Last week the Minneapolis City Council spent several hours debating a reduced property-tax levy that would save the owner of the $180,000 median-priced house about $2.50 a year.
This week, it will likely spend much less time on another piece of the 2015 budget that brings with it a fee increase of $48 a year for every household — regardless of income, regardless of home value. And while all households will pay the fee, about 40 percent are expected to take advantage of the new service the money funds.
The fee is the proposed increase in city solid-waste bills to pay for a new citywide program to collect household organic waste — food scraps, food-soiled paper, compostable plastics, even dryer lint — at the alley or curb. The program startup was proposed in Mayor Betsy Hodges’ August budget at $8 million, $5.1 million of which is for one-time purchase of trucks and organics carts.
The fee isn’t easy to find in budget documents. It is referenced only a few times and the most specific explanation is found by following an asterisk in a chart outlining how the average monthly combined utility bill will increase from $82.52 a month to $88.19, with most of that coming in fees for the waste and recycling program.
“The large increase in the monthly charge is due to incorporating organics recycling,” the chart explains. Should the fee schedule be approved by the council, it will take effect Jan. 1.
While the cost hasn’t been talked about much, the program itself — known in waste-management circles as source-separated organics or SSO — has been on the city and county’s agenda for several years. Taking collection citywide is the next step in a half-decade effort by city solid-waste staff and some council members to begin reducing the waste that is disposed of or incinerated. The city already collects recyclable materials and picks up yard waste in the spring, summer and fall. But staff estimates that about one-third of what shows up in garbage cans is organic and could be composted.
Organics collection is also being pushed with carrot-and-stick incentives by Hennepin County, which handles waste for the metro area. The county has signed two contracts to process organic materials. And earlier this year it adopted an ordinance requiring Minneapolis to adopt organics collection citywide by Jan. 1 or lose some or all of its share of state money devoted to developing recycling programs.
Starting in 2008, a pilot program tested organics collection beginning in Linden Hills. It was expanded to East Calhoun the next year to parts of Cooper, Hiawatha, Howe, Longfellow, Phillips and Seward in 2010, and now covers about 8 percent of the city. In addition, five organics drop-off stations were added for residents outside the pilot-project neighborhoods.
David Herberholz, director of the city’s division of solid waste, said if the program fees are adopted by council, the city will purchase 11 new trucks and purchase 60,000 new collection carts. Of those, 50,000 will be green organics carts and 10,000 will be smaller cans for regular garbage disposal. Herberholz said those will be needed as residents who use the separate organics carts decide they don’t need as much space for garbage. The smaller garbage containers can save a residence $3 a month, close to matching the increase for organics collection.
It will take up to five months to have the new carts delivered and eight months to have new trucks delivered, pushing out the start date to late summer. About a quarter of the expected participants will be served starting in September. The remaining three-quarters of residences are expected to be added in May, 2016.
Other cities that have begun organics collection have commingled it with yard waste — grass clippings, leaves and branches. Herberholz said a familiar pest makes that unworkable in Minneapolis: the emerald ash borer. All yard waste in the quarantine zone must be ground to particles less than 1 inch in size to make sure the pest is destroyed. Even if organics could be collected together with yard waste, there are months in Minnesota where very little yard waste is generated and collection stops.
At a briefing of the council’s Transportation and Public Works committee last spring, Council Member Cam Gordon noted that the program would be opt in to use it but everyone would pay.
“It’s a mandatory pay but a voluntary participation,” Herberholz said last week. “But the only way to roll it out in an economic manner was to have everyone pay.” Several council members wanted a more-robust education and outreach campaign to boost participation and staff will set aside $400,000 for mailing, an initial supply of compostable bags for residents and video tutorials on the new program, Herberholz said.
Ramsey County’s solid waste management plan calls for cities in the county to have some form of organics collection by 2017. But Zack Hansen, the county’s environmental health director, said that doesn’t necessarily require curbside. The county offers free organics collection at its six yard waste drop off centers. And because the county requires organics to be separated into compostable bags, it offer the bags to residents free of charge.
St. Paul advised residents to either have at-home composting or use the county drop off locations. It does have policies in place to add organics collection to its recycling program and is expecting to add it to household pickup beginning in January of 2017.