Otter Tail County uses large-scale food waste composting to free up landfill space
The head of the pilot program in Otter Tail County said people "have a hunger" to make a difference in keeping food waste out of landfills.
FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Reservations people might have about recycling food waste into compost are almost universal: Will it be a lot of work? Will it even have an impact? Will it smell?
Two pilot programs that keep a substantial amount of food waste out of landfills are putting many of those concerns to rest in Otter Tail County, according to the person who started them last March.
Cedar Walters, education officer at the county’s solid waste department, said coaching and ongoing support were needed for those who hadn’t done something like it before.
“Most of them found that once they got going, all that nervousness about the unknown did kind of fade away,” Walters said.
The organics recycling program focuses on schools, hospitals, health care facilities and restaurants — places that generate large amounts of food waste.
A backyard composting program helps individuals and families reduce waste by composting food scraps at home.
With the help of grant money, the two programs have kept more than 216,000 pounds, or 108 tons, of food waste and other compostable matter out of the garbage.
That’s a lot of scraps from fruits and vegetables, bread, pasta, meat, fish, bones, dairy products, egg cartons, napkins and paper towels recycled in less than a year.
Anywhere from 30-40% of the food produced in this country is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That spoiled food, food scraps and other compostable matter makes up 25-30% of the waste stream, Walters said, the single largest component of what is going into landfills.
Programs that compost those items are catching on across Minnesota and other parts of the country.
“People are becoming more aware of this issue, and they have a hunger to try and do something about it,” Walters said.
The city of Fargo dabbled in this kind of recycling in the past, and both Fargo and Moorhead officials said they are looking into whether it is feasible for them in the future.
The focus for Fargo in recent years has been on capturing landfill gases to use as renewable energy.
Scott Olson, solid utility director for Fargo, said about 30% of the methane and carbon dioxide that comes off the landfill is captured.
“While I'm proud of our renewable energies program, … we know there's always something else out there that we could probably try and implement,” Olson said.
A 'measurable impact'
Walters said getting the two food waste composting programs started in Otter Tail County was a “passion project” for her.
A near $200,000 grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency helped make it possible.
Walters initially recruited large waste generators at 22 sites in multiple communities across Otter Tail County.
The grant funding paid for carts, bins and compostable bags to help people at those sites separate food waste from trash.
The process doesn’t generate more waste and involves an additional bin for those scraps. Any odor generated is the same as when food waste is thrown in the trash.
“It's bagged, it's contained. ... It's just separating it out just like you would with recycling,” Walters said.
Ryan Carlson, owner of Stella’s Restaurant in Battle Lake, said the environmental impact alone was enough for him to get on board, but other benefits have followed, including emptying garbage cans less often and using fewer garbage bags.
While most locations have caught on, Walters said, it hasn’t gone smoothly at every pilot site.
“You get into a school with 1,000 students, they’ve all got to know how to do it well enough for it to work,” she said.
Food waste is picked up each week at the participating sites, and the grant covers the cost of hauling it to the Glacial Ridge compost facility near Hoffman, Minnesota, 35 miles southeast of Fergus Falls.
A big part of what makes this project possible for Otter Tail County is the close proximity to that compost facility operated by neighboring Pope and Douglas counties.
There’s no such facility near the Fargo-Moorhead metro area.
At Glacial Ridge, the food waste and compostable matter is mixed with yard waste in aerated bunkers, where it decomposes quickly.
The backyard composting program is also going strong, Walters said.
Composting bins were provided to approximately 500 Otter Tail County residents, who together have diverted an estimated 60,000 pounds of food waste from landfills.
“They don't want to be part of the problem anymore. They want to feel like they're actually having a measurable impact,” Walters said.