The Sweet Smell of SUCCESS

March 1, 2004

12 Min Read
The Sweet Smell of SUCCESS


Naysayers will tell you a million reasons why a food waste collection program won't work: Waste is heavy and wet, and processing can be difficult, for example. Yet even when it faced financial roadblocks, the city of Hutchinson, Minn., proved that a small community can successfully operate a food waste collection and composting program.

Five years ago, the city received a grant to implement a food waste collection and organics composting pilot to businesses, schools and residents. All phases of the grant were successful, though not all financially viable after grant funding dried up. However, the city remained committed to its residential program, and learned that not all elements of a pilot have to be implemented. And as a result, the city has educated residents about reducing their waste, while finding its food waste program to be financially rewarding. In 2002, the city had its best year of sales with its compost products, which are distributed to more than five states.

Food, Glorious Food

As early as 1998, the city of Hutchinson believed there was a better way to handle its waste than just sending it to a landfill. Additionally, state landfills had stopped accepting yard waste, forcing the city to find an alternate disposal outlet for its green materials. Hutchinson already had tried composting biosolids at its wastewater treatment plant, and some residents had backyard composting bins. But city officials believed that a community-wide organics collection and composting program would be more beneficial than the small-scale programs that existed. Consequently, Hutchinson decided to add a food waste composting program to its waste collection operations and divert all organics from the landfill.

Hutchinson is a relatively small community — population 13,500 — with a limited budget. So the challenge was to take organics out of the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream by relying on the residents to source-separate their own materials, according to Sara Witte, city resource recovery coordinator. Officials reasoned that if residents could work with the program's guidelines, then the city would be able to save on equipment and manpower.

Another one of the city's goals, if it was going to start composting more products, was to improve the quality and markets for those products. Thus, Hutchinson knew it would need the cooperation of the parks, public works and wastewater departments to keep feeding its composting facility. Officials also had to evaluate the potential food waste suppliers to determine how much waste they would generate, and whether the tonnages could be managed at the city's processing facility.

Targeting Producers

In identifying food waste generators during the pilot, the city wanted to target several types of customers to source-separate their waste: residents, industries and schools. So city officials met with management, food service and custodial personnel from schools, business and its contracted waste hauler, Houston-based Waste Management Inc. (WM), to discuss everyone's needs. Based on the meetings, the city decided to provide each participant with special organics collection containers, which would be used for fruit, vegetable, bakery and floral waste, and waxy cardboard.

Hutchinson then divided its food waste collection program into three phases to make the collection program more manageable. The first phase consisted of collecting food waste from grocery stores and large businesses. The second phase added waste from school cafeterias. And the third phase added a pilot residential program. All phases were implemented in 1998.

The first food waste suppliers to Hutchinson's organics program were Cash Wise and More Four grocery stores, which produced 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of the least-contaminated food waste in the city program. Then, two major industry cafeterias — 3M and Hutchinson Technology — that serve 2,000 to 2,500 meals per day also were identified as large food waste sources. But the city was concerned that plastic utensils and dishes used by the businesses would contaminate compost feedstocks. Thus, the city decided to collect only the food preparation waste from these businesses.

Because Hutchinson officials believed they still needed more food waste volume, they added a hospital nursing home complex to the food waste collection program. The hospital serves 600 meals per day.

In looking at its Phase 2 customers, Hutchinson sought food waste from all school levels — elementary, middle and high school. For the most part, elementary school children were diligent in separating their food waste at the lunchrooms. Middle and high schools, on the other hand, generated less waste than expected, and the contamination rate was higher.

The city believes those elementary school collections were better because students received more adult supervision and custodians were committed to the program's success. Nevertheless, as elementary students would become accustomed to the food waste composting program, separating wastes would become second nature, and the students matriculate to middle and high schools. Therefore, the city believes that if this part of the program were to continue, the contamination rate in the higher grades would decline.

