April 21, 2011 | General

Tapping Organics To Reach Recycling Goal

Promotional tag for organics cartBioCycle April 2011, Vol. 52, No. 4, p. 21
Hennepin County generates about 500,000 tons/year of organic material, roughly 25 to 30 percent of its residential and commercial waste stream. Public and private sector programs to recycle organics are key to meeting a 50 percent state-mandated goal.
Dan Emerson

HENNEPIN County, Minnesota, which includes the city of Minneapolis, has been among the early leaders in local government in the U.S. to promote organics recycling to reduce the amount of waste being landfilled or burned. At least eight suburbs in the county have residential programs to divert food waste, paper towels and other organic materials for composting. About 100 businesses are participating in organics pick up. Two of the largest are Best Buy’s world headquarters in Richfield and the sprawling Ikea retail outlet in Bloomington. In addition, several school districts in Hennepin County have launched organics recycling programs, including the state’s largest, Minneapolis Public Schools. And two neighborhoods in the city of Minneapolis have residential organics collection.
Source separated organics (SSO) recycling is a major part of Hennepin County’s strategy to achieve its goal of recycling 50 percent of its solid waste by 2013, a figure tied to state law. “We’ve been hovering at 45 percent for many years,” says John Jaimez, the county’s organics/recycling specialist. “There has been a lot of discussion about policy options to help us get past that level.” The county generates 1.5 million tons/year of waste, about half of that in the commercial sector. Twenty-five to 30 percent of it – or about 500,000 tons/year – is organic material.
Best Buy's headquarters food waste program
Overall, Hennepin County is in the process of “transforming” its solid waste programs under a directive from the county board to increase recycling and composting. “We’ve been looking at a lot of things,” says Jaimez. “Everything is on the table in terms of what the board wants to consider, weighing costs and benefits.” Feedback is being gathered from city recycling coordinators, elected officials, residents and haulers. Topics being discussed include single stream versus dual-sort curbside collection of recyclables, addition of new materials to collection programs, whether organics collection should be required, how to manage a substantial increase in organics diversion, and what can be done to improve the markets for end products.
The county’s waste abatement incentive fund provides grants to support recycling and waste reduction projects. All local public entities and K-12 schools are eligible. In recent years, the fund has supported the start-up of organics recycling programs in many of the county’s municipalities and schools. The rapid growth has been fueled by tremendous interest from the general public and public officials.
To increase organics diversion, the county is considering targeted outreach to commercial waste generators, Jaimez says. “We know from our haulers that there is a lot of interest in the commercial sector. We’re also going to look at adding drop-off locations within the county.” Only nine of the county’s roughly 45 municipalities have organics collection, “so a whole lot of the county is not being served,” he adds. “Over the last couple of years we’ve been getting a lot of inquiries from people who are having events and want to buy compostable foodware and want to compost but have nowhere to take it.”
To convince generators and haulers to participate in SSO collection, lower tipping fees are a useful incentive, Jaimez notes. In 2005, Hennepin County instituted a $15/ton tipping fee on organics delivered to the county’s transfer station in Brooklyn Park, compared to the normal $45/ton tipping fee for MSW. “Because the material is separated for recycling, it is exempt from the state solid waste tax and county solid waste fee, so that’s another incentive,” Jaimez says. “And, the fact that we transfer the material to the composting site allows us to inspect it to make sure it’s clean enough.”

