As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, organics recycling goes on mostly uninterrupted. However, the pandemic has created challenges for composters in some areas of Minnesota. Changes in operations at some compost facilities have reduced the state’s overall capacity to process organic material. Worker safety at compost sites is a top priority, and in the early stages of the pandemic, safety considerations affected their ability to remove contamination in organics recycling. Additionally, composters reported seeing contamination increase during this timeframe.
The state’s Waste Management Act requires items put into recycling or composting bins to be sent to a facility where they’ll be incorporated into new products. This provides Minnesotans with confidence that their recyclables or food scraps are going where they are supposed to go.
This same law grants the MPCA authority to allow disposal of recyclables when extenuating circumstances arise. In reaction to the pandemic’s challenging circumstances, the MPCA has approved some limited disposal of organics during 2020. Issues compounded by COVID-19 have led to some operational changes at compost sites. The challenges were most severe in the spring but have become progressively better with time. The MPCA, haulers, local government partners and the impacted compost sites have all been working together to minimize disposal of organics to the maximum extent possible.
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) composting facility was forced to temporarily suspend its services earlier this year. This led to organics going to a landfill for most of the month of April. Operations have since resumed at the SMSC facility and operations at this site are essentially the same as they were prior to the pandemic.
While SMSC was closed in April, the agency authorized disposal for three organics recycling haulers and one transfer station. That authorization expired when the SMSC site resumed operations in May.
Additionally, a second composter, Specialized Environmental Technologies (SET), informed the MPCA in late summer that they could not process large portions of the incoming organics in the spring and summer months due to ongoing COVID-19 safety concerns. All the incoming organics SET received in April and May went to disposal. High disposal rates also continued into the summer months but some material was composted. Limited disposal was approved in the spring, but the extent of disposal was more extensive than expected.
After learning the details of the processing issue, the MPCA and SET established a performance standard for the compost sites that requires a minimum of 75% of all incoming material be composted. Incoming materials include organics and yard waste. Under normal circumstances, composters are expected to process at least 85% of all incoming material. While operating under the approved regulatory flexibility plan, SET will provide additional reports to the MPCA to monitor processes and to identify any areas of the plan which may need to be modified. These more flexible operating conditions allow SET to keep operating, which ensures collection programs for organics can continue. Without this site, organics collection would need to be suspended or the agency would need to authorize further disposal of organics.
Agency staff, local government partners, collection service providers, and compost operators are all working together to minimize the amount of organics that are sent to landfills — and to ensure that facilities are supported as they continue to operate during the pandemic. The MPCA and these partners are also working to minimize or prevent service interruptions until operations fully return to normal.
What should you do now?
Keep recycling organics. While challenges remain, participating in organics recycling programs is still important. With organics recycling volumes down from schools and commercial generators like restaurants, there is capacity to handle most material from individuals and small businesses. Your continued participation will help ensure things will return to normal quickly when all facilities are fully back online.
Sort carefully; only put items in your bin that belong. Workers at compost facilities frequently have to manually remove items that cannot be composted. In some areas, guidelines for what is accepted have been revised. Check your local guidelines to make sure items you place in your organics or recycling bin are accepted. When in doubt, throw it out.
Reduce the amount of food waste you generate. While composting is great, producing less waste is even better. Numerous resources exist to help reduce the amount of food waste you generate. Visit https://savethefood.com/ for ideas on meal planning, recipes for leftovers, food storage tips, and more.
Contact your city or county for information about your local organics recycling program. Your county or city recycling coordinator is the best resource for explaining what is happening with the programs in your community. They will answer questions about what items are accepted for compost or recycling and confirm the status of your local organics drop sites.
Continue to use yard waste composting programs. It's illegal to throw yard waste in the trash. Continue to use your curbside yard waste collection, compost yard waste in your back yard, or check local drop sites for disposal to ensure it’s transported to one of numerous yard waste composters around Minnesota.