At Winona Health’s kitchen last spring, Jared Jackson cut watermelon radishes into matchsticks and tossed the trimmings into a bin to be composted.
Winona Health leaders backed a forthcoming Winona County study on the feasibility of a regional, commercial-scale composting center.
by CHRIS ROGERS
At most restaurants and cafeterias, when a pan of mashed potatoes hangs around too long, when cooks peel the potatoes, or when customers turn down a doggie bag, those potatoes go in the trash. Food is the single largest category of waste in U.S. landfills, according to the USDA, and once it ends up in the landfill, rotting food waste contributes to a third of the country’s methane emissions — a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Winona County is about to launch a study to determine the feasibility of a regional composting system in Southeast Minnesota. If it is economically feasible, the study would set private companies up with key information they would need to construct a composting center and get into business.
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s Organics Recycling Facility in Shakopee, Minn., has been an inspiration and a model for the county. The facility takes food and yard waste from companies and local governments and sells finished compost to gardeners, landscapers, and contractors. Instead of filling up landfills and producing greenhouse gases, the nutrients in that waste are returned to the soil.
If it works there, maybe it can work in Southeast Minnesota, too. Winona County won a $93,000 grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to find out. The study will include a market analysis of the compostables available from schools, large restaurants, hospital cafeterias, and other major sources of food waste in Winona, Houston, Fillmore, La Crosse, and Olmsted counties, as well as a review of the market for finished compost in the area. The study is expected to produce a business plan for a composting service, a recommended site for a composting center where the decomposition magic would actually happen, and engineering plans for that center.
Winona County Sustainability Coordinator Anne Morse spearheaded the grant proposal, with lots of help from the MPCA and surrounding counties. Locally, Winona Health and Winona State University expressed interest in potentially sending food waste from their cafeterias to a new composting service. Morse told the Winona County Board she has been in contact with Olmsted County officials about food waste from the Mayo Clinic, and representatives in Fillmore, Houston, and La Crosse counties are all interested in having a place to send compostables, as well.
“There’s quite a bit of food waste that comes into the landfill and creates a lot of methane gas,” La Crosse County Sustainability Coordinator Nick Nichols said of the La Crosse County-run landfill. He hopes Winona County’s study can help La Crosse County identify where that food waste is coming from — or at least where some of the largest commercial sources are — and identify ways to reduce it. “The more we can get out of the landfill, the longer we can be here,” he said of the landfill’s longevity. “I’d rather see that material be somewhere else being used to create soil amendments or energy rather than going to the landfill.”
“I think we were planning on looking at some of the schools in the area and some of the larger restaurants in the area — places that are going to generate more of it,” Fillmore County Solid Waste Administrator Andrew Hatzenbihler said. Maybe a residential compost service could be looked at, too, he added, while acknowledging that might not be economically feasible. Still, he added, “There’s a huge potential here to minimize the waste that’s going to the landfill and provide another service to the residents.”
Many details of the study have yet to be determined, but its geographic scope is wide. Winona County Board member Steve Jacob supported Winona County’s consideration of including Rochester’s Olmsted County in the study, saying that county officials should be open to regional collaboration. The large geographic area could produce economies of scale because more compostables would be available from the larger area, but it might also pose economic challenges, such as whether it is feasible to truck waste from such a large area to a central composting facility. Morse said that transportation will be one of the largest costs for a composting service, and the study will carefully analyze where the most compostables are available and the economics of shipping when deciding where the best site for the composting facility would be.
Morse told the Winona County Board that the study would aim to produce a business plan for a composting service that a private company could operate without any government subsidies.
La Crosse-based Harter’s Quick Clean-Up, which operates Winona County’s recycling program and also offers disposal services in Fillmore and Houston counties, has expressed interest in the project. In a letter, Gary Harter explained how his business has fielded many inquiries from businesses who want to compost. “Sadly, there is currently no commercial scale [source-separated organics] composting facility located in the region where we could take organic waste,” he explained. “I believe this will be the next big thing in recycling; that is why I am very excited that Winona is looking to a feasibility study for a [source-separate organics] composting facility.”
At the Winona County Board’s last meeting, commissioner Steve Jacob questioned whether the county was giving Harter’s preferential treatment or whether the study was tailored for that particular company to use. Jacob asked whether Morse had been in contact with Dick Gallien of the Winona Farm, who runs a small-scale food-waste composting operation in Winona. “It’s clear that we’ve reached out to one potential [partner], Harter’s,” Jacob said. “I just want to make sure that we’re being fair to the community.” Morse admitted that she had not contacted Gallien in months, but said that the consultants the county will hire to do the study and reach out to local businesses will be in touch with Gallien. This study will produce information that will be useful for all businesses in this sector, Winona County Parks and Environment Committee Chair Mark Engen echoed.
The MPCA grant provides $93,000 in cash funding for consultants’ work, and requires county staff and other partners to spend staff time worth $32,780 as an in-kind match.
The Winona County Board approved the grant agreement on a 3-2 vote with commissioners Marie Kovecsi, Chris Meyer, and Greg Olson voting to approve the agreement, and Jacob and commissioner Marcia Ward dissenting. Ward and Jacob were somewhat frustrated by how this grant came to the board. Normally, staff need board approval before applying for grants. Last March, county staff applied for the grant and then sought after-the-fact approval from the board. The MPCA awarded the grant months ago — perhaps last June, county staff members said — but they did not bring the grant agreement back to the County Board until now.
“We’re talking about getting rid of food scraps when I think we should be talking about having less food scraps,” Ward said. “That’s disturbing to me that I have to spend taxpayer dollars, $93,000, to find out how to get rid of old apples and tomatoes when those should be consumed,” she added.
Jacob — who represents western Winona County communities that border Olmsted County — expressed concerns about whether county staff had actually fully engaged Olmsted County in the process; he wanted to delay a vote until he heard from Olmsted County officials. Just like water quality improvement efforts, he argued that governments spend too much on studies and not enough on concrete projects. “It’s frustrating to spend close to another $120,000 to get nothing on the ground,” he stated.
A composting service would produce great benefits for residents and the environment, and Winona County should look into it, Kovecsi said. “The MPCA is giving away the money for a study,” Meyer stated. “I’d love to see the facility in our part of the state, and then perhaps we can stimulate private industry to do organics composting once this study is over.”
Jacob’s concerns about having everyone at the table are valid, but all parties will be fully engaged when the consultants are hired, Olson said. “It might be found to not be feasible. That’s why we do a feasibility study,” he added.
After soliciting consultants’ proposals and selecting a consultant this spring, county staff plan to start the study in earnest this summer. Work on the study is expected to continue into 2020.