Environmentalists push Minn. cities to compost food waste

Organics compost
Food scraps are turned into compost Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 at Specialized Environmental Technologies in Rosemount, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The morning after Felicity Britton threw a big party for 65 people at her condo, her trash can was virtually empty.

All that remained were a few plastic bags and a broken wine glass. Everything else was recycled or composted.

In her Linden Hills neighborhood, the city of Minneapolis collects food scraps from residents and composts them. The city also runs the pilot composting program in the East Calhoun area and parts of the Hiawatha, Longfellow and Seward neighborhoods.

Britton, executive director of Linden Hills Power & Light, a non-profit that educates people about composting, was one of the first to sign up for the pilot program five years ago.

"There seemed to be an extreme pent up demand to do it," she said. "There are 2,500 houses in our neighborhood, and within one month, 800 people signed up for composting."

Although more than half the households in Linden Hills participate, Minneapolis hasn't implemented the program citywide, in part because only two places in the Twin Cites metro area are equipped to compost large amounts of food waste. One is on property owned by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the other is near Rosemount.

Environmentalists say it's time for more Minnesotans to also start recycling food waste, and they want big cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul to get into the composting business.

Organics compost
At Specialized Environmental Technologies compost made from food scraps and yard waste goes through a screener which separates finished compost, right, from materials to be returned to piles for continued decomposition, left, Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 in Rosemount, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

What makes a compost site different from a garbage dump is a simple ingredient: oxygen.

Powerful fans pump air into tubes running underneath the compost heaps. That feeds the good bacteria that break down the organic matter, a method that does not create unpleasant odors.

"Some people describe it as a kind of a tobacco-y or a farmy smell," said Anne Ludvik, director of organics development for Specialized Enivronmental Technologies.

By injecting air into the compost, the process virtually eliminates the production of methane, a major contributor to global warming. Instead of methane, the bacteria give off something useful: heat.

Even in the dead of winter, compost piles at Specialized Environmental Technologies' compost site near Rosemount naturally hit temperatures of 150 degrees or more. That kills dangerous bacteria, including salmonella and E. Coli.

After about a year, the garbage is completely transformed into something resembling damp coffee grounds. It's used for gardening, erosion control and water filtration.

Specialized Environmental Technologies sold more than 30,000 tons of finished compost last year. It could produce a lot more if more cities collected food waste the way they do recycling.

Organics compost
Specialized Environmental Technologies' Anne Ludvik holds up what remains of a milk carton after it has gone through the composting process Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 in Rosemount, Minn. Bacteria break down the paper and leave behind the plastic liner, which is screened from the finished compost and thrown away.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Besides the three small areas of Minneapolis, the cities of Delano and Wayzata also collect compostable material.

For the last two years, a group of St. Paul residents has been pushing the city to join the movement. But city environmental policy director Anne Hunt said most people likely would not participate.

"If you're upper income, you're well-educated, you own your own home, you're more likely to recycle and, yes, you're more interested in doing the composting piece," Hunt said. "But that is not the vast majority of the residents of St. Paul."

Collecting residential food waste would cost St. Paul residents about $2 million a year -- or $2 per household every month. Minneapolis doesn't yet charge residents participating in its pilot program for composting.

This year, St. Paul commissioned a survey to find out what residents want out of their recycling program. In response, the city will start accepting more types of plastic next year, and it will allow residents to put all their recyclables in a single bin -- no more sorting. City officials also learned that many residents aren't even recycling paper and plastic. "We know from our survey that there's a lot of the basic material that isn't getting picked up," Hunt said. "Before we add new materials, we have to have people focus on the fundamentals."

But some say the city's go-slow approach to composting is a mistake.

If residents started separating food waste from the rest of their garbage, the recycling process would be strengthened, said Diana Kennedy, communications director for Eureka Recycling, the non-profit organization that runs St. Paul's recycling program.

"What happens is you've taken all the icky stuff out of the garbage can. And people can really start to see the way all the way to zero," Kennedy said.

Statewide, getting all the way to zero waste -- recycling and composting everything -- is a long way off. A study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency shows that participation in recycling programs has stalled has over the last 15 years. In some areas, it's even declined.

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