Minneapolis plans for expanded organics recycling

At the county's insistence, a pilot program may go citywide by next year

Minneapolis is laying the groundwork to expand organics recycling citywide by next year, although the city likely won’t meet a Jan. 1 deadline set by Hennepin County.

It would cost at least $3.5 million per year to run the program, David Herberholz, the city’s director of solid waste and recycling, told a City Council committee Tuesday. For Minneapolis residents, that translates to a hike in the $17.60 monthly fee for waste and recycling services.

Expect to pay $19.98–$20.85 per month when the new service rolls out next year. If the city allows commingling of food scraps and yard waste in one bin, the charge could reach $20.12–$21.69 per month.

Residents who sign up for the program would get a new cart — separate from their trash and recycling carts — where they’d place organic waste that can be turned into compost. Herberholz estimated the one-time cost of the new carts and the additional trucks required to handle them at about $5.2 million.

Ward 1 City Council Member Kevin Reich, who chairs the Transportation and Public Works Committee that heard the report, said he planned to get a draft ordinance in front of the full council within two months. That ordinance could include language to include what Reich called “bigger targets” in organics recycling: the multi-unit residential, commercial and industrial buildings that do not get city trash pickup.

In February, Hennepin County commissioners withdrew a longstanding request to increase trash burning at the downtown Minneapolis incinerator, known as HERC, but in exchange directed large cities to add organics collection by the start of 2015. If Minneapolis doesn’t comply, the county may withhold the $864,000 per year in state funding for recycling it passes on to the city.

Herberholz said there was no way the city would be ready by Jan. 1, and suggested the spring or summer of 2015 was more likely.

“We’ll work with the county to keep the momentum going on this, but we need to be and they need to be practical on when it can be introduced, just because of the need to acquire trucks, to do routing, to work with our contractor,” he said, referring to Minneapolis Refuse Incorporated, or MRI, the contractor that handles waste collection in about half the city.

Herberholz’s department is expected to require 11 additional trucks and 21 additional employees when the program launches. MRI could add 10 new trucks and 16 employees, according to a report from city staff.

In 2013, about 14 percent of all waste produced in Minneapolis was composted. Adding organics recycling citywide is expected to raise that rate by just 5 percent, diverting 7,913 tons of waste from the incinerator each year.

That’s because food waste only makes up about 2 percent of all organic waste collected for composting. The rest is yard waste — the leaves, grass clippings and brush residents can set out for collection from spring to fall.

The food scraps come from households in eight neighborhoods were Minneapolis is piloting an organics recycling program. Participation in those neighborhoods ranges from 30 percent to 50 percent, Herberholz said.

A similar participation rate is expected when the program goes citywide, in part because not everyone wants to do the extra sorting of his or her garbage, he said. There’s also the smell factor when kitchen scraps aren’t sealed inside a plastic garbage bag.

At launch, though, the city will be targeting only eager recyclers. Initially, organics recycling will be offered on an opt-in basis only.

Herberholz said composting facilities want high-quality material unspoiled by inorganic waste, and one lesson from a recent switch to single-sort recycling is that not every Minneapolis resident follows the rules. Despite a city campaign to discourage the practice, plastic bags that can foul waste-sorting machines are still ending up in Minneapolis recycling.

“No. 1 is the quality control,” Herberholz said. “We’ve learned enough from just our recycling program that not 100 percent of the city has bought into the one-sort recycling program, and that’s pretty easy to participate in and keep the product fairly clean.”

There’s another quality control issue for Minneapolis: under quarantine for the emerald ash borer, it can’t easily mix yard waste and food scraps. Tree material must be ground up before it’s transported out of the county to prevent the spread of the invasive pest, which is why the commingling option for organics recycling comes with a higher price tag.

City staff explored three other scenarios in their report, including doing nothing, which would put the funds from Hennepin County at risk. Placing food waste in a separate blue bag to be disposed of alongside either garbage or yard waste would be even more expensive than the options favored by city staff.