Increase in compost collection could nearly halve county waste

By Adair Andre, U.S. PIRG Zero Waste Fellow and Timothy Schaefer, Director of Environment Minnesota

More than 31 percent of what ends up in Minnesota’s trash is organic waste that can and should be composted. This includes food waste and yard waste, as well as certified compostable containers and some paper products. However, Hennepin County only collects around 12 percent of its organic waste. Unfortunately, this inefficiency has put the county behind on its goal of recycling or composting 75 percent of its waste by 2020. A recent report released by the Environment Minnesota Research and Policy Center shows that Hennepin County only recycles or composts 37 percent of what it can. That means 63 percent of what’s thrown away goes to a landfill or incinerator.

Recently, Hennepin County got serious about reducing waste. The Board of Commissioners approved a county-wide increase in organics collection for businesses and residents. By 2020, businesses that generate large amounts of food waste will be required to compost, and by 2022 all cities in the county have to arrange for collection or nearby drop-off for their residents. If all of this compost is collected and reused, it could keep enough waste from landfills and incinerators to bring the county recycling and compost rate up to 56 percent in 2022.

Besides reducing waste, compost turns trash into a resource that can curb climate change. Our conventional methods of disposal — landfills and incinerators — release methane into the environment or create air pollution by burning toxins. Composting, also known as organics recycling, happens in a closed facility that captures the released gases more effectively for energy use. Additionally, compost use on fields more effectively sequesters carbon than using a typical manure fertilizer, thereby reducing greenhouse gases. With compost, the end product is a usable, valuable resource that closes the food waste loop by providing fertile soil for gardens, parks, or agriculture. The common alternative — chemical fertilizers — causes incredible amounts of environmental damage, from increases in greenhouse gases to depletion of oxygen in waterways. With compost as an alternative, we can reduce the environmental impact of fertilizers.

Minnesota’s waste measurement and reduction goals are among the best in the country. I am proud to live in a state that prioritizes both resourcefulness and environmental and public health. Hennepin County is at the forefront of this effort, and striving to get better, and I hope to see the rest of Minnesota follow its lead soon.