A growing number of Hennepin County residents are taking a few minutes each week to separate their banana peels and pizza boxes from the rest of their trash.
They're participating in test programs that measure the environmental and financial benefits of organic recycling and composting. County officials say the projects are part of a larger effort to cut back on harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
The Minnesota State Fair is a fitting site for Felicity Britton, the executive director of Linden Hills Power & Light, to spend her day. She's brought with her a scale model of a contraption, which at full size, could turn the tons of used mini-donut bags and leftover scraps of deep-fried fair food into natural gas.
"So you put your organic waste in the feed tube here," she explained. "And it's heated and then it produces methane. And then you would have to drain off the compost at the end."
Britton points to a 55-gallon barrel with a series of tubes sticking out of it--It's an anaerobic digester. Inside the barrel millions of bacteria eat and digest organic material, producing methane gas and other usable by-products. The gas is captured, instead of collecting in the atmosphere.
In 2007, Britton's group of environmentalists spearheaded a pilot project in their Minneapolis neighborhood to collect organic waste. Right now, the waste is carried to a composting site about 25 miles away.
The group's co-founder Tom Braun said their immediate goal is to build a digester closer to home that is capable of handling 11 tons of waste per day.
"So this demonstration model would just be a way to say, 'this is how it works.' We can build it in an urban setting. And, let's make it bigger. Let's expand it. Let's scale it up," Braun said.
Braun said there are a number of challenges to building such a facility - mainly finding a place to put a potentially stinky operation.
In the meantime, people in other neighborhoods in Minneapolis will soon join the organic recycling pilot.
Susan Young, the director of the city's solid waste and recycling department, said new neighborhoods will begin to participate as soon as the new green carts are delivered. Young says the purpose of the pilot program is to assess how the collection of food waste benefits both the environment and the city's bottom line. She said Minneapolis may also begin collecting yard waste year round.
While all this is environmentally sound, it's not cheap.
"Actually there will be a cost increase to the city," Young said. "This is something that is good for the environment. Something that I expect the state will be requiring of us in a few years."
Hennepin County paid for some of the costs of organic waste collection. Besides Minneapolis, the county has projects in Minnetonka, Orono, Loretto and Medina. Recycling specialist John Jaimez said the county is encouraging more cities to participate because they're trying to match guidelines established by the state.
"There's a law - a state law - that says counties have the goal of diverting 50 percent of material generated in their counties for recycling and that responsibility is put on the counties," Jaimez explained. "And then it's up to the counties to figure out how they should do that."
Organic waste collection may go from being a test project to a reality in the near future. Recently, the Hennepin County board passed a measure that looks at ways to increase recycling and composting.
The resolution, authored by commissioner Peter McLaughlin directs county staff to develop a strategy for organic waste collection for all county households. County staff are expected to report back to the board in December.