Curbside composting derailed in St. Paul

Ready for composting? Photo courtesy of Eureka Recycling

Susan Crumb grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota where her family burned, composted, or buried all their waste. She’s still highly conscious of her trash, where it came from, and where it’s going. This is why she was interested to hear about the possibility of curbside composting in St. Paul.

“It was really exciting when I learned about composting organics and the fact that food scraps, pizza boxes, drier lint, Kleenex, and all these things that usually go in the trash could actually get composted,” said Crumb, a board member of the Macalester Groveland Community Council. Crumb was so excited about the prospect of curbside composting that she didn’t bother fixing her broken garbage disposal.

Recently, she learned that in mid-August the city of St. Paul derailed a proposal to begin curbside composting in October 2009.



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According to Deputy Mayor of St. Paul, Ann Mulholland, the City needs more time to work out the specifics of a long-term contract for curbside composting, but has not set a new timeline for the project.

“It seemed like we were so close,” Crumb said. “I just don’t know what happened. Is the hold-up in the front end or the back end of the process? I don’t know what’s going on, and it seems like everyone is being careful not to burn any bridges.”

Both city officials and Eureka Recycling are speaking carefully about the other party as Eureka waits to see whether or not the city will renew its contract, which end sin 2013. The curbside composting proposal would have extended St. Paul’s existing contract with the nonprofit Eureka Recycling for several more years. Both parties say they are committed to begin curbside composting in St. Paul, although the mayor’s office is noncommittal as to when and with whom.

Under the former proposal St. Paul would have negotiated a long-term contract with Eureka Recycling some time after mid-August. Eureka needed to invest in initial costs, such as retrofitting their collection trucks and buying plastic composting tubs for St. Paulites. To get a loan from the bank, Eureka needed to prove it would be able to pay back the start-up costs, most likely through a long-term contract from St. Paul. The bank would then make a loan. Eureka would vamp up its trucks, buy thousands of plastic bins, and educate St. Paul residents on what to do with their half-eaten string cheese and dank paper towels before deploying its truck drivers to the curbside to pick up residents’ compost.

Instead, in mid-August—only days before the City Council would have approved a resolution to allow Public Works to begin negotiating the specifics of the contract with Eureka—Susan Hubbard, Chief Executive Officer and Co-President of Eureka Recycling, received notice that the City Council would not vote on the proposal.

Ann Mulholland, Deputy Mayor of St. Paul, said the city would look at whether or not a long-term contract with Eureka Recycling adheres to the city’s general guidelines on all city contracts. “This is about policy and what the policy issues are that we want to drive our spending,” Mulholland said.

Some of the policy issues the city looks at when negotiating contracts include affirmative action, workforce utilization and labor standards, and living wage and sustainable development ordinances. According to Mulholland this is standard procedure with all city contracts, although she says Eureka is the only large contract the city is currently examining.

Hubbard said she was shocked. “We’ve been working on this for years, and now nobody has been giving us any information,” she said. “A lot of times good policy ideas come up and it can intersect with projects that are already going well." She says that sometimes a good policy--in this case, the city's commitment to fair employment practices and living wages--can delay a good project.

Mulholland also said she couldn’t be sure when plans for curbside composting would move forward again. “We don’t have a set timeline, we are actively talking with our financial folks to figure out other options for financing, although they’re not there yet.”

When asked whether the delay in the Eureka contract was tied to a tight city budget, Mulholland responded “absolutely not.” However, she stated, “the budget was very tight going into this” and she thought the initial proposal may have underestimated the costs involved. One fact: the costs of plastic bins, which are petroleum-based products, spiked in late summer and early fall due to the rise in oil prices, bringing up the overall cost of the project.

St. Paul Public Works Department is in charge of maintaining the city’s assets and oversees contracts. Public Works Director Bruce Beese would not speak to TCDP about curbside composting contracts. Beese’s office said Ann Mulholland had told Beese that it was not necessary to provide any more information, although Mulholland could not give specifics on the budget for the proposed project or potential other contractors.

On September 22 the Star Tribune reported Eureka’s growth as a preferred recycling contractor in many suburbs. It also reported clashes Eureka has had with Waste Management contractors, particularly citing Eureka’s inability to secure a contract in Plymouth after Waste Management sent out letters urging their residents to support Waste Management and lowered its costs.

The city has not said that is looking at other contractors for curbside composting, but did not commit to Eureka as it moves forward. Councilmember Russ Stark, a supporter of curbside composting, said, “we have a long time relationship [with Eureka] and its been a great partnership and everyone is hopeful,’ Councilmember Stark said. “But at this point I can’t say one hundred percent that it will be Eureka, but I have no reason to suspect that it wouldn’t.”

Twin Cities Waste Management was contacted for this article, but did not respond to inquiries about whether or not they had proposed a contract for curbside composting in St. Paul.

When compared to other waste management contractors, Eureka is unique in its nonprofit status and its emphasis on education.

Susan Crumb of the Macalester-Groveland Community Council understands the importance of education in Eureka’s organizational mission. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Eureka,” she said. “They do a tremendous job of educating people, and not preaching the environmental religion.”

Sitting in her office on the day Eureka Recycling kicked off in St. Louis Park, Hubbard spoke passionately about waste management while keeping her ear out for glitches in the St. Louis Park. She brought one hand firmly against another, waving both together while she spoke. “Curbside composting is part of the really big picture of sustainability and we are really committed to doing this in St. Paul.”


Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva (peterson [dot] delacueva [at] gmail [dot] com) does community outreach for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and contributes reporting.