Lack of composting space is a major hurdle to successfully expanding the SSO program. “We have nowhere near the amount of capacity we would need to handle serious increases in organics diversion,” he adds. “We’re always looking at two issues: how can we add composting capacity and what would be the feasibility of anaerobic digestion?” Jaimez doesn’t foresee any future supply issues with having enough bulking material and carbon to handle composting needs: “There’s plenty of yard waste and brush out there.”
The bigger issue, he adds, is “just getting these sites up and running.” Jaimez is hoping proposed changes in the state’s rule making process will become a reality, which would make it easier to open and operate an organics composting site. “For years, the state has had two kinds of composting rules,” he explains. “The permit requirements for yard waste facilities are pretty lenient because the assumption is they are pretty innocuous.”
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) rules for organics composting, however, are based on mixed waste composting, and thus are more stringent than they may need to be considering the material is being separated at the source. “One of the big barriers to entry for private composters has been the amount of money they need to invest to comply with MSW composting rules,” says Jaimez. “But we need something in-between – more stringent than the yard waste rules and less stringent than MSW composting rules.” Ginny Black of the MPCA says the goal is to have the rule revision process completed by year’s end “unless it gets stopped by some outside political force.”
Most of the organic material collected in Hennepin County is trucked to the county’s transfer station. After inspection, it is hauled to an organics composting site in Empire Township, which is operated by Minneapolis-based Specialized Environmental Technologies, Inc. (SET). The site is permitted to handle about 45,000 tons/year of yard trimmings and SSO, but current, built-out capacity is about 22,000 tons.
SET, Inc. is the operating company for seven facilities in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, including transfer stations for MSW and yard trimmings, and composting facilities. Its 37-acre site in Empire Township, located southeast of St. Paul, is the only facility taking SSO, which it began doing in 1997. The other sites compost only yard trimmings. To process SSO, SET has a 4-acre pad with a 3-foot thick clay lining, the only one of its kind in the Twin Cities. It ramped up organics composting over four years ago, in conjunction with Hennepin County (where much of the food waste is coming from) and Dakota County (where Empire Township is located).
Most of the food waste is collected by haulers servicing businesses, schools and an increasing number of residences in the metropolitan region. “We receive a lot of compactors from locations that are heavy with produce and other food waste,” says Ken Tritz, manager of operations. Its two primary hauler-customers are Waste Management and Republic Services, but the number of independent haulers offering organics collection continues to increase.
Last year, SET received and composted over 8,500 tons of food waste. About 100,000 tons of yard trimmings are processed annually at its seven sites, about 25,000 tons of that at Empire Township. The volume of food waste SET receives has doubled since Anne Ludvik joined the staff last spring as director of organics development. Food waste from the seven-county metro area has grown steadily from less than 1,500 tons several years ago, to an anticipated 17,000 tons for 2011, according to co-owner Kevin Nordby. Going forward, SET hopes to expand the amount it receives from western Twin Cities suburbs such as Chanhassen, where it is developing an organics composting demonstration project with the University of Minnesota Arboretum and Carver County. The growth of school district organics collection programs has also been a factor, Ludvik notes. There are more than 100 schools in Hennepin County alone with a program, and a few more in other metro counties.
The bulk of the food waste delivered to SET arrives in dump trucks, compactors and some packer trucks from school districts, according to Tritz. Yard trimmings and SSO are mixed using a Roto-Mix vertical mixer powered by a 160 HP tractor, handling about 20 yards at a time. The windrows, containing about 300 tons of material, are 10-feet wide, 8-feet high and 150-feet long; there are typically about eight on the pad at any one time. Material stays on the pad about a month until testing indicates it has met the EPA Part 503 PFRP standards. Minnesota’s cold winter climate has not slowed the composting process noticeably, adds Tritz. “The piles still heat up pretty well.”
Material is screened using two McCloskey trommels. SET has been running both screeners at once, speeding up the process of “cleaning up the rejects,” he says. “Running the material through the initial 1.5- by 1.5-inch screen definitely helps remove contaminants, such as plastics, and we’ve been able to capture additional organics. Before, the rejects were heavy with organics. We have been using the bigger screens now for the past three months.”
Ludvik has increased her “upfront education” with haulers and customers “so the feedstock has been continually cleaner,” she says. “We’ve been available to the haulers to work with their customers; and other businesses have contacted us to find out if organics collection will be feasible for them, and to help them find haulers.”
food waste arrives at compost site
Consumer education also has increased, helping to expand markets for the finished product. “One of the biggest obstacles had been not having enough end market outlets,” Nordby says. “Part of our process over the last year has been educating people as to the benefits of using compost. We’ve also had more interest from community gardens, and in bringing compost back to the schools; they like to close the loop and see what they have accomplished.” Other markets for SET compost include the Minnesota Department of Transportation, local landscapers and nurseries and homeowners.

