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.
Merkley estimates that 15 to 20 percent of residents will sign up. The $40 annual charge will help fill an expected $80,000 gap between program costs and recycling revenue next year. He said the city hopes that gap shrinks as more residents take part, but utility rates will probably increase to help pay for the program.
'Becoming very mainstream'
Organics recycling programs vary from city to city, but most of the 12 cities share a characteristic: Their garbage haulers are hired by the city, not individual homeowners, unlike most Hennepin cities. Some of those haulers collect organics for recycling, and the density of their routes matters.
"What haulers are looking for is … lots of stops close together so they can fill their truck in a short period of time," said Jaimez.
In Wayzata, which pioneered organics recycling with a grant a decade ago, Randy's Environmental Services hauls trash and organics. After using separate trucks for those duties, last winter Randy's switched to a "Blue Bag" program that it markets nationwide. Organics are collected in compostable bags, put in the same can as trash and separated at the firm's transfer station.
Randy's reports that in cities where it collects organics for recycling, about 40 percent of households take part.
In Minnetonka, residents hire their own trash hauler from one of five firms. In 2007, the city used a grant to pilot organics recycling. Three haulers offered organics collection, but one has since dropped it for lack of business.
Jaimez said that in certain Minneapolis neighborhoods, participation in organics recycling is at 75 percent and higher. Though he is frustrated that people who pay $4 for a cup of coffee sometimes object to paying $40 a year for organics recycling, he thinks it will grow in popularity.
"This is becoming very mainstream," he said. "Waste companies are starting to call themselves materials management companies, and they have major investments in organics recycling."
In cities such as Portland, Ore., recycling is so efficient that organics are collected weekly while garbage is collected just twice a month. The MPCA's Black, who remembers living in Minneapolis when the first curbside recycling programs crawled into being, thinks organics recycling will build faster because people are used to recycling.
"I think people are just really interested in recycling as much as they can," she said. Organics recycling "makes a product out of waste, and it is good for the environment. People are amazingly interested in that."