The Public Works Nerds

Solid Waste: Organized Collection, Recycling and Organics with Rachel Lindholm

September 26, 2023 Marc Culver, PE Season 1 Episode 19
The Public Works Nerds
Solid Waste: Organized Collection, Recycling and Organics with Rachel Lindholm
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

This week we dive into the intricate world of waste management with Rachel Lindholm, the Sustainability Specialist from the City of Richfield, Minnesota. In this episode we talk about how Richfield implemented organized collection, managed recycling services and started both a drop off and curb side organics collection system.  Listen in as we nerd out about garbage!

Show Notes:
Richfield, MN Organics Recycling Information
https://www.richfieldmn.gov/residents/garbage_and_recycling/organics_recycling.php

MN PCA Organized Collection Process Flow Chart and Information
https://www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/w-sw1-16.pdf

Eureka Recycling MRF Video
https://eurekarecycling.org/recycling-services/our-recycling-facility/

 


Marc Culver:

Welcome to the Public Works Nerds podcast. Welcome to the Public Works Nerds podcast, a Public Works podcast of the nerds, for the nerds and by the nerds. I'm your host, marc Culver. Thank you for joining us. Today we're joined by Rachel Lindholm from the city of Richfield, minnesota. Rachel serves as the sustainability specialist there in Richfield. Rachel, you actually started with Richfield like you officially started, I think, in 2019, but prior to that you were working with the city of Richfield in a different capacity. Why don't you talk a little bit about that and how that started?

Rachel Lindholm:

Sure, thanks, marc. So, yeah, I've been on staff since September 2019. And for the 11 months prior to that, I was the city's Greencorps member. So Greencore is a program administered by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and it's an AmeriCorps program, but it's also heavily focused on professional development. So I was working there for different tracks in Greencorps and my track was waste reduction, recycling and organics, and so a lot of my projects were centered around those topics. So I have started from solid waste in day one, so to speak, and then at the end of those 11 months, that transitioned into a staff position as the city's sustainability specialist, which that position previously had not existed. So now I still focus a lot on solid waste, but you know, kind of a lot of other projects and topics as well.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, yeah, and I think the Greencorps program is great and it's been a great resource for a lot of cities and probably counties and other agencies. But I know when my time at Roseville, we had a Greencore member there for a while and he did really great work and did a lot of things that we weren't able to tackle just because we didn't have the man, hours and unfortunately we didn't have that position for him to transition to full time. But we learned a lesson about it and we had another great intern come in and we were able to create a full-time position and I think you know her Noelle Bakken is in that position now and she's like super passionate. Yeah, she's awesome, she's rocking it over there. So that's great. It's wonderful to have those positions and prior to that we had our environmental manager position, ryan Johnson, and he just like he was doing all sorts of stuff with that and stormwater and he just really couldn't focus on the actual sustainability programs and so it's really great to have that. And what's really interesting is you see more and more cities at least in the Twin Cities metro area, we're seeing a lot of cities add positions like yours. You know, sustainability, specialist types of positions and to really tackle a lot of these initiatives that are creeping in. So tackle maybe a little bit about your education and how you got into this, and did you think this is what you would be doing?

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, so my undergraduate degree is from the University of Minnesota and my major is in global studies. So not super, it's the social science, right, it's not. I don't have the more hard science background. I do have several minors and one of them is sustainability. But again, that was more or not necessarily like the U also as an ESPM major, which is more of that environmental science, policy and management side of things. So I didn't really know, like even all throughout undergrad, I didn't know what I wanted to do, didn't know where I was heading. Was it to grad school, was it to a job, was it to? You know, I had no idea. And it was actually a pretty big source of anxiety my senior year, because I just I knew what I was interested in but I didn't know where to go with that. And so spring semester and summer after graduation, I had an internship on campus and that was actually on an organic farm. So I had, you know, like I was in the sustainability, like thick of it from a different angle. But you know, I was still trying to figure out. Okay, when this ends in August, september, and I'm, you know, don't have another semester to go back to You're like, what am I doing and I think I saw an email from the Institute on the Environment which is on a part of the U's campus and all the sustainability work and things like that, and I think it had, you know, like the big free corner, whatever those newsletters tend to highlight. And I think that's where I heard about Greencore and obviously I didn't know what I was going to be doing and it sounded very interesting, so I applied and obviously ended up getting placed and Richfield was my host site and so that kind of you know, I went from not knowing what I was going to be doing at all to kind of just like lucking out and landing in something that I really enjoyed.

