City officials estimate that 30 to 40 percent of Minneapolis garbage that goes to landfills is made up of organic material. That includes leftover food, pizza boxes, milk and juice cartons and other paper products that have been in contact with organic material.
"And that trash going to landfills creates methane, which is about 20 times stronger of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide," says Hennepin County organic recycling specialist John Jaimez.
Jaimez says landfills can recover a portion of methane, but most of it escapes into the atmosphere. Organic waste also winds up in the county's downtown incinerator. Jaimez says it's wasteful to burn it.
"There's really not a whole lot of value trying to burn old spaghetti and chicken bones," he says. "So we really don't want it in our incinerator. We can turn it into valuable compost which provides lots of environmental benefits, such as replenishing our soils; it can reduce soil erosion and storm water runoff to our vital water resources."
“[Organic] Trash going to landfills creates methane, which is about 20 times stronger of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”John Jaimez
Jaimez says right now the county spreads some of that compost over ground that has recently been dug up during construction projects. The compost soaks up water and keeps dirt from being washed away in rainstorms. And it speeds up the regrowth of vegetation that protects the ground from erosion.
The county has encouraged a handful of suburbs, school districts and businesses to begin composting their organic waste. The county is a partner in the Minneapolis project, which Jaimez says will become the largest residential collection in the state.
"When we figure out how to do it in Minneapolis, there's going to be no excuse for not growing it everywhere else," Jaimez says.
Linden Hills was chosen to host the pilot project because it's home to a lot of environmentally conscious folks like Tom Braun. Braun is the owner of the Wild Rumpus bookstore and co-founder of Linden Hills Power and Light - a community based environmental corporation.
Braun says the group was formed after listening to a talk about global warming from his friend, polar explorer and activist Will Steger. Braun and his neighbors were inspired to organize a "ride your bike to work day." He says it was well attended.
"So then we, after a lengthy patting ourselves on the back said, 'OK, what's next?'," laughs Braun.
What's next for Braun and his neighbors is the opportunity to lead the city into the next wave of recycling. Braun says it took a while for people to get used to separating their cans, bottles and newspapers from their trash. And he thinks it will probably take people a little more time to get into the habit of isolating their food scraps and food soaked paper.
"It will be inconvenient for a while," he says. "But I think it's just a matter of a minor change in thinking, that will get us where we want to go."
Getting city residents to compost their organic matter is just one part of a larger plan for Linden Hills Power and Light. The group has recently secured nearly $100,000 in grants to study the feasibility of taking the organic waste collected in the neighborhood and putting it into an anaerobic digester located in the neighborhood. A digester is basically a large container that holds organic waste and captures the methane released during the composting process.
Executive director Felicity Britton says there are many ways that methane can be used.
"Transportation or heating, or anywhere where you can use compressed natural gas," she says. "So if you have compressed natural gas vehicles. We could heat a school, we could heat the park or we could heat the library or run garbage trucks or run school buses with the gas."
Or Tom Braun says it may be more feasible to sell that gas back to a power company, much in the way that people who have windmills or solar panels sell back some of their electricity to the grid.
Right now anaerobic digesters are more commonly found in European cities and in agricultural communities in America where plenty of organic waste is available. Hennepin County is also interested in using anaerobic digestion as a way to capture renewable energy.