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For Good Soil’s Sake, Prioritize Composting

May 28, 2014 By Michelle Einstein, Macalester College

Today Minnesota 2020 continues a series of columns focusing on agricultural and biodiversity issues. This is part of a continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Geography Department and its students.

There’s a place for your used tissues, your banana peels, and the scraps left from last night’s spaghetti dinner: the compost bin. Approximately one-quarter of what we put in the garbage is compostable, including food scraps and items like paper towels and egg cartons, according to Eureka Recycling. Statewide, this amounts to 875,000 tons of unnecessary waste annually.

Within the past several years, composting has increased in popularity in the Twin Cities. The Minneapolis Food Council estimates that about 10 to 20% of residents currently compost and interest continues to grow.

 

 

Many groups are advocating for citywide composting programs. The Make Dirt Not Waste campaign is currently working to pass a 2016 streamlined waste plan for Saint Paul, including curbside collection and upstream waste reduction. In addition, the city has a zero waste by 2020 goal. (Minnesota as a whole aligns with the Urban Environmental Accords, which aim for zero waste by 2040.) Curbside collection programs are catching on throughout the metro area and more slowly in Greater Minnesota, in part because of counties offsetting of costs to encourage residents to compost. However, there are still ways that the Twin Cities can move forward.

Why Compost?
Composting reduces our carbon footprint. Waste sent to landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is up to 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In fact, landfills are the single largest methane producers in the US. Composting is a methane-free process that diverts these greenhouse gases from our atmosphere.

This diverted waste stream helps home gardeners use environmentally friendly materials to grow plants, flowers, and vegetables. Some of these materials can also be used on Minnesota’s organic and commercial farms, although household waste isn’t ideal for most commercial scale composting.

Still, with US soils eroding 17 times as quickly as they can be regrown, according to Eureka Recycling, we need to examine every way possible to foster healthier soil that retains higher levels of water and nutrients.

In addition to these environmental benefits, composting forces individuals to think about the waste they produce, helping build an understanding about where food comes from and where our waste ends up. Composting connects individuals to the land.

As more cities across the nation increase their collection efforts, we can take note of some key lessons.

1. Expand infrastructure.
Only two commercial composting centers in the Twin Cities metro area have the capacity to compost large amounts of food. Despite the popularity of pilot programs ¬– more than half of Linden Hills households participate – neither St. Paul nor Minneapolis have implemented a citywide program, in part because of the lack of infrastructure. More composting sites, including commercial composting centers, neighborhood collectives, and backyard bins, are a primary need in the process. We also need to expand curbside pick-up, especially in low-income communities.

2. Simplify composting.
In order for composting to really catch on in the Twin Cities, it needs to be simple. Offering composting training and providing residents with free kitchen composting pails are two easy ways to encourage community involvement and enthusiasm.

3. Make it visible.
By increasing the visibility of composting, it will become commonplace in our community. Government buildings and facilities in particular should offer compost waste bins in addition to recycling and landfill cans. If composting is consistently an option, people will become accustomed to sorting their waste. Another possibility is encouraging households to put their compost heaps in their front yards, rather than their backyards. Social diffusion is powerful - individuals are more likely to compost if they see their neighbors doing it.

4. Encourage businesses to compost.
While it is important to encourage households and individuals to compost, efforts should also focus on businesses and restaurants, which can produce a much higher volume of food scraps and other bio-waste. Organizations like Minnesota Waste Wise provide environmental sustainability consulting to help optimize a business’s sustainability efforts. Although these services are low-cost (and sometimes free) they remain underutilized.

5. Bring composting to schools.
Teaching young Minnesotans about their food has bolstered participation in composting. Further, it fosters a deeper understanding of environmental stewardship. We need a future of passionate young people who understand their connection to the land.

Success will not happen overnight. However, the environmental and social benefits of composting are worthy of our focus. Waste management needs to be a priority for legislators and community groups. By offering an easy to use system, investing in infrastructure, and teaching Minnesotans what goes into the compost bin, we will be on our way to a waste-wise city.

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