Marc Culver:

That's cool. That's cool and it's great to see that that pathway from these institutions, with some of these different programs, lead to some of these different programs, and I suspect we're going to see a lot more of your types of positions, not only in the cities, and probably counties as well, but also consulting firms that are trying to serve the cities and counties as you implement and plan for these things. So this episode is going to be about solid waste. We're going to talk about recycling, we're going to talk about organized collection, but I think we're really going to focus in on organics and implementing a program and some of the challenges and such, because I think there's a lot of agencies out there that are really interested in that. But before we get into that, I want you to just take a little bit of time and talk about everything that well, maybe not everything, but you know what your position entails, because it's certainly more than just solid waste.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, it's a lot more, and I think one of the biggest reasons behind that is that Richield is a smaller city Our population is 37,000. And so there's a need to wear so many hats in my position and in a lot of our staff positions. So I am not certainly not the only staff member who works on sustainability related projects, but I'm definitely the only one where it is like my primary focus, you know, there's no team, there's no department, even my position structure, it's.

Marc Culver:

It's interesting, I'm technically under both public works and recreation a little bit, so it's just, it's just kind of you know it's interesting because, like no, yeah, but no else positions actually under both public works and community development, because she helps community development, that makes sense, the green policies and things like that. But but maybe not so much on the recreation side.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah Well, recreation, yeah, the long story short, the recreation bid is because our previous rec director applied for the green core members, so that's kind of how that got started, but anyway, so that to say like there certainly are a lot of other staff who integrate sustainability into their work. We have a stormwater resources engineer that's obviously a huge part of his stuff. We have a transportation engineer that's obviously a huge part of his stuff and community development as well. So it's nice for me because I have other folks who are working on a few of these things. But also that gives me a variety of things to work on and a variety of people to work with. So my position is very much interconnected with other departments in the city, which is something that I really like, cause I like talking to a lot of different people. I like working with a lot of different people and everybody has, you know, different backgrounds and knowledge and skill sets and all that kind of stuff. So all that to say my position a lot of it is solid waste, focused for sure, all those different sub topics, categories, projects, et cetera. I also work on things like our municipal solar installations and energy benchmarking, our residential and commercial renewable energy, you know, and other municipal. We have a geothermal at our public works building design plan review. So that's part of what's community development. You know what, what sustainability aspects we're looking at for projects a lot of different parks projects, including, you know, pollinator gardens, alternative landscaping, you know, soft landings and things like that under trees, native plants, native trees. I'm the staff liaison to our sustainability commission. You know I'm tapped regularly for community presentations or tabling at events and things like that. There's really just so much.

Marc Culver:

So I'll probably stop there, but for now, oh, that's good and that's a very good sampling. I think it just it's a really good snapshot of how diverse that position is. And, as you said, like sustainability, if you're really going to do sustainability right, it is going to touch. You know all of the departments, you know all of the operations of this city, so really your team is the whole city.

Rachel Lindholm:

There you go, yeah for sure, it is All right.