In the third phase of Hutchinson's pilot, the city began weekly collection of organics from 250 middle-upper income households in the Shady Ridge area. Residents were given a specially marked 90-gallon container, which they were instructed to set out on their regular garbage collection day. According to the program, residents accumulate food scraps, cardboard materials, grass clippings, tree limbs and other organics and place them in biodegradable bags throughout the week. The bags, and any additional yard waste that fits, then are placed in the container. Residents are not charged for organics pickups. Based on the positive feedback the city received from the initial households, the residential phase was expanded citywide in April 2001.

Feeding the Facility

To process the source-separated organics, collected wastes are transported to the Creek Side Organic Material Processing Facility located a few miles away from downtown Hutchinson at the southeastern corner of town. Named after a creek that runs through the east side of the property, the facility — once mined for gravel — began onsite tree disposal operations in the late '70s.

In 1995, four in-vessel composting bins were purchased and set up at the city's wastewater treatment plant. Biosolids composting was successful, and led to the decision to expand the facility. As the food waste pilot began and just before the facility began accepting source-separated organics, the city constructed two buildings and a 20-acre concrete composting slab at the site.

Consultants from Earth Tech, Minneapolis, Minn., assisted in the facility construction and design. One building houses the office area, mixing processing equipment and the transfer of organics and nonorganics. The second building is used to bag the final product and for cold storage.

After source-separated organics are collected, they then are transported to what has grown into the 26-acre Creek Side Organic Material Processing Facility. Waste is fed through a mixer where wood chips are added and placed in 15 in-vessel containers connected to a biofilter to control odors as the compost matures. Grass clippings, leaves and garden waste also are composted onsite, but in windrows on the 20-acre curing pad. All finished compost is screened, and any contaminants are hauled to the landfill. Creek Side processes organics into 16 different products for landscaping and construction, flower beds, gardens and soil amendments.

The facility also is open year-round for residents to drop off additional organic materials free of charge. For instance, although residents receive curbside recycling, they still can drop off glass, tin and aluminum cans, plastic, newspaper, cardboard and magazines at Creek Side. Residents also can dispose of large tree limbs or storm debris, which is turned into natural mulch products.

To Market

Compost offers no environmental benefits if it has nowhere to go. Consequently, the city hired Jeff Meehan Sales Inc., Minneapolis, Minn., to market its compost products to retail outlets. “Jeff has been working in the soil and dirt business for 20-plus years, [and] so already had a lot of contacts in the industry,” Witte says. The marketer promotes the city's products to hundreds of nurseries, greenhouses and hardware stores. In return, the company receives a commission from every order sold.

“They receive a minimal 5 percent,” Witte says, “but when you're talking about a couple of thousand dollars per order, it can add up.” To date, Creek Side's products are sold to hundreds of retail outlets in the upper Midwest.

However, to meet the growing number of buyers waiting for its compost products, the city has had to seek organics from neighboring communities to feed its compost facility. According to Witte, there are 35,000 residents and eight towns in McLeod County, as well as residents and haulers from those surrounding communities bringing their materials to Creek Side. Hutchinson also recently was awarded a $3.5 million contract to receive Minneapolis' leaves and wood brush for the next five years to increase Creek Side's feedstocks. The city has an annual marketing budget of $20,000, which includes everything from publicizing the residential program through brochures to outside marketing efforts at garden expos.

Residential Backbone

Key to the program's success, Witte says, are city residents, because participation is voluntary and to avoid contaminating the compost, materials must be source-separated. The contamination rate is only about 15 percent. To maintain residents' continual cooperation, the city wants to ensure that residents understand the program as the next step beyond recycling.

Hutchinson makes all the obvious educational efforts. For example, 90-gallon organic cart lids are labeled with a list of acceptable and non-acceptable items. Residents also are instructed to place the carts on the curb with lids facing the street. Households also are told to place the carts for waste and for organics at least 4 feet apart so that the automated collection trucks have room to maneuver their collection arms.

