer lint and animal hair. And curbside pickup would cover some items not recommended for back-yard compost bins, such as meat, fish and bones.
Yard waste currently comprises nearly all of the composting at homes under the city’s trash collection purview, which makes up about 14 percent of all trash at those properties. The city hopes the organics program will divert nearly 8,000 tons of organic material from the trash burner, boosting the composting percentage by 4 percent.
Environmental benefits and concerns
Composting advocates note that it is an easy way for consumers to cut their carbon footprint, since it reduces methane gas generated by landfills and carbon dioxide from burners. It also generates a material that can be reincorporated back into the soil.
But the logistics of the new program is raising environmental concerns.
A 2013 consultant’s study presented to the City Council found that the greenhouse gas reductions from composting would be offset by the emissions from separate trucks used to pick up the material.
David Herberholtz, the city’s director of solid waste and recycling, said they cannot combine it with yard-waste pickup because leaves and grass clippings must be ground before processing.
“People who are pushing this are not looking at the big overall environmental picture,” said Colvin Roy, the former council member. “Is it really worth that much extra diesel fuel to be picking it up at the houses willing to participate?”
Hennepin County has made slow progress boosting organics recycling in recent years, but hopes it will rise from 3 percent in 2013 to a goal of 6 percent in 2015.
Minneapolis’ program “will get us a ways, but it’s not going to get us all the way to the goal,” said Paul Kroening, the county’s supervising environmentalist.
Getting the word out
A little more than half of the organic waste in the county is generated by the commercial sector, which is not required to compost. Educating Minneapolis residents will be another major hurdle. Pilot programs are underway in Linden Hills, East Calhoun and several southeastern Minneapolis neighborhoods. In Linden Hills, which has aggressively organized, participation stands about 53 percent.
“Other than those that are participating in the pilot, it’s pretty much an unknown subject,” Herberholtz said. “So it’s going to take a pretty heavy dose of education.”
Public attendance was so sparse at a “zero waste” forum held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison in north Minneapolis this week that the local council member, Blong Yang, won the raffle prize: a compost bin.
Yang has observed that some of his constituents, among the poorest in the city, still do not appear to be recycling as the city wades into composting. “In this situation, I think what we’re going to find after a few years is the folks who are least able to afford it are the folks who least use it as well,” Yang said. “And that could be problematic.”
The organics program will cost about $9.2 million to get started in its first year, much of it for upfront capital expenses like buying new green bins and ordering trucks. About $4.2 million would be needed annually for ongoing operations. Herberholtz said the earliest it would begin is fall 2015, and the program still needs City Council approval.
Collecting commercial waste
Once the program is implemented, policymakers are likely to focus on boosting organics collection among apartments and commercial properties. Two options to cover apartments include expanding the city’s entire trash collection operations to include those facilities — a major change — or putting new mandates in landlord licenses, said council member Kevin Reich, chairman of the public works committee.
But, he added, “The ‘big game,’ if you will, will be the institutional sources and large commercial sources.” Reich said any regulation in that area would best be handled by the county, which currently just offers incentives for organics collection.
Other cities have put composting mandates in place to cover commercial waste. San Fransisco and Seattle require that restaurants compost their food waste, for example.
Restaurateur Kim Bartmann composts all food scraps at her eight restaurants, including Bryant-Lake Bowl, Barbette and Red Stag. Since hauling organics is cheaper by the ton than general trash, “you are saving money by composting,” she said.
The number of restaurants joining in has increased dramatically in the last three years, she said, but some hold out because it seems like an added expense or they are resistant to changing an already demanding operation.
“Having the misperception that composting costs money just prevents people from thinking about it any further,” Bartmann said.