Everyday Gardener: Compostables: We toss em, but what happens next?

Do you have a place at your house where you save each week’s worth of stinky food scraps, coffee grounds and filtaers, old teabags, empty pizza boxes, used Kleenex and paper towels, and everything else that’s compostable in Minneapolis? Yeah, so do we.

And every week, since the fall of 2008 when our Linden Hills neighborhood launched its curbside organics recycling program, I’ve heard the special organics truck rumble up and wondered things like: Where does that stuff go? How is it turned into compost? Can we get some once it’s ready?

I always remind myself to remember to check these things out, and then I forget — again. This went on and on until recently, when I read in the Feb. 6 Southwest Journal that our neighborhood’s composting program inspired legislation to promote organics composting statewide. Wow! Finally, I made some calls. Thanks to the help of Felicity Britton, executive director of Linden Hills Power and Light, the nonprofit that got our composting project started, and Anne Ludvik, director of organics development at SET, I have some answers to share.  

Road trip

Those special trucks take our compostables (known as Source Separated Organics) to the Hennepin County Recycling Center and Transfer Station in Brooklyn Park. This is the place where all organics go in Hennepin County and haulers are charged a “tipping fee” of $15 per ton. All loads are eyeballed for contaminants like plastic. If everything looks good, it is scooped up again and put onto a much larger transfer truck for the journey to SET. That’s Specialized Environmental Technologies’ (SET) composting facility in Empire Township.

Located just off Highway 52 and County Road 46 in Rosemount, the facility is a bit of a hike from the transfer station. But for now, Britton says, the non eco-friendly travel is necessary to keep costs down. That’s because tipping fees normally run anywhere from $40 to $47 per ton. It’s a city subsidy aimed at encouraging organics recycling that keeps the transfer station fee at the low $15 per ton rate. So, for now, the two-stop approach will continue to be a part of the process.

Turning waste into black gold

Compost is often referred to as “black gold” because it does so much to boost soil health when added to gardens, even on a semi-regular basis. In order to become compost, though, our smelly bags of acceptably organic waste must be transformed into sweet-smelling loam. SET uses what’s known as the aerated static pile method for composting, which means they spread the waste out into long, narrow piles and then pump air into the piles to maintain aerobic (decomposition of organic material using oxygen) conditions.

Heat, produced by microbes breaking down the organic matter, plays a key role in the composting process. To ensure that harmful pathogens are killed, the piles are kept between 131 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit for several weeks. Once it has cooled, the compost is screened to remove any contaminants. All in all, it takes about six to nine months to produce a finished batch, and during the time the piles are turned repeatedly.

Closing the loop
So how do we get our hands on some of this fabulous compost? If you live in Linden Hills, you can help yourself to a bucket or two at the annual neighborhood festival in May. East Calhoun, which started its own curbside organics recycling program last year, may also have a venue for offering a wee bit to neighbors for free. Mostly though, if you want some compost, you need to buy it. SET takes orders. But if you order through Linden Hills Power and Light, a portion of your payment goes to support their efforts, which is a good thing.

Spring is a great time to apply compost. Before you order, it’s best to figure out (roughly) how much to buy. Linden Hills Power and Light has a handy calculator on their website: lhpowerandlight.org/article.aspx?articleid=6110. The contact information for ordering is on that same page. Or send an email to: info@lhpowerandlight.org.

Compost is delivered by the yard, an amount that isn’t as big as it looks once you start hauling it around the yard. But I can say from experience that two or three yards might freak you out the first time that pile gets dumped on your driveway. For starters, consider going in on a yard or two with a couple of neighbors who live close by and have wheelbarrows. Know, though, that you do save money by ordering more at one time since a lot of the fee is in the delivery charge.

Why bother?

In a world that often seems to be “going to hell in a handbasket,” as my grandma used to say, it’s hard to imagine how curbside organics collection can make a difference. But when you consider that Minneapolis households produce over 100,000 tons of garbage each year, and that the burning of organic matter like food scraps contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of hopeful possibility when scraping the scraps off plates into the biodegradable bag we plop into our tall, skinny green cart each week.

A little over three years into this program and currently 1,280 Linden Hills neighbors are recycling about 5 tons of organics each week. Seward will soon be launching its own organics recycling program, and there is real talk of expanding the effort citywide in the near future. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a lot better about having to take out the trash?

Meleah Maynard is a writer and Master Gardener. Email her a question or check out her blog at everydaygardener.com.

Zoning out
You’ve probably heard that the USDA recently released a new version of this map, which helps gardeners and researchers understand which plants can survive in different parts of the country.

In truth, the map doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. It’s a little warmer than it used to be. But this teensy bit of warmth doesn’t mean that us northern gardeners can now reliably plant Japanese maples, butterfly bush or other Zone 5 plants we love.

On a positive note, the fact that you can now type in your zip code to get your Zone is pretty cool. If you want to try that, go here: http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb. And by the way, word has it that there is some part of the Twin Cities area that has gone from Zone 4 to Zone 5. If you’re in that lucky, magical zip code, please let me know. I’m dying to know where this Bermuda Triangle of warmth is located.

Compost safety
As you may know, both good and bad bacteria can be found in compost and potting soil. There have been several stories over the last year or so about gardeners getting sick after handling compost and/or potting soil with bare hands.  

While it is absolutely true that the likelihood of becoming ill from compost and potting soil is small, it could happen. So it’s best to always wear gloves when handling them — especially if you have any open cuts or you bite your nails to the quick like I do.

Help protect yourself from inhaling bacteria in compost and potting soil by turning your head away and holding your breath for a sec when you open a fresh bag. And try not to pot up plants in confined spaces. Also, if you’re turning a dusty, dry compost heap, give the pile a little spray of water first to keep down airborne particles.

My blog
I know it’ll still be awhile before we can start digging in the dirt. But it always feels like spring’s not far off when it comes time for me to start writing my column again. I miss it in the winter. So this year I finally got my blog up and going and I blabbed about gardening there. Oh, yeah, I’ve had a blog for a long time, but I hardly ever posted to it. Now, though, I’m happy to say that I am posting regularly and it’s been really fun. If you’d like to check it out, go to: everydaygardener.com. And, as always, you can email questions to me at meleah@everydaygardener.com.