BioCycle April 2010, Vol. 51, No. 4, p. 18
Spring is under way and residents, haulers, composters and others in the Twin City region will quickly learn how the state’s new law affects yard trimmings management.
TWENTY years ago, Minnesota took bold steps toward diverting compostable materials from its landfills when the state passed legislation banning landfill disposal of yard trimmings. Two decades later, the state is adding more punch to that legislation with a new law requiring residents who bag yard trimmings to use compostable bags.
Affecting the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul and the seven counties that make up Minnesota’s main metropolitan area, the bill was introduced by State Representative Paul Gardner. Six of those seven counties fall under the jurisdiction of the Solid Waste Management Coordinating Board (SWMCB), which is spearheading education and outreach around the new law. The seven counties (Figure 1) together are home to more than half of Minnesota’s population.
The new compostable bag law (HF403/SF383) went into effect January 1, 2010. The SWMCB organized a late-winter workshop to prepare industry players for compliance with the law before the state’s yard trimmings season, which runs April through October, got under way. At the workshop, Gardner, executive director of the Recycling Association of Minnesota prior to becoming a legislator, couched the benefits of the new legislation as an intersection of environmentalism, market development and economic development.
“When I got elected I wanted to push through some ideas that people had been talking about for a long time,” he says. “In terms of organics management, one of the biggest barriers related to composting and collection of yard waste was the issue of plastic bags. There have been efforts to mechanically get rid of plastic bags out of yard waste. You can reduce it, but you can never get rid of it.”
Besides the environmental problems conventional plastic bags posed, Gardner says, they have resulted in higher tipping fees for haulers and an often substandard end product that, because of its inconsistency, has frequently met with a lackluster market. John Jaimez, Organics and Recycling Specialist for Hennepin County Environmental Services (one of the six counties that are part of the SWMCB), says that compost quality was a motivator for the new law. “One of the big drivers for getting the statute in place was to improve the end quality of the finished product,” says Jaimez. “And one of the biggest problems with contamination in finished compost is plastic.”
PROVISION OF THE LAW
Under the new law, the compostable bags must meet ASTM D6400 standards, which basically means they will break down as readily as paper or leaves under similar environmental conditions. They must also be labeled as “compostable” (as opposed to “degradable” or “biodegradable”).
Provisions of the new law include:
• The manufacture or importation into Minnesota of a plastic bag for sale labeled in any way that implies it will biodegrade is prohibited unless the bag is certified as meeting a scientifically based standard for biodegradability. Bags labeled “compostable” must meet ASTM specifications for compostable plastics.
• A manufacturer, distributor or wholesaler who violates the law is subject to a $100 penalty for each prepackaged saleable unit offered for sale up to a maximum of $5,000.
• A city with a population exceeding 100,000 and that has an organized collection system for source separated compostable materials is exempt until January 1, 2013.
• No civil penalties to residents for noncompliance.
With the exception of a sales tax break on tipping fees to haulers who drop off at compost (and recycling) facilities versus landfills, no grants or financial incentives were developed to support compliance with the new bag program. “We’re working on market-based system with no state subsidies to this industry,” says Ginny Black, Organic Recycling Coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Involved agencies are doing their best to help connect the dots about benefits of the law between compostable bag manufacturers and retailers, yard trimmings haulers, composters and, ultimately, residential customers.
In addition to the sales tax break, the haulers’ tipping fees are significantly reduced when bringing in compostable bags only. Not contending with plastic reduces labor and capital costs and yields a better product, say the processors. Customers who show proof of residency within the jurisdiction of the SWMCB may take the new-and-improved compost from any of several municipal composting facilities free of charge.
Curbside customers may still set their yard trimmings out in kraft paper bags and reusable containers or rolling carts provided by some haulers. They also can bring yard trimmings to composting facilities in conventional plastic bags as long as they bring the bags back home with them. But a conventional plastic bag filled with yard trimmings left curbside will result in either the whole package being left behind or the bag being stripped of its compostable contents and a $2.50 “debagging fee” charged to the customer.
Under the old system, Black says, it was up to the composting facility to do the costly debagging onsite and then to screen out what they missed, sometimes having to screen twice. “You lose a lot of organic material, so you’re losing product as well,” she says, adding that the energy costs of such labor-intensive processes presented an additional problem. “With this law we’re hoping to seriously reduce that.”
The new legislation also levels the playing field for private haulers, say Black and other proponents. Without a uniform system in place across all jurisdictions (and including more than 100 municipalities), some haulers who were requiring compostable bags for organic waste – including both yard trimmings and food waste – were being undercut by other haulers who did not.
Increased availability of compostable bags also played into adopting the new law. Over the years that Patty Horton has been stocking compostable bags as a general manager for Lunds & Byerly’s grocery stores, she says the landscape has changed considerably. Horton began selling the bags in 2003 in order to support the city of Wayzata’s new curbside organics recycling program. The bags had to be ordered by the pallet from Norway. Now, retail quantities are available through local manufacturers and distributors.
Rep. Gardner, whose legislative district is also home to one on the compostable bag manufacturers, says that for a time bag availability presented a chicken-and-egg scenario, with retailers saying they would carry the bags if residents would buy them and residents saying they would buy them if retailers would carry them. “Now with this program across the Twin Cities, that should send the market a strong signal,” he says.
A main theme of SWMCB’s winter workshop was to “educate the educators” about the compostable bag law. The workshop brought together municipal waste haulers, composters, compostable bag manufacturers and retailers as part of SWMCB’s ongoing outreach campaign. “The big challenge is that residents in the metro area have been allowed to use regular plastic bags for yard waste for many years,” Jaimez says. “Millions of people now have to be made aware that things have changed. If you’re going to bag yard waste, [the bag] has to be compostable plastic or paper.” Educating residents about what constitutes a compostable bag (and where to get them) and other nuances of the law such as alternatives for properly disposing of yard trimmings also will be critical.
Kate Bartelt, a senior associate with Richardson, Richter Associates, a consultant to SWMCB on the project, points out that the outreach-and-education campaign must remain dynamic in order to be effective. “There’s going to have to be some back and forth with us – and with the haulers and municipalities – so they’re not hearing different things from different people but seeing and hearing the same things across the metro area,” she says.
A suite of web-based educational resources for industry professionals (at http://www.swmcb.org) and residents (at www.rethinkrecycling.com) are also available to help get the word out about the legislation and related programs. Downloadable printed materials with consistent messaging about the new law is available at the SWMCB site while an “answer team” checks the latter website three times a day to field residents’ questions. The SWMCB has also launched a public relations campaign that includes outreach to various local and regional news media.
Since the Twin Cities’ yard trimmings season is just getting under way, Jaimez says it’s difficult to tell more than anecdotally how the new law is being received. “We don’t quite know yet,” he says. “Already personally I’ve heard feedback that’s all over the map: ‘Why are we being forced to use these bags?’ ‘Where can I find them?’ ‘Why are they so expensive?’ Others think it’s great and say, ‘We need to have more high-quality compost’ and ‘Plastic bags are the bane of humanity.'”
Dan Sullivan is an environmental journalist specializing in food and agricultural issues.
April 22, 2010 | General
Compostable Bag Law Takes Effect In Minnesota
BioCycle April 2010, Vol. 51, No. 4, p. 18