Marc Culver:

So let's, let's dive in here on onto the topic a little bit and you know, like I said, we're going to, we're going to kind of tick off a couple of items here. But I know that Richfield has recently gone organized and and that might sound a little weird to some of the listeners here outside of the United States or outside of Minnesota and, and I know different states manage things differently but it's, it was, I would say, as a, you know, 20 years ago it was pretty rare to have communities that were organized.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, and I think it was Minneapolis and that was about it. Yeah, maybe Columbia Heights. They're a pretty old organized city, but yeah. So most folks, especially outside of the state, are probably going to be familiar with the concept of of what we call organized collection. In Minnesota it especially because of our state statute it works a little differently. But just essentially organized collection is you have one hauler, usually picking up your solid waste and whatever that entails. So for most people that's trash recycling, yard waste, and then also sometimes organics collection or things like bulky items, and so you have one hauler. You know you don't have 20 different trucks coming down all days of the week. You know charging, you know it's. It's kind of like, you know, looking at the open system versus a private. You know for profit, business, open market like that kind of thing where they can charge what they want, capitalism, et cetera. So most people are just used to either, like the city is the hauler, or you know maybe there is a county or something like that, or it is already pre-negotiated, so it might be a private company, but it's still you don't choose your hauler, it's, this is your hauler, these are your prices. So in Minnesota it's a little different. By and large, like I said, minneapolis has definitely been organized for a while, decades and decades.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, and a large part of yeah and a large part of Minneapolis is actually collected by city forces, you know. So it's.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, yeah, so Minneapolis, it's even unique in itself. So they're about half collected by city staff and then they have the other half is collected by a consortium which, again, has been in place for decades, so they're kind of all integrated at this point. But, yeah, so even that's a relatively unique model. So, yeah, I think, until about probably whenever Maple would organize I think around 2010 niche, there wasn't a super common thing for cities in the metro area to be organized for collection. When you get out into greater Minnesota, certainly it's different, just because of necessity. Yeah, so you have as many haulers competing for business and many, many times there is just one hauler. So you are organized by default. But it's a little different down here in the metro where you have a bunch of different businesses who are offering similar or the same services.

Marc Culver:

So yeah, yeah. So and I don't know how long Richfield had been talking about organizing before you came in or where you came in during that process, but maybe kind of talk about what was the impetus and kind of what was that process leading into the to organize collection.

Rachel Lindholm:

So there are a few different like I wouldn't say attempts, but I would say like points of consideration. Even before I started, like years before I started, a previous city council had brought it up for consideration to kind of start looking into it and researching and things like that. And it didn't obviously go anywhere because we came back to it. But then when I started as a green core member, one of my projects which we'll get into more later I'm sure it was an organic drop off program and the popularity and success around that was one of the bigger, you know pushing push factors for considering organized collection the time that we actually did it. And that was because folks were super excited about the drop off program. But it inevitably led to them asking when curbside organics was going to be an option and that combined with some upcoming wealth. Now they're in the past, but at that time upcoming mandates from kind of in county around organics and a desire for Richfield to improve our recycling rate and some other things like that really kind of led to us as staff looking at our situation and saying, okay, you know, here's where we're at, here's what we want to improve, what is the best way to do that? And the answer was to organize collection, to have more of a connection with folks in terms of solid waste education, to have the ability to help negotiate rates, because pricing was all over the board.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, highly variable, yeah.

Rachel Lindholm:

We did a price analysis just as an aside, and we had a resident who was paying over $1,000 a year just for trash recycling, no extras, no yard waste, yeah. And then we had a similar or another resident with the same services, same cart sizes and everything paying less than 200 a year. So it's like you really see that, like both ends of the like, I, my hands can't even, you know, the spectrum is just crazy. So yeah, so that was kind of the push for us to look into the process, because there's a whole state statute that you have to follow for organizing now and just see if it did make sense for Richfield to fully go through the process.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, and just as a little background for the listeners, the state statute that Rachel is referring to was a newer statute and that must have been late 2000s it was right after Maple would organize because of their process.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, yeah. So then it's been amended since too, through other cities going through it, and then things have changed, but roughly. It's been the same for about a decade or 15 years or so.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, so the state statute requires that cities.