Twin Cities-based Randy’s Sanitation collects residential, source separated food waste from eight cities in Hennepin County – Minnetonka, Wayzata, Orono, Loretto, Maple Plain, Medina, St. Bonifacious and Hanover. Most are on the outskirts of the Twin Cities metro area. Randy’s also collects organics from more than 50 commercial accounts and schools. Its total monthly tonnage is between 100 and 110 tons. Wayzata was the first city in the county to begin organics recycling, in April 2003. The city has provided recycling carts to each of its 1,240 dwelling units; an average of 86 percent participate monthly, according to Jim Wollschlager, Randy’s director of company operations. “It’s been over 80 percent since the program started.” Residents have the opportunity to reduce their cart size (from 90 gallons to a 60-gallon cart) and frequency (every other week) of garbage service to offset the added cost of collecting organics.
Randy's Sanitation collection vehicle
Why has the Wayzata’s organics program been a success? MPCA biologist Roberta Wirth gives some credit to “fantastic neighborhood involvement,” with many resident-volunteers available to explain and promote the program at block meetings. “Also, the cost-savings it provides, and the fact that they were offered a choice; the program wasn’t shoved down their throats,” adds Wirth, noting that the finished compost coming back to the neighborhoods also helps the program’s popularity.
Area residents’ acceptance of the program has been good, although “there is a faction of people who want to see organics collected with yard waste, but we don’t believe it would be a sustainable program doing it that way,” Wollschlager explains. “We don’t have year-round grass collection in Minnesota; it’s only five months of the year. And when you cocollect food waste with grass, there’s no way to know how much organics are in each load.”
Randy’s offers an incentive program for residential customers who maintain a 75 percent participation level in the organics pick-up program each month, in the form of gas cards and gift certificates for local merchants. But the major benefit to customers is that by removing organics from the waste stream, many can switch to biweekly garbage collection, saving money on their bills. About 30 to 40 percent of Randy’s customers are on biweekly service so far.
In May 2007, Minnetonka became the first Hennepin County suburb with “open hauling” (residents contract directly with their choice of three haulers) to offer organics recycling. “We wanted to find out if we could get the open-hauling community to offer this service, and see the economic realities,” says Dean Elstad, a public works employee and the city’s former recycling coordinator. “It’s worked out well, with at least two companies (Randy’s and Vintage Waste Systems) offering it, giving our residents the opportunity to choose.”
As an incentive, and to offset the cost of carts, the city paid haulers $25 for each new organics recycling customer, using a grant from the county. Randy’s now has more than 1,000 customers for weekly organics pick up in Minnetonka; 350 switched to biweekly garbage collection. Vintage has about 250, about 25 percent of its total customer load. “Both companies offer every-other-week garbage collection; that offsets the extra costs of organics so some residents are paying the same or a few dollars less,” Elstad notes. Participating residents have been able to lower their monthly garbage bill by downsizing to 22-gallon trash carts, from the usual 96-gallon size.

In July 2008, Hennepin County’s largest city, Minneapolis, began an organics pilot program in two neighborhoods with highly engaged neighborhood organizations. Of 3,104 possible households, almost 50 percent are participating in the program. In September 2010, an additional 2,054 dwellings on three garbage routes were invited to join the program. About 33 percent of these residents have signed up to participate, according to Susan Young, Minneapolis’ director of solid waste and recycling services.
The pilot program will continue for the foreseeable future, and whether it will be expanded to include more garbage routes will be determined by the city council, Young says. “Solid Waste and Recycling Services is an enterprise program, which means we have to operate within the fees and revenues we collect.” In addition to user fees, the city collects about $1.8 million a year from the sale of recyclables, which helps pay for the organics programs. The city would like to combine organics pick up with yard trimmings collection, if allowed by the state’s revised rules, she adds. Minneapolis collects yard trimmings weekly, from the first week of April to late November. “Running two routes is neither cost-efficient nor greenhouse neutral,” says Young.
Since September 2008, the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis has been participating in organics recycling, a collaboration between the city and a local nonprofit, Linden Hills Power & Light. Felicity Britton, the neighborhood group’s executive director, says one key was recruiting 120 residents to serve as block captains (the area encompasses 114 blocks). “We have 2,500 residences, from single family homes up to four-plexes, eligible for city pick up and 1,280 of those are participating – so, a little over 50 percent of residents have opted in.” The city dropped off 65-gallon green carts for organics, along with biodegradable bags. As of November 2010, the city haulers had collected 553 tons of organic material since the program began.
“The compost block captain part is really crucial,” Britton explains. “People believe people they trust rather than me saying ‘This is good idea, you should do it.’ If they don’t know me from Adam, having a neighbor deliver the same information has much more credibility.” Constant reminders, such as cart hangers, email reminders, and material distributed door to door by volunteers, are also important. “You can’t just put out one letter and expect to get an enormous sign-up and then do nothing,” she adds. “There is sometimes initial resistance because some people think it will be too much trouble. But once they do it, people are surprised how easy it is.”