To further spread the word, Hutchinson sets up an informational booth at fairgrounds in the summer. A flyer advertising Creek Side's hours, services and prices also has been published in the Hutchinson Leader & Shopper and Carver County Crier, to reach 42,000 households, or more than 100,000 people.

“It's good to have our information out there,” Witte says. “People won't always come into the facility to ask questions, but if they see us at the fairgrounds in the summer, we can address their concerns.”

Tallying the Numbers

Today, Hutchinson considers the program a shining example of a rural community that has successfully built a food waste collection and composting program. In 2002, the city received the MN GREAT Award, which stands for Minnesota Government Reaching Environmental Achievements Together. This was awarded to Hutchinson for including a source-separated food waste-composting program in its integrated solid waste management system. But more importantly, the city's data indicate the facility is paying off — literally.

The initial setup cost of the facility was $3.4 million, with an assumed payback in five years based on compost sales. To pay for the program and facility, Hutchinson combined $900,000 from its budget with a $1.34 million capital grant from the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance. McLeod County also provided $1.125 million for the necessary composting equipment, as well as wages for the compost site monitors. McLeod County continues to provide funding for brush grinding, which occurs twice per year.

Hutchinson also expanded its program to all residents, in addition to the initial 250 households, in April 2001, and now boasts an 85 percent participation rate citywide. Totals from 2000 and 2001 indicate an average of 7,500 pounds of food and yard waste per week, or 40 to 60 tons per month, are diverted from the landfill, Witte says. The total waste decrease of approximately 35 percent is saving the city about $3,000 to $4,000 per month, or a total of $36,000 annually, in avoided disposal costs. Moreover, with the additional green materials from other communities, Creek Side processed approximately 1,910 tons of source-separated organics collected from residents in 2002.

Despite the success of all three phases of the pilot, however, Hutchinson was unable to continue the educational institution and commercial collections. “When we went to full residential pickup, there was no longer grant money available to help subsidize the hauling costs for the schools and other commercial accounts,” Witte says. “So if a business wanted to participate in the food waste composting program, it would have had to pay for its own separate hauling costs.”

Thus, the biggest push, Witte says, is to maintain residential program participation and encourage others to self-haul their materials to Creek Side. In particular, the city reminds residents that using their organic bin can reduce their disposal costs. For example, residents whose trash no longer fills their regular trash containers after the collection program can downsize to the 60- or 30-gallon size, or switch to every-other-week pickup with the 30-gallon cart.

Witte believes the educational efforts and collection numbers are proof that Hutchinson has been successful in encouraging people to reduce waste and consider alternatives to landfilling. “When the program began, we distributed organic carts to everyone and we received complaints that not everyone wanted them,” she says. “But then people began to wonder why they weren't using it because it can reduce their garbage bill and they don't have to run to the compost site themselves.”

Patricia-Anne Tom is Waste Age's editor.


To make participating in its food waste and organics collection program as simple as possible, the city of Hutchinson distributes biodegradable bags for residents to toss in their food scraps and kitty litter.

Working with local youth organizations, such as the Hutchinson Youth Hockey Association, the city distributes EcoWorks biodegradable bags by Cortec/Jesco Corp., St. Paul, Minn., that can hold wet, hot organic material for several weeks. Three times per year, households receive a supply of bags equivalent to two bags per week.

According to Sara Witte, city resource recovery coordinator, youth organizations help to assemble packages of bags and brochures that inform residents which organics are acceptable. Then, following a mapped route, the groups distribute the bags to each household. The groups make approximately 24 cents per bag distributed, or approximately $1,000 each distribution period. In turn, the city is able to avoid significant labor costs, Witte says.

If residents require more than their initially allotted bags, they can purchase additional ones at the City Center or Creek Side Organic Material Processing Facility for $3.50 for 20 bags.

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