This was the third year of collecting post-Halloween pumpkins at the Eagan Community Center, and 7-year-old Shreyan Jena was happy to be there.

“He comes every year,” said his dad, Sam Jena, of Eagan.

Is it because of the pumpkin toys handed out to participants, as his dad suggested?

Shreyan shook his head. “Dropping the pumpkin,” he said, before he carefully tilted his pumpkin in with the others.

Adults were more cavalier, lobbing carved pumpkins onto the pile of grinning or grimacing faces, but seemed to enjoy it nonetheless.

Sue Bast, environmental specialist at Dakota Valley Recycling which serves Eagan, Burnsville and Apple Valley, said the agency borrowed the idea from communities like West St. Paul, which do the same. Last year, people dropped off nearly 500 pumpkins.

“It looks like there might be a little bit more this year,” said Bast, as cars lined up behind the dumpster.

“Pumpkins are quite heavy and can get problematic in your garbage,” said Leigh Behrens, environmental technician at Dakota Valley Recycling. “We get several people [who] back up their pickup trucks,” she said, adding that many collect pumpkins from neighbors before they come.

The pumpkins then go to the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s organics recycling facility in Shakopee, where they become compost for landscaping and construction projects.

The effort is just one way organics recycling is perking up in Dakota County.

Master recycler-composter classes

This year, three volunteers manned the pumpkin dumpster. They were recently certified master recycler-composters, products of a Dakota County program started in May.

Students complete six weeks of classroom work, with hands-on activities and field trips. They afterward pledge 30 hours of “waste payback,” volunteer hours with community education projects.

“I just think everyone should compost,” said volunteer Claudia Zweber, of Eagan. She said that in addition to collecting pumpkins, her duties have included helping to set up vermicomposting (worm bins) in ten classrooms at Riverview Elementary in Farmington.

“I’ve always been interested in recycling,” said Jane Hubbard, of Rosemount. “I’ve always had a compost bin. I thought I was a good recycler until I took this class.” She joked that her training makes it socially acceptable for her to dig around in the garbage.

“We know that the number one way to influence behavior change is peer-to-peer education,” said Jenny Kedward, environmental specialist with Dakota County, who oversees the class.

Kedward said 30 people signed up for the spring class and 14 took it in the fall. So far, she said, students have logged about 400 hours of payback. Officials hope to continue to offer the class twice a year and are currently signing people up for next spring.

Organics recycling at community events

Lori Frekot, environmental initiatives supervisor with Dakota County, said that over the past year, the county has made a push to divert waste and be more of a visible presence at public gatherings, such as parades and community events.

A big undertaking this year was implementing organics recycling at the Dakota County Fair. Fifty volunteers helped out with the project, and they filled a 6-yard dumpster.

Bast said two community events in the area saw organics diversion for the first time this year. At Funfest, Eagan’s Fourth of July celebration, a 20-yard dumpster got about one-third full. At Burnsville’s September Fire Muster, a 2-yard dumpster was filled.

She said volunteers stood at the waste stations to advise people what to toss where.

“People are very good about recycling,” she said. “They’ve got that down. But organics [are] tricky.”

This is the second year of collecting organics at Music in Kelley Park in Apple Valley and at the Eagan Community Center.

TJ Heinricy, streets and parks supervisor in Northfield, said that city launched organics recycling at its annual Jesse James Days this fall for the first time. Though there was some confusion because the bins weren’t well marked, he called it “relatively successful.”

County projects

Within the last year, Dakota County has implemented organics recycling at the county juvenile services center in Hastings, at Thompson Park, a popular site for weddings, and at the county’s Western Service Center.

Steve Pincuspy, environmental specialist with Dakota County, said numbers from June to September show that 6 percent of waste is diverted through the recycling of organics. “We expect those numbers to go up because it’s pretty early,” he said.

The county was recently approved for a grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for organics recycling at large gathering venues, such as ice centers.

Sarah Braman, an environmental specialist with Dakota County, is at work on a pilot project for commercial organics diversion. Over fiscal year 2015, she will gather information about potential business corridors for an organics diversion project. The project’s focus will be on completing geographic analysis before building out a complete organics diversion program. A primary goal is to work on route density, to reduce costs.

Schools

Organics diversion has been incorporated into recycling programs within school districts over the last two school years. According to Pincuspy, between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, there was an increase of 29 percent in waste diversion. Education on organics diversion increased overall recycling efforts.

In Lakeville, for instance, Cherry View Elementary School went from 18 percent waste diversion from recycling to 46 percent, with 20 percent being organics, while Christina Huddleston Elementary went from 15 percent to 53 percent, with 16 percent being organics.

Pincuspy said officials had tried pilot projects in schools in previous years but didn’t provide adequate education.

“It’s like giving a child a shoe and a lace without teaching them how to tie a shoe,” he said.

Household recycling for organics

Household organics diversion seems to be a tougher sell in Dakota County.

A number of curbside organics recycling pilot projects have launched over the past few years, with lackluster results.

Bast said that in Burnsville, the private firm Waste Management did a pilot project spanning a couple of years collecting organics with yard waste, but participation rates were low.

“If they had a lot of people participating,” she said, “it would have been worth their while.”

A recent pilot project in Northfield didn’t gain much traction either.

According to Heinricy, who is part of a task force working for organics diversion, a pilot project last year included 150 households. However, average weekly participation only hit about 40 percent, and much of that included yard waste.

Education was lacking, Heinricy said. In a follow-up survey, people said they were unclear what the bins were for or that they were for more than leaves.

The city, said Heinricy, offers an organics drop-off at its compost facility for yard waste. Though free of charge, he said, “that has not been really used either.” The 6-yard dumpster, he said, sees about 1 to 3 yards of compost a week.

Heinricy said his group is still pushing for curbside pickup, and has some youth involved. “I think the key is education,” said Heinricy. “I still believe you have to start with the kids. Mom and dad are sometimes hard to change. When we first started sorting out recycling, we despised it. Now it’s second nature.”

Randy’s Sanitation did a pilot project in Burnsville last year, collecting organics in a blue bag with yard waste, and seemed optimistic about the results.

“We had what we feel are good results,” said Deb Gatz, company operations administrator. She said about 25 to 30 residents participated. Gatz said the firm hopes to extend the blue bag program throughout the area it serves in Burnsville, possibly by next year.

County goals

According to Pincuspy, the county plans to rewrite its goals to match those of the state, which is aiming for 75 percent total waste diversion by 2030.

“It’s aggressive,” he said. “We know it’s achievable. I can tell you we won’t get there without organics.”

 

Liz Rolfsmeier is a St. Paul based freelance writer.