Dan Emerson, based in the Twin City region, is a regular contributor to BioCycle.

Sidebar p. 22
AS part of a demonstration project that began in May 2010, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has been diverting about 10 tons/month of organic material from its waste stream. The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) has partnered with its concessions vendor, HMS Host, and ABM Janitorial to manage waste generated by three restaurants: Ike’s, French Meadow Bakery and Rock Bottom Brewery. The program “has caught on very well,” says Mark Wacek, MAC’s environmental administrator. “We haven’t run into any big surprises.” Wacek and others are analyzing data collected from the first few months of the program, with the goal of eventually expanding organics recycling to include all of the airport’s more than 40 food-serving establishments.
The airport has been saving about $565/month in tipping fees, which is less than the cost of collecting and recycling the organics. “We’re spending about $800 a month on compostable bags,” Wacek notes. “But, we’re optimistic the price of the bags will come down as these programs become more common. We’re certainly hoping to take advantage of economies of scale as we expand.”
Sidebar p. 24
ONE of the most successful organics recycling programs in Minnesota is run by the Minneapolis Public School (MPS) system. In the 2009-10 school year, MPS began organics recycling at 30 of its 52 schools. Waste audits were conducted at all sites, according to Meredith Fox, special assistant to the MPS chief of business operations, and green coordinator. About 110 tons of organics (food waste, restroom paper towels, etc.) were recovered, along with almost 400 tons of mixed items (paper, cans, glass, plastic) – an 18.4 percent total recycling rate. “At only half-way through the 2010-11 school year, we have recycled almost the same amount or organics (106 tons) as we did all of last year and are on track to keep our mixed recycling rate steady,” Fox reports. “At this point in the year, it looks like we are generating less waste overall and we have improved our total recycling rate to almost 25 percent of the total waste stream.” Operating expenses did not increase, despite the significantly enhanced recycling system.
To help encourage participation, a committee of teachers and parent volunteers created a “Let’s R.O.T. (Reduce our Trash)” marketing program. About half of the schools are participating. “We want to expand that, but one thing we’ve found is that if you don’t have an adult at each site who is actively managing the program and getting it up and running, it is very difficult to make this happen,” says Fox. “We’ve done a nice job of providing infrastructure at the district level for schools who want to participate, but they’ve got to want to take the ball and run with it. We’ve picked the low-hanging fruit and now we’re figuring out how to bring volunteer resources into the schools.”
One step that has paid off was requiring haulers to carry scales on their trucks to weigh and note the amount of organics collected at each stop. “We can get very specific on the program results,” she explains. “Also, on our website we have ‘green reports’ posted on trash, recycling and organics, along with data on utilities usage so schools can track how they are doing over time.”
The MPS also has benefitted from implementing a resource management contract during the 2008-09 school year. Trash, mixed recycling and organics recycling are bundled into one contract, requiring the hauler to play a more active role in tracking performance, promoting recycling and achieving an overall reduction in the amount of waste produced. “The incentive for the hauler is that we split any cost savings that are achieved at the end of the year,” says Fox. Cost savings are achieved either through “right-sizing” the program, e.g., fewer dumpsters, fewer pick-ups, or increasing recycling, tapping into local tax incentives.

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