Rachel Lindholm:

It requires a lot.

Marc Culver:

It does. But the gist of it is you have to give the current haulers an opportunity to organize a consortium and offer a price or a contract to the city right as a first offer at least.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, sort of yeah. I mean it requires the city to negotiate with all haulers who are currently licensed to wish to participate and so they can choose to create a consortium, but they don't have to. We don't have a true consortium in Richfield. Our haulers all signed the same contract but they do not act as a consortium and that was what they preferred and that was fine with our team as well. But if you look at a city like Bloomington or St Paul, they act as consortiums. They're required to pick up the slap for each other, essentially. But we went through negotiations with everybody as a group. We didn't negotiate separately with any hauler or anything like that. So you go through a period of negotiations with the group and if that produces a contract that everybody agrees to, then you're done. Otherwise, there is language about next steps and what a city can do or is required to do or things like that. But thankfully it went smoothly for us and we were able to come to an agreement through that first part of negotiations.

Marc Culver:

How many haulers did you have operating in Richfield prior to organizing?

Rachel Lindholm:

That's a great question. So technically we had five. One of them did not have any market share, they were just licensed, so that kind of took them out of the negotiations. And then another one, pretty much like right after we started official negotiations, was actually acquired by a different one of our haulers. So we went from five to three. And I mean, five still isn't even a lot when you look at a city like St Paul, which I believe started with like 14, at least. So yeah, so we currently have in our program, which has been up and running since October 2021, we have three haulers.

Marc Culver:

OK, yeah, and I live in St Paul and so do you, I think. So we've gone through this process as both consumers and as staff. Yes, yeah, on the professional side too. But you know what's interesting? And Roseville had, I think, seven haulers currently, and Roseville has had conversations about organizing. They've just chosen not to go through that yet and, like in St Paul, I've seen it, I've witnessed that again as a resident and a consumer you do start to see that consolidation when other haulers are buying other haulers' market share by just absorbing them as a company. And the thing that bothers me a little bit about that is I think one of the main factors of the legislation to begin with was to protect the smaller haulers because they wouldn't be able to compete as well on a single hauler contract for a whole city, and so it's a little unfortunate that we're kind of seeing that happen anyway, because even under an organized model the small hauler gets their market share, but it also then inhibits their growth within that market if there were a younger company or something. So there's some interesting components to it and there's still some pros and cons to it, but clearly there are some advantages to having a smaller set or a single hauler or so.

Rachel Lindholm:

For sure, and one thing to note is that the acquisition that affected us had nothing to do with our organized collection, which was actually a thing that residents would call me and say oh you guys, x-holler just got bought out and it's because Richfield's organized collection, when the companies were both fairly large one being a national company and Richfield did not affect that at all. But in terms of knowing a little bit of what went down in St Paul, there is some truth to, I think, companies seeing a less chance for future growth but also seeing the opportunity for a sale that would financially benefit them, and it's business. So I certainly don't fault anyone or judge anyone for doing what they did. But I think there's definitely pros and cons to any sort of system, whether it's an open market or organized system, but it does tend to consolidate stuff at times. The other thing I want to point out is with organizing. Under the statute as is, like I said, cities are required to negotiate with all haulers for the first contract and after that then the city has the authority after the first contract is over, which is for several years, but after that's over, the city has the authority to go a more traditional route like going out for bid or choosing to work with one hauler instead of five, seven, whatever the number is, and that is where you kind of see also more opportunity to have super competitive pricing or to make sure that the city is really achieving the goals that it sets out. Not to say that it's certainly not working with multiple haulers. It doesn't mean that you can't get what you need as a city. But I think that's something that residents don't always understand is why can't you go out for bid right away? And it's like well, the state says we can't.

Marc Culver:

So yeah, yeah. Well, it's interesting and it's interesting to kind of hear your experience and your perspective on that process and it'll be interesting to see what happens when the contract expires. But transitioning a little bit over to the recycling side, how did Richfield manage recycling prior to going organized?

