Back to the Nov-Dec 2020 issue

Organics Recycling Is a Hit in Columbia Heights

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

A resident holding a happy bunny
A resident says her bunny gets all the table scraps he can eat, and the rest go into the compost basket.

In Columbia Heights, motivated residents used to drive their food waste — fruit and vegetable scraps, used pizza boxes, and spoiled leftovers — in five-gallon pails to the city’s recycling center once a week as part of the city’s organics drop-off program.

But only 200-something residents participated in the 2-year-old program. Some couldn’t find the time to do a drop-off. Others weren’t thrilled with the idea of transporting spoiled food to the recycling facility in their own car.

“The program had leveled off,” says Jesse Davies, the city’s refuse coordinator, who recently led a charge to expand Columbia Heights’ yard waste and organics program. “People dropping off their organics also kept asking, ‘When can we get our organics picked up at our house?’”

At around the same time, the city’s contract with its garbage haulers had ended, and the City Council put out a request for proposal (RFP) for haulers. Hoping to make a big impact, Davies decided it was a prime opportunity to refine the way the city handled its yard waste and organics.

“The timing seemed right,” he says. Around 30% of what Minnesotans throw away is food waste. “But instead of throwing organics into the landfill,” Davies says, “why not make something of it, like compost?”

Ultimately, Davies spearheaded an effort to provide interested residents with a new, dual-purpose cart to use for both yard waste and organics. The carts make it easier to compost, helping the environment. The carts also help prevent pipes from clogging by keeping food out of drains, and they’re saving the city money.

The program was the winner of the League of Minnesota Cities’ 2020 Sustainable City Award, which is given to one Minnesota GreenStep Cities participant each year.

A mission to reduce waste

In 2017, Davies, who regularly attends workshops put on by organizations like the Minnesota Composting Council, heard about another city that had recently started providing a dual-purpose cart combining yard waste and organics. He believed the same could work in Columbia Heights.

Combining yard waste and organics was key because separate bins would have brought residents’ total bin number to four, taking into account trash and recycling. Separate bins also would have required an additional truck and worker. “It would have been hugely inefficient,” Davies says. “A combined bin is maximum efficiency.”

So, he drew up a proposal for a program featuring a dual-purpose bin and presented it to the City Council. Councilmembers were enthusiastic and included organics pick-up in their RFP process. Soon, planning for the enhanced program got underway — deciding what kind of bins to buy, creating perks to add to the program, and developing a marketing strategy. “

Jesse has been phenomenal at finding homes for things” that would have gone to the landfill, says Councilmember Connie Buesgens. “The more we can recycle, or even cut back, the better. It’s really important to reduce as much waste as we can.”

Making it easy for residents

The city decided to give residents who signed up for the program a one-time kitchen kit that includes a small compost basket to put in their kitchen and then dump into the larger, dual-purpose bin, a roll of bags, and instructions for proper organics recycling.

“Providing the kit had a dual purpose,” Davies says. “It’s a way of encouraging sign-ups, and it also helps people get a new routine started in their home. You might sign up for the program, but then you just never get around to getting a basket for your kitchen.”

To encourage participation, Davies also arranged for residents who requested a yard waste/organics cart to receive a free bag of compost from the Minnesota Composting Council.

Starting in 2018, Columbia Heights’ residents — in single-family homes as well as townhouses and condos — could choose to pay the city $2.50 a month for the organics and yard waste bin. Like garbage and recycling fees, the charge is added to residents’ monthly water bill.

Residents fill their bin with tree clippings and food waste they collect across the course of the week, and then a hauler picks up the materials and takes them to a facility to be turned into compost. The program has allowed Columbia Heights to extend its yard waste season from only April through November to the whole year. In winter, however, the yard waste and organics are picked up only every other week.

Promoting the program

Davies started getting the word out about the new program by letting the 200-odd residents who were dropping off their organics know about the enhanced program, and they signed up. “We did quite a bit of outreach,” Davies says.

Word of the program then spread quickly through the community as those residents spoke with their neighbors, and people around town began to notice the bins marked with a chart of approved organic items.

Volunteers fill bags of compost
Local student volunteers fill bags of compost and sell them to residents to raise money for student scholarships.

Residents were also used to placing organic material on the curb for pick-up through the city’s 30-year-old curbside yard waste program, which helped with buy-in for the new program. Davies spoke to the local Lions Club and other groups in town about the program’s benefits as well.

Residents call the city to sign up. Buesgens says that when the city upgrades its technology, offering an online sign-up option for the program also makes sense. Once a resident signs up, the bin and kit are dropped off at their home.

City Council President Nick Novitsky signed up as soon as he could. A past Lions Club president, Novitsky also promoted the new program to the club. “When I saw how well the program was working, I actively started pushing it wherever I went,” he says.

Savings on trash

For residents, the cost savings component was the most appealing thing about the new program. By filling their new organics and yard waste cart with items that before would have ended up in the trash, many residents were able to downgrade their trash bin from a 90-gallon container to a 60-gallon one, saving $4 a month. “That was the main selling point,” Davies says.

The program has also saved the city money. It costs $70 a ton to get rid of the city’s 7,000 tons of trash a year. Every ton that can be switched from the trash to recycling or compost makes a huge difference to the bottom line. “We’ve saved a considerable amount of money,” says Davies.

In 2018, the program’s first year, more than 1,000 households signed up for the curbside yard waste/organics pick-up. Households recycled 1,090 tons of yard waste co-mingled with food organics (an estimated 100 tons of organics) for composting. Trash disposal was also reduced by over 500 tons, saving more than $35,000, while general recycling increased by 5%.

In 2019, households composted 1,602 tons of yard waste along with about 184 tons of food organics. Currently, around 1,350 households participate in the yard waste and organics recycling program.

“Residents love the program,” says Buesgens.

Completing the circle

One of the challenges in implementing the program has been space. In Columbia Heights, where a majority of homes sit on small lots and back up to alleyways, the carts can sometimes feel crammed.

Davies suggests other cities that want to start a yard waste and organics program consider purchasing smaller bins. He recommends joining the Minnesota Composting Council as well and attending their workshops. Also important, he says, is to periodically send helpful information to residents participating in the program to encourage them to keep going.

“Keep it simple,” he says. “I tell them to concentrate on meat, dairy, and pizza boxes and paper napkins. Paper egg cartons are easy to remember to throw in too. And even if some family members keep throwing food in the trash, I tell people not to give up. Eventually they will get on board.”

Composting has also allowed the city to partner with new groups. Davies wanted residents participating in the program to be able to continue to receive compost after their first complimentary bag. So, the city partnered with the nearby Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux composting facility, which donates compost to the Columbia Heights High School Key Club, an organization that focuses on volunteering. The Key Club fills bags and sells them to residents to support student scholarships.

And while the compost isn’t the same compost that came from residents’ organics — that compost is produced at another facility — it’s symbolic. “We’re completing the circle,” Davies says.

Novitsky has been thrilled with the program and encourages other interested cities to start one of their own.

“You have to give it chance,” he says. “You’ll see the benefits. It’s possible to make a difference one house at a time.”

Deborah Lynn Blumberg is a freelance writer.