Composting in Minnesota could heat up under proposed rule change

Dumping out the collection bins
Truck driver Brian Netzke empties composting bins at the Full Circle Organics composting facility in Good Thunder, Minn., Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

State regulators have proposed adding a new category to the state's current composting rules to include organic material like food and yard debris that is separated from other waste before it reaches a composting facility.

The change would modernize the rules that govern large-scale composting facilities in Minnesota. If approved by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, it would add a specific compost category for facilities that accept source-separated organics and make it easier for others to open around Minnesota.

Although about 40 percent of the garbage Minnesotans throw away is organic and compostable, the state captures only about 4 percent of the waste through organics recycling. Tim Farnan, an organics and recycling specialist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said the new rule could help meet a state goal of capturing up to 15 percent by 2030.

It would be the first change to the state's composting rules in nearly two decades and the new designation would create a new section specifically for facilities limited to certain source-separate organics.

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The rule change would set standards that are more strict than the existing rules for yard waste facilities but less strict than municipal solid waste facilities, Farnan said.

"Current facilities would have an opportunity to store material in different ways and to move composting material off their pad that has stormwater and groundwater protections at an earlier point in the composting process," Farnan said. "So that'll expand the capacity they have."

Emptying out the compost
Andy Hansen, vice president of business operations for Full Circle Organics, and truck driver Adam Schwichtenberg chat as they wait for Schwichtenberg's trailer to empty out at the Full Circle Organics composting facility in Good Thunder, Minn., Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

The rule change would expand the exemptions for smaller sites like universities and community gardens.

It could also boost operations like Full Circle Organics south of Mankato, where landowner David Fitzsimmons and his brothers invested $1 million to build a composting facility on 10 acres of land. Open since last February, the facility hasn't made a profit yet. But Fitzsimmons is encouraged by the demand in the area.

"It sounded like a good idea [and] I think it still does," Fitzsimmons said. "You know, we've been farming and raising hogs for almost 40 years and we were ready for a new venture. We like doing something new like this that is we think the right thing to do and something that is becoming more and more popular, I think."

Full Circle Organics is one of nine current source-separated composting facilities in Minnesota that operate under the state's most stringent composting regulations.

The first thing a visitor to the facility would notice is the foul smell of rotting food. On a recent morning, it received a truckload of compost from the Mankato Public Schools, a co-op in St. Peter and a couple coffee shops in the area.

Trash from local schools
Trash from local schools thaw before the next step in the composting process at the Full Circle Organics composting facility in Good Thunder, Minn., Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

"We've got hamburger buns, baked beans, pizza," said Andy Hansen, Full Circle Organics's vice president of operations. "We've got milk cartons. It looks like leftover food from a school."

Roughly 200 pounds of organic trash sat on a heated floor to prepare it for workers.

"Once it's thawed out, we'll take it and put it into that mixer and they'll put a carbon source — leaves, grass, cornstalks," Hansen said. "They'll mix it there and take it out to the pad and put it into rows."

For about six to eight months, the mixture will decompose outdoors on a concrete pad. When the process is complete, it will be sold for landscaping.

While the proposed rule change won't change the current operations of Full Circle Organics, Hansen said it could encourage growth — and improve consumers' knowledge of the industry.

"People think a lot of different things when they think composting," he said. "They think about that little barrel out in the back, but as you can see, our facility is quite big."

The proposed rule change comes as state legislators are also making a case to boost recycling rates in the Twin Cities metro area to 60 percent by 2030.

The composting rule change is in a public comment period through March 7. If not contested, it will go into effect by mid-year.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional information regarding the revisions to the state's composting rules.