Carlton County: Building a sustainable backyard composting program

Type of project

Waste reduction and food/source separated organics

Organization description

  • Organization: Carlton County, Minn.
  • County Size: 875.23 square miles
  • Population: 35,386 in census year 2010

Project purpose/goals

The goal of the project was to develop and implement a sustainable backyard composting program to divert organic materials from the waste stream, resulting in greenhouse gas reductions. Discounted compost bins and turners, and education resources, were offered to county residents to encourage backyard composting of food and yard waste.

Grant funds were used entirely to purchase compost bins and turners. Residents were offered bins and turners at reduced prices reflecting discounts from wholesale purchasing and a small subsidy from the county to further reduce the cost per bin. The revenue from bin and turner sales will be used in subsequent years to buy a smaller amount of compost bins and turners for the next year and so on.

Materials targeted

Food scraps and yard waste designated for backyard composters.

Accomplishments for August 2010 through May 2011

  • All 100 available bins sold
  • 34 attendees at a free composting workshop
  • 32.34 tons of food waste composted
  • 10.59 tons of yard waste composted
  • 77 percent of composting surveys returned

Project team

Heather Cunningham, Carlton County Resource and Recycling Coordinator
Susie Darly-Hill (Western Lake Superior Sanitary District) helped with the composting workshop


Minnesota Pollution Control Agency provided grant money.
Susie Darly-Hill (Western Lake Superior Sanitary District) helped with the composting workshop.

Project timeline

  • July - August 2010: 100 compost bins and turners sold (sold out)
  • August 2010: Composting workshop held (34 attendees)
  • March 2011: Letter sent to all purchasers with spring composting tips
  • May 2011: Compost survey sent to all participants. The survey was developed to answer three main questions: how often the purchaser used the compost bin, how many gallons they composted each month, and how they rated the value and quality of the composter.
  • June 2011: Phone calls made to those who had not returned their surveys.


The proposed budget for this project was $7,495 and the actual budget was $7,822.59. An additional $327.59 was not budgeted for sales tax and was charged to the purchaser. The MPCA provided $4,765 in grant dollars. This money was used to buy the compost bins and turners. The remaining $2,730 was in-kind match by the county (as required by the grant). The in-kind money was spent on staff time to sell the bins, prepare and hold the composting workshop, and prepare and tally surveys.

In 2010, compost bins were sold separate from the turners. The actual cost of the compost bin from the wholesaler was $36.40 and the county sold them for $32.50. The actual cost of the turner was $15 and sold for $6.

The money collected ($3,700) from residents purchasing the first round of bins in 2010 was used to buy 50 compost bins and 50 turners in April 2011. They were offered once again to residents at a discounted price and were sold out in less than four days. In 2011, the compost bin and turner were sold as a package for $42. The actual cost to purchase the compost bin from the wholesaler was $41.28 and $14.65 for the turner.

The county has $2,811 to buy compost bins and turners in year 2012. The county will continue to sell compost bins and turners year to year in this fashion until the funds run out, likely around 2020.

Measurable results

Surveys were used as the way to measure the amount of material composted. Residents were asked to keep track of the amount food waste and yard waste in gallons that they deposited into their compost bins during the reporting period (August 2010 through May 2011).

Even though the county sold all 100 bins, the calculations are only based on those 77 residents that returned their surveys. 23,347 gallons of organic waste was diverted from the waste stream during the reporting period which converts to approximately 42.93 tons of waste. Also from the survey, everyone is still using their composting bin except for four purchasers who had not started using the compost bin.

Other survey responses included what residents liked best about composting:

  • 58% liked their increase in personal conservation efforts;
  • 26% enjoyed the reduction in kitchen waste;
  • 9% liked the increase in quality of their garden;
  • 3% liked the decrease in yard waste; and
  • 3% had no response.

Lessons learned

Demand for composting bins was high; bins sold quickly and residents were eager to get them at a discounted rate. Carlton County was able to collect good data in part because they were very committed to getting the survey data. County staff collected contact information from each resident when the bins were sold, informed them then that they were receiving a discount but were expected to participate in a survey in exchange for the discount, and then county staff called residents who did not initially respond to the survey requests.

The bins sold out so fast that it’s possible the subsidy was or is not needed. By purchasing 50 or 100 bins the county was able to receive a discount on the per unit price. The bins were further discounted beyond that with grant funds and for both distributions during the grant reporting period the bins sold out very quickly.

A quick search on the Internet showed the Earth Machine brand composter selling for $129-$139 retail. By providing a substantial discount through bulk purchasing, the county may have gotten more residents to backyard compost that wouldn’t have paid the retail price for a bin.

Further information

For more information, contact the Carlton County Resource and Recycling Coordinator at 218-384-9178.