Rachel Lindholm:

I would joke and say it's the Wild West, but it wasn't that bad. As a city we were never organized for anything. So in most cities in the metro area, even if you're not organized for trash, you have one hauler recycling. It's just how it is, which I assume is what people outside of Minnesota are thinking about. The whole thing, it's just how it is. But yeah, so there were two cities in Hennepin County. Before we organized, there were two cities that weren't organized for recycling. It was Richfield and it's Eden Prairie and that's it, and there's like 40 plus cities in Hennepin County. So there were only two that weren't and I don't know how we never got there, but we never got there. So how it worked before was your trash hauler was also your recycling hauler, so in a sense you were kind of organized. I don't think I ever saw a situation where someone had a different trash hauler than a separate recycling hauler. But, all that to say, we weren't officially organized with one recycling hauler servicing every household in the city, so it was just on your own with whoever you chose for trash and the rest of your solid waste collection.

Marc Culver:

So, prior to organizing, I assume you required any hauler that was licensed in your city to provide recycling. Did they have to provide a cart, or did they only provide a cart at the request of the?

Rachel Lindholm:

president. No, I assume I think. I don't think we necessarily. We might have spelled it out in code in our previous code that it's required to be carted. I'm sure we did. There's definitely rules around the cart regulations themselves. But I never ran into a situation where somebody was paying for recycling service and didn't have a cart. I think it just kind of was logically well, you have the service and you have a cart.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, cool. So now that you've moved to organized collection, I imagine that's making. Do you have a? Do you have a dedicated recycling contractor? Now then?

Rachel Lindholm:

No, it's still the same as in. Your trash hauler is your recycling hauler, but each hauler has a specific section of the city, so they're not driving all over the place anymore. But every household that they service, they provide all the services to, and that was part of when we went through the process, because we were not organized for recycling to begin with.

Marc Culver:

We kind of just lumped it in with everything else and just treated it as if we were already organizing everything, because we were Cool, and so do you, do the haulers all bring them to different mirfs, or do you require the you or and or the county require them to bring it to a specific mirf, or anything like that?

Rachel Lindholm:

We don't require a specific mirf. So our haulers are waste management, republican, aspen, and so waste and Republic have their own mirfs, and Aspen has contracts with several different mirfs, so they're allowed to bring it where they want to. We might have language in our contract about trying to keep it as close to rich fuel as possible for transportation, but that's also just kind of common sense. The haulers aren't going to drive a bunch of recyclables to Wisconsin just for fun, so they kind of have that worked into their business model.

Marc Culver:

And I should probably have something on the screen that's like flashing acronym alert, acronym alert. So yeah, what is Murphy?

Rachel Lindholm:

Murphy stands for material recovery facility. So it's basically when recycling is collected, it's in the truck, it's brought to a mirf where it's tipped, essentially unloaded, and then sorted and sorted into different commodities, where it then is transported to the end markets, whoever is buying said commodity commodity just being a fancy word for different recycling categories.

Marc Culver:

And when we were renewing our in Roosevelt, when we were renewing our recycling contract in I think it was 2015 or so we went and we toured all of the mirfs that were proposing and that was so eye-opening and I certainly I love a mirf tour. Yeah, I absolutely positively encourage, strongly encourage anyone who's really interested in recycling, who's like passionate about this or who thinks about this, to take a tour. Find a mirf in your area.

Rachel Lindholm:

Or who's skeptical. To be honest, I mean, you just learned so much.

Marc Culver:

Yep, yeah, and for me it was really, you know, I mean just the mirf concepts to begin with, like how they're managing all of this material and everything. It is so cool. It's so cool, but also just the differences between the mirfs.

Rachel Lindholm:

Oh sure.

Marc Culver:

You know, because I toured Waste Management Republic and Eureka, yeah, and I put those in an order for a reason I probably should have reversed it as far as top to bottom. But you know, from the magnitude, from the size of the mirfs, yeah.