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    Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva

    Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva (lisa [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is the project manager for the New Normal project at the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

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    Bad idea

    Much better is backyard composting -- no need to have an internal combustion engine pick it up. Just get a bin in your backyard and let nature take its course. I've had a composting bin for about 3 years and have been hoping to use some of it on my gardens. But amazingly, it never fills up -- the organics are broken down and sink into the earth (there is no bottom to the bin) before it fills. Maybe in a century or two archaeologists will find that the grass grows awfully green where compost bins used to sit. Why haul it off?

    Good point but what about

    Good point but what about those without backyards where they can compost? I think it is a matter of good, better and best. Better for Eureka to do curbside composting and best for those that can compost in their backyard to do so.

    What about Mpls?

    Any plans afoot to have Minneapolis join this movement? While backyard composting may be better, I think more residents would use the curbside option.

    not all have backyards

    i too was looking forward to curbside composting. i do not have a backyard and most of my trash is compostable. now, i am wondering if there is a way for folks with yard composts and the capacity for neighbors' compostables to let their neighbors know that they are open to their neighbors' compostables.

    Downtown Residents

    In response to the anonymous comment about "Bad idea... just put it in your backyard..." Not all of us have backyards. There are now thousands of downtown condo/apartment residents that could be served by curbside composting, and it would be an optimal pickup since each building could deposit in a single collection bin.

    Backyard Composting is better.

    We absolutely agree. The environmental benefits of composting your material at home—in your backyard or with worm composting—are far superior to having your compostable materials collected in trucks and taken to a facility. If you would like to start composting at home today, Eureka Recycling offers backyard composting and worm composting workshops, supplies, and information to help get you started. (This is the current schedule…it is updated regularly on our website at www.eurekareycling.org as workshops are added. Registration is required and you can always call the hotline for details: 651-222-7678). Backyard Composting Wednesday, October 29 - 7:00 p.m. Palace Recreation Center Monday, November 3 - 6:00 p.m. Griggs Recreation Center Worm Composting Wednesday, October 22 - 7:00 p.m. Common Roots Cafe Monday, November 17 - 6:30 p.m. Edgcumbe Recreation Center Wednesday, November 19 - 7:00 p.m. Palace Recreation Center Saturday, December 6 - 10am - Merriam Park Recreation Center For people who cannot compost at home (because they have limited space or no yard, for example) curbside composting provides the opportunity for them to compost, too. Because commercial composting facilities are carefully monitored, they can handle materials that we would not easily compost at home in our backyard compost pile. Sustained high temperatures allow for the safe composting of meat and dairy products, as well as non-recyclable food packaging like egg cartons, vacuum bags, cotton balls, paper plates, and more. This makes curbside composting a great compliment to composting your food scraps in your backyard. We’re working to provide residents with access to all types of composting—at home, in restaurants, at events, and at the curb. Dianna Kennedy Eureka Recycling 651-222-7678

    Good idea

    Backyard composting is great. I have three bins myself. But curbside composting would be a great addition by allowing me to compost things that don't belong in the backyard bin. Stuff like meat scraps and bones, paper towels, frozen food boxes that can't be recycled because of the coatings on the paper and so on. I hope St. Paul goes forward with this and there would be no better partner than Eureka! Recycling. And then hopefully my city would follow suit.

    The Back End Problem

    Many years ago, I helped close a large composting operation of city waste. (Allentown, PA) Two problems--first was the contamination of the compostable materials and second was a solid market for the finish composted product. Absent from the compostables proposed to be collected by the city is yard waste. Leaves and grass are the heart of quality compost.

    Until there is an assured composting facility that will take the materials being picked up each and every day and can be assured that there is a market for the composted product, this is not a viable project.

    non-food composting

    Of more concern to me right now are the sacks of plastic junk I store in my basement that Eureka can't recycle. Where will it go? how can it be used? I keep seeing documentaries on Sundance about facilities that separate literally everything and recycle it. How can we influence manufacturers/retailers to change/eliminate packaging? Will Target arrest me if I remove my items from the packaging, put them in the sack I bring, and leave all the plastic on the checkout counter? Will they provide large bins for us to put it in and then someone can pick it up from them? I am getting old and don't want to spend so much time running from room to room with a pill bottle or a plastic wrap from some batteries or the tags holding a pair of socks together, etc. etc.

    Changing times for compost markets

    There are facilities that accept compost materials every day, which is a change from years past. Today in the metro area there were three major facilities that take food scraps and paper products that cannot be recycled in addition to leaves and grass. (There are more facilities like this emerging every day and there are many more facilities that just compost just leaves and grass right now.) These facilities sell their materials to markets for compost ranging from projects with the Department of Transportation for erosion control along roadways to commercial landscapers and nurseries who value the nutrient-rich compost. Compost facilities that only handle leaves and grass are challenged by the seasonal fluctuations of material (lots of yard waste is generated in the spring and fall). A household composting program provides a steady stream of materials—food scraps and paper products that cannot be recycled—throughout the year. Contamination is always something to watch out for…which is why extensive education is important in any curbside composting program. It’s a challenge, but it’s possible and there are proven education strategies from recycling programs (which also have contamination challenges to address) and other composting program throughout the county. For leaves and grass, there is a drop-off system in place to compost materials from your yard through Ramsey County (you can call our hotline for locations and hours...651-222-7678). The easiest (and most environmental) way to handle leaves and grass is right in your own backyard. It’s pretty easy to set up and use a backyard bin or two…and we’re happy to help folk set those up. Dianna Kennedy Eureka Recycling 651-222-7678