The impact of COVID-19 on compost site operations
Like many other businesses, the compost sites that serve the metro area have experienced disruptions due to COVID-19.
For example, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) site suspended organics deliveries for nearly a month in April 2020, and the Specialized Environmental Technologies (SET) site has made temporary operational changes. Prior to the pandemic, manual removal of contaminants, such as plastic and glass, was a critical part of operations. For now, manual sorting has stopped as a precaution for employee health and safety.
Challenges related to COVID-19 have reduced processing capacity at the compost sites, restricted their ability to remove contamination, and made it more difficult for them to meet quality standards and sell their finished product. Because of these circumstances, some organics delivered for composting was landfilled rather than turned into compost in 2020.
The challenges were most severe in the spring but have become progressively better with time. The county is actively working with our cities, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), haulers, and compost sites to address the challenges caused by COVID-19 and minimize the amount of organics sent to landfills. The MPCA has established a performance standard for the compost sites that requires a minimum of 75% of all incoming material be composted. Under normal circumstances, composters are expected to process at least 85% of all incoming material.
This news is frustrating and disheartening for participants trying to do the right thing by separating their organics to put it to better use as compost. Despite the disruptions, we encourage you to keep participating in organics recycling. Your participation supports the composting system and helps ensure services will continue to be available.
Keep participating in organics recycling and compost the right things
Organics recycling is a crucial part of our zero waste efforts and action on climate change. Your continued participation can help keep as much organic material out of the trash as possible.
You can help ensure the sustainability of organics recycling programs by putting the right materials in the organics bin. Compost sites need to receive organics with low levels of contamination, or materials that cannot be composted, so they can produce clean, nutrient-rich compost that people want to purchase and use. Compost that contains plastic, glass, and other contaminants is very difficult to sell and can only be used for low-end, low-value purposes.
Know what’s accepted for organics recycling
See the organics recycling guide (PDF) for a list of items that are and are not accepted for organics recycling.
If you’re unsure, focus on collecting food. Spoiled food and food scraps are the most common material in the trash and the most nutrient-rich material in the composting process, which makes them the most important material to collect for organics recycling. If you aren’t sure what to do with an item, refer to the organics recycling guide or put it in the trash.
Tips for reducing contamination
Review our factsheet (PDF) to learn more about what is accepted, situations where contamination issues commonly arise, and ways to address contamination issues. The factsheet also has contact information for program managers so you can ask questions and request additional assistance.
Prevent food waste in the first place
While composting is great for disposing of food scraps and other compostable materials, preventing wasted food is even more important and more impactful.
Making simple changes and working to adopt new habits can have a big impact. Creating and following a meal plan, keeping track of and using up the food you buy, understanding date labels, and learning how to properly store and process food can all significantly reduce the amount of food waste you generate.
Visit Save the Food for ideas on meal planning, recipes for leftovers, food storage tips, and more.
Developing composting infrastructure to increase capacity
The disruptions due to COVID-19 have highlighted the strain on organics processing capacity in the Twin Cities metro area. Additional capacity is needed to ensure the viability of existing organics recycling programs and support the development of new programs.
The county is pursuing a variety of strategies to increase transfer and processing capacity for organics, including making modifications at the Brooklyn Park Transfer Stations, supporting the opening of new compost sites, exploring the development of anaerobic digesting or other technologies, and increasing the use of compost in county operations.
Regulatory flexibility granted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency due to COVID-19
The state’s Waste Management Act requires organics and recycling to be managed properly. If material is separated as organics or recycling, then it must be composted or recycled.
The same law grants the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) authority to allow the disposal of recyclables when extenuating circumstances arise. The MPCA, recognizing the hardship some regulated entities have experienced as a result of COVID-19, has offered regulatory flexibility to allow entities to pursue alternative management options while maintaining permit and regulatory compliance.
SET requested regulatory flexibility in its operations with the intent of limiting employee contact with incoming organics for health and safety concerns related to COVID-19. Because of the lack of organics processing capacity, the county also received regulatory flexibility for the management of organics at the Brooklyn Park Transfer Station. The MPCA worked closely with the Minnesota Department of Revenue, the Governor’s office, and the Legislature to pass legislation and grant regulatory flexibility with specific conditions.
Learn more about the MPCA granting regulatory authority.