Rachel Lindholm:

Technology, technology and at the end, how their staff works, all that kind of stuff.

Marc Culver:

And you know how much residual.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, it's huge. I highly recommend, especially I've been to several mirfs as well. But I also highly recommend, if folks are interested, to check out Eureka First of all, if you're out of state or just not local. They have a really good YouTube video. It's about 10 minutes long and I show it at many. I just showed it this week to at a presentation I was giving. It walks you through the whole process and you learn so much, especially about Eureka specifically, which I think is really cool. They function very differently than a waste management or a public, but it also just gives you a good insight into a mirf tour. They also do in person tours, if you're interested, for anybody who's listening. I think they do it regularly, so I would definitely check it out. It's definitely something that I nerd out about, so I guess it says the place of rape. That's right, we're nerding out.

Marc Culver:

So all disclosure. You interned or worked with your rep.

Rachel Lindholm:

I worked on their zero waste events team for I don't know like a summer or a year in college, and so I would work with. They used to have it. I don't technically know if it's still a service that they provide, but they would do events like the silica block party or some events in Roseville or the Humane Society Walk and stuff like that, and it would be our job to go there, set up trash recycling, organics, monitor the waste bins, talk to vendors, that kind of thing. So yeah, I had some exposure there and of course they're right by part of the university, so it was pretty close by and obviously I was already in sustainability. So yeah, it's a really cool organization.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, and I am. I have been working all summer. I've been trying to get a representative from Eurick recycling to be on the podcast. Yeah, they're all true. Yeah, they're very busy, but we're an organization, a great vision, you know, for zero waste and for such yeah, and so, yeah, that'll be a good one. And I want to talk to Kate Davenport, who is who I'm trying to get on the podcast, and just the recycling commodity world is so interesting. Yeah, you know the prices that they get for stuff and the demand and the whole kind of thing.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, yeah, I could talk forever about that too. It's just I.

Marc Culver:

Hey everyone, I just want to take a quick moment to thank our sponsor, Bolton Mink, who is producing and editing our podcast.

Bolton & Menk:

At Bolton Mink, we believe all people should live in a safe, sustainable and beautiful community. We promise every client two things We'll work hard for you and we'll do a good job. We take a personal interest in the work being done around us and, at the end of the day, we're real people offering real solutions.

Rachel Lindholm:

It's so crazy to see how just the markets affect what we consider to be recyclable and I think, one of the great examples of that is like black plastic. Yep, in theory it's recyclable, but when you look at, is an end market available? Is someone going to buy it? And the answer is usually no, or it's just not worth it to store it until somebody buys it. It's just like, okay, well, I guess we consider that not really recyclable. And it's just it's so sad and frustrating at the same time to be like well, we could be recycling this, but I guess we can't because the money is not there, right?

Marc Culver:

Right, and if you can't recycle something, nobody wants the resource on or the material, that material, and so that then gets into a conversation about packaging and all the lessons that we're learning in the responsibility and all sorts of things. Yep, all these lessons we're learning at the Merf level and the commodity level and everything really needs to translate into that beginning stage of how we're packaging our food and other materials.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, and so glass just as the last side note because I know we don't want to get too organic but like glass is another huge example of that. Because the way that Merf's process glass, it ends up breaking and so because of that, obviously you need to go through the whole process again to make that into new glass. And glass is just not. Glass has always been a at least since I've been doing our audits and looking at market prices it's always been a negative price value, so it takes down the amount of money that we kind of quote unquote, get back for her time, which is frustrating because glass is heavy and so it's going to make up a ton of weight. And it's also frustrating because glass is also a really reusable item. If we were able to collect it back in the old days with like milk bottles and stuff like that, if we were able to recollect a whole bottle and have a sanitization process and then just reuse the bottle without it being broken, without it needing to be remade, that would be huge for waste reduction. No-transcript.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, I hear you I hear you I mean. I've had that. I've asked other people, I've asked Eureka, you know, and some other people at Ramsey County, you know. Are we talking? Should we be talking about going back to multiple sort? You know what I mean? Because the single sort the single sort is great. It increases participation, everything, but then it literally contaminates paper wedge, paper wedge Right. And you're getting glass in the paper.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, but you do increase participation, which is yeah, I don't know, yeah, exactly, I don't know how those scales balance, yeah, yeah.

