Curbside composting derailed in St. Paul


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 ( does community outreach for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and contributes reporting.