To cut trash, compost

Southwest residents find they reduce waste by adding composting

The counters are clear of junk paper, and the plastic odds and ends that litter a typical house are nowhere to be found. The recycling is organized by type in the recycling bin, and a jar of bottle caps sit by the sink waiting for the next deposit at Aveda Salon. Where a trash can full of garbage should stand hangs a single Target bag of waste.

The reason for the clutter-free, organized house of Sarah Sponheim — not easy with three teenage boys — is the small compost bin sitting on a counter.

Sponheim’s house, one stop on the June 28 Tour de Compost through the East Calhoun neighborhood, is a perfect example of what composting can do to help center a home. As Sponheim pointed out little tips for reducing waste to  fellow members of Minneapolis Waste Watchers during the tour, she said her biggest helps stood on the counter and resided in her backyard.

Leading the charge into the back, Sponheim pointed to the far corner of her yard. Thick, thriving plants and flowers and dark, rich soil obscured the view of two open bins in the back — composting bins. Barely visible despite their size, they blend in with the garden. Aside from her green thumb, they and the nutrient-rich soil they create are the reason her garden is so rich in appearance.

“It costs nothing to start a compost pile in your backyard. You just need space,” said Felicity Britton, executive director of Linden Hills Power & Light, the neighborhood-based environmental nonprofit.

In 2010, Minneapolis started a two-year pilot of curbside composting in the Linden Hills, East Calhoun and Hiawatha neighborhoods. The city provides a green, 65-gallon organics cart and weekly pickup for free.

Organic waste is taken to an Empire Township composting site where it is turned into nutrient-rich soil. Linden Hills alone prevents five tons of municipal waste from going to the Minneapolis incinerator, simply by composting.

“The only things that can’t be composted are broken glass … rubber, latex and dirty foil,” Britton said. “You take out recycling and at the end of the week, for a family of four, you can have less than a Target bag of trash.”

Since joining the city’s curbside composting program, Sponheim and her family traded in their 94-gallon garbage cart for a much smaller 22-gallon cart, cutting down their monthly disposal fee.

“I think the big green composting cart next to a small black cart really sends a message,” Sponheim said.

Minneapolis waste goes to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) incinerator, rather than the landfill. Britton said the system is set up to create electricity and energy while it disposes of leftover products.

“When [the HERC] has wet food waste in there it doesn’t burn well, and it takes more energy to burn the waste than the system is creating,” Britton said. “By taking the compost out of the burner and putting it back into the recycling system you reduce the need for synthetic pesticide and fertilizers with the creation of top soil and increase the efficiency of the incinerator.”

The soil created through composting is higher in nutrients and is often used in gardens and farms and by landscapers as a natural fertilizer and nutrient enhancer, Britton added.

“A carrot from 20 years ago had more nutrients because the soil had more nutrients,” she said. “By composting you are completing a natural cycle and returning nutrients to the soil.”

Added Sponheim: “You are converting material that has grown from the soil back into soil, returning organic material and completing the lifecycle.”

Sponheim’s was just one of four houses visited during the Tour de Compost. People compost for many reasons in many different ways.

Like Sponheim, Kate Sanderson and her family also have both a backyard composting bin and the city’s green bin. Inside the house, Sanderson has a countertop compost container, and two small bins for recycling and garbage. Their backyard system consists of a tumbler bin that turns, so once waste is placed inside, sifting it isn’t necessary.

“When we just had the black bin and [saw] the amount of stuff [we] put into it, it’s kind of scary how much [trash] you produce every week,” Sanderson said. “It’s nice to think we can bring that down. The compost breaks down to incredibly small amounts.”

Instead of a trash bag, Kathy Scoggin and her family fill a compost bag once a week.

Scoggin puts food scraps into Tupperware, freezes them until trash day and then does a last minute dump.

There is no regular garbage in her kitchen. Instead it’s halfway down her basement steps, and the recycling is out the back door. There’s a black stand-up compost bin in her backyard. Compost is shoveled out through a hatch in the bottom.

“I am concerned with trash,” Scoggin said. “I like the idea that I can turn compost into my own soil for my own gardening uses.

“I’ve done it since I was a hippie in the ’70s — that’s probably the real reason,” she added.

Rebekah Leonhart and her family have two recycling bins from the city and two open compost bins in the backyard for vegetables and fruits.

“I’m trying to use less,” Leonhart said. “Composting seems like a way for less stuff to end up in landfills and to be reused and made into new things. I do it to save resources because they are really limited.”

Stop Trashing the Climate, a report prepared by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and Eco-Cycle, puts the importance of composting into perspective.

The reports authors write that, in one year, the U.S. disposes of 170 million tons of municipal solid waste such as papers, metals, plastic and food scraps in landfills and incinerators. For each ton of municipal waste, 71 tons of waste is created in the refining, fashioning and destruction of resources into a product that will simply be burned or buried.

 “We only have one planet, we only have finite resources,” Britton said. “Why waste them?”