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Gardener puts up stink, Minneapolis considers changing composting law

Under the proposed ordinance, residential compost bins could be larger.

The Minneapolis City Council is considering doubling the permitted size of residential compost bins.

In an ancient greenhouse behind a bar in Maplewood, the Mother of All Compost Piles is waiting for spring. And so is the gardener who piled this treasure four feet high and half the length of that greenhouse.

Russ Henry checks the heaters at each end of the compost pile and points out that it has shrunk down almost a foot in height since he piled it together. The compost has a pleasant earthy smell.

“When I learned about composting in the garden, I reorganized my entire garden career around it,” says Henry. “Composting is the most effective way to have health and abundance in the garden, and it does that because it makes the soil so spongy and so absorbent for all the water that’s falling.”

Composting has been legal in Minneapolis for years with residential compost bins limited in size to 5 feet by 5 feet by 5 feet or 125 square feet. And that’s what got Henry in trouble with the city.

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“I do a lot of gardening,” says Henry, who has a city lot that is less than 5,000 square feet. “I fill almost the entire lot up with various perennials and annuals and shrubs.”

To get enough compost to feed that garden he was in violation of the city’s compost bin regulations and he was fined. And threatened with more and larger fines. So he moved out of town to a farm and now rents a greenhouse with a big compost pile in Maplewood.

“The larger point was that citizens of Minneapolis were being discouraged from doing the right thing,” said Henry, who was collecting grounds from a local coffee shop and leaves from the neighbors for his compost. In turn he gave them fruit and vegetables from his garden.

Council Member Cam GordonCouncil Member
Cam Gordon

He was doing what he calls “the right thing,” but the compost bin size requirements were making the job complicated. That’s when he went to Minneapolis City Hall and met with Council Member Cam Gordon.

Gordon and his staff worked with gardeners and have drafted changes to the composting ordinance (yes there is a composting ordinance) that would double the size of residential compost bins from 125 square feet to 250 square feet or 7 feet by 7 feet by 5 feet on lots that are less than 5,000 square feet.

There are also new size requirements for larger lots and a requirement that the bins cannot be within 20 feet of any habitable building. A public hearing on the proposed ordinance is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 27, at 1:30 p.m. in room 317 at Minneapolis City Hall.

“I am actually aware that some of the gardeners and farmers out there consider it pretty important to get ways for more composting,” said Gordon. “I’m hoping we’ll see more people growing food in more parts of our city.”

The proposed ordinance also has a list of things you cannot put in your compost pile, including meat, bones, dairy products, diseased plant material and oil.

“Some people ask about pet waste, and you want to keep that out too,” says Henry. “There are ways all of that can be composted but that needs to be done on a larger scale and is not necessarily appropriate for the urban environment.”

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Composting materials will be required to be covered with leaves, straw, wood chips or finished compost to reduce the odor. 

“In the eyes of some folks who are very passionate about composting, the proposed rules don’t go far enough,” says Henry, “but they do walk the balance of the line of concern from neighbors who are not used to this behavior.”

In St. Paul, the goal is “Zero Waste by 2020,” and composting is part of that program. Composting not only provides greener garden but it also moves the city closer to that zero waste goal. 

But the city still has rules about the size of the compost bins and what can go into the bins. If your St. Paul lot is 5,000 square feet or less, your compost bin can be 100 cubic feet but not more than 5 feet tall, which is smaller than the current size limit in Minneapolis of 125 cubic feet (that will increase to 245 cubic feet under the proposed rules).

Eureka Recycling, the non-profit agency that does city recycling, offers classes for those interested in composting. “If people want to compost in St. Paul, Eureka Recycling is there to demystify that process and make it easier.” said Dianna Kennedy, director of communications for Eureka.

The idea behind the Minneapolis rules is to keep the smell down and keep the animals and bugs from being regular backyard visitors. Controlling the smell is the easy part. 

Henry says layering the food waste with wood chips or leaves will help it decay faster and keep the smell down. The animals are another problem, but the ban on meat, dairy and oil will keep most animals away but not all of them.

“We live in a city that was built in the woods, and we need to recognize that in order to maintain a healthy woodland in the city,” says Henry. “And here I go making enemies. Squirrels, raccoons and, yeah, even mice are naturally found in the woods and must be respected as part of the eco-system.”

Henry also makes eloquent arguments about how composting creates cleaner air and water while it keeps more material out of our landfills and out of our garbage burners. We’ll all find out this summer if our gardening neighbors decide this is the year to expand.

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Two Cities blog, which covers Minneapolis and St. Paul City Halls, is made possible in part by grants from The Saint Paul Foundation and the Carolyn Foundation.