Dissecting the costs of organics recycling

Share this:
August 27, 2014
By: David Brauer
David Brauer

So is the city’s new curbside food-waste collection program a massively expensive feel-good exercise?

Cam Winton, the Republican shadow mayor of Minneapolis, said as much in a recent Star Tribune op-ed. Noting an $8 million cost to “recycle organic materials like food scraps and drier lint,” Winton suggested the $40-a-year fee every household might pay would divert money from “school supplies,” “a bike helmet for a budding bicyclist,” or “healthy food from the farmers market.”

OK, that’s laying it on a little thick: Cam patronizes a farmers market I’ve helped run in Fulton, where we’ve asked patrons to separate out compostable food and paper waste for years — and paid to have it processed.  When you’re into healthy food, the last thing you want to do is what we do now: send it to the downtown garbage burner where, mixed with other trash, it becomes toxic ash.

But Cam is asking appropriate questions about economics. Curbside organics collection is a big gulp — actually $9.2 million to $9.4 million in the first year, according to David Herberholz, the city’s solid waste and recycling director. That’s about as much as Minneapolis spends on street repair (though to be fair, $5 million of the $9 million-plus is start-up capital costs like trucks and new green collection carts.)

Based on pilot programs in neighborhoods like Linden Hills, Herberholz estimates 40 percent of the city will request the green carts in Year One, diverting about 8,000 tons of compostables, or about 16 million pounds.

That sounds like a lot, but it represents only 5 percent of the waste stream. If you want to take the harshest view of the numbers, taxpayers will pay about $1,162 a ton for the organics they conscientiously divert.

While the $3.50-a-month fee might not literally cause kids to drop out of school, it isn’t progressive taxation (poor families will pay as much as rich). That’s how garbage and water fees work, so it’s not unprecedented. However, unlike those, households that don’t opt-in to organics will pay exactly the same price that participants do.

So why swallow this pill?

First, the scary numbers look a lot better after year one. Operating costs are less than half the initial $9 million, settling somewhere between what Minneapolis now spends on recycables and yard waste.

Second, participation should go up, meaning more diversion from the burner. Some of us are old enough to remember when recycling was “weird,” but now it feels gross to actually toss that glass bottle in the trash. At our farmers markets, it didn’t take long for people to become habituated to throwing napkins, paper, and food waste into the compostable bin — which by the way, is far bigger than our recycling or trash bins now. People may be able to drop down from a large to small trash cart, saving almost all of the new organics fee.

Because people need time to learn, the “opt-in” system makes sense. Yes, the city has to pay a Rosemount processor about as much to turn organics into soil as it pays Hennepin County to burn trash, but if that organics stream is contaminated, Rosemount will either reject it or charge us more. The last thing you want is participants who use their green bin as another wastebasket; better to start out with the truly committed. But because this will benefit the entire city, everyone should pay.

While Winton tweaked the mayor for her “extravagance,” he didn’t mention that her hands were effectively tied. You may remember Minneapolis and Hennepin County got into a spat over expanding the garbage burner; the city, which controls the burner permit, eventually denied permission. The county then basically forced the city to institute organics recycling ASAP or lose a nearly $900,000 county grant.

You might argue the city should eat the $900K instead of spending $9 million, but there is also the state goal of a 15 percent diversion goal by 2030, triple Minneapolis’ first-year estimate. This isn’t going away, so we’d best get going.

Not even Winton can countenance continuing to burn compostable material; he holds out the technological fix of a “modern landfill and capturing the resulting methane for energy.” It’s worth noting that the state doesn’t even allow yard waste in landfills; Hennepin County, much less Minneapolis, really doesn’t have this option. And is it really better to keep mixing nutrient-rich material with trash and capture its decay, or return nutrients to the soil to sustain us all, as Minneapolis will do?

Winton has a point that the environmental benefits are offset by a fourth set of collection trucks rumbling through the city; Herberholz says he’d love to collect organics with the also-compostable yard waste, but the emerald ash borer prevents the two streams from being mixed.

Still, it’s worth remembering that every pound diverted from the garbage truck lightens its load. Organics collection is not without transition costs, but as with recycling, it will soon seem odd that we once failed to do it. 

David Brauer, a former Journal editor, lives in Kingfield with his wife and two kids.