Marc Culver:

So yeah, so let's move on. We talked about zero waste and moving into that and you know I've heard the number and I don't know if it's still the number or not that 30% of our waste stream is food.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, yep, that's at least that's accurate as of the last way sort that Hennepin County did, as far as I'm remembering, I think Minneapolis has done their own way sort since, and I can't remember what the percentages were that came out from that. But yeah, that's the number I go with. Roughly a third of your trash, a little less, is or the average person's trash, I guess is compostable, whether that's food scraps or food soil, paper that is compostable or other non food items that are compostable, and so that's huge. There's no other category that's as big that makes up your trash, assuming that you're not already composting Right Then compostable items, and obviously it's something that we don't want in the landfill and we don't want in the incinerator, so it makes sense to remove it and actually make it into a value added product of compost that can be used in a wide variety of applications. It's just taking something that's only rotting and creating methane in a landfill or not producing a ton of not being able to be burned for a ton of electricity. So it is a no brainer, but it's also a really new system that not everyone's familiar with, so we have a lot of education on that end to do too.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, so talk about how Richfield has moved into the world of collecting organic. So do we call it food scraps? Do we call it organic?

Rachel Lindholm:

It depends where you are. It really does. Ramsey County refers to it as food scraps. They want to focus on the food portion of it, which is totally you know. There's good logic behind that.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, it's easier to decompose. You don't have to worry about some of the maybe trace chemicals From compostable stuff.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, knowing what is, you know BPI certified or not, you know, it's very easy to know what food is. So, yeah, so there's logic behind that for sure. But over in Hennepin most programs will refer to it as organics, organics composting not necessarily just regular composting, because you also compost yard waste. So usually organics, I'd say. But again, you know, it's just being super specific SSOM if you're in it, I guess, but sourced, separated organic material, but yeah, it's, I just refer to it as organics and that's what most of our residents know it as. So so, yeah, it started in in Richfield. It started a little before I started, even as a Greencore member, and it started because there was a group of residents who wanted to start a task force to bring organics collection in some capacity to Richfield, and so they started a resident task force, which is not necessarily it's not a commission, but it is kind of similar to that for you know, people to know, and then the Greencore application and whole thing. And so I was brought on and I started in October, ish, september, october of 2018. And my biggest project was to launch the organics drop off program, and so there was definitely work that already been done for logistics by our previous recreation director and this task force and things like that. So I came in and we launched, like November 11th or something like that. So pretty shortly after, you know, we were just finalizing the sites, getting all the education ready to go, and then we signed up I don't remember it was. It was super quick, super enthusiastic response and things like that. I think within a few weeks we had about 500 households, yeah so, and it grew from there.

Marc Culver:

So were you, were you providing like the little countertop bins and bags, not the bit we?

Rachel Lindholm:

provided bags. Yeah, we, we provided. We currently provide both bags and bins. And then for the drop off program, we definitely started with bags on site. We had like a little like we just went down we have a Dick's Sporting Guns and Wrists show that we went down and got like a hunting, like rubber band tone or whatever. Oh, buddy, yeah, but I don't, I don't remember when we started providing bins. We just started at some point. But yeah, we were definitely providing bags from like day one and we had our whole system and and I would monitor the dumpsters because we didn't we actually didn't like lock them. We started to lock them and then obviously we started in November. So winter came and we quickly realized you cannot lock dumpsters in the winter. So, yeah, so we kind of had our little program going. We had our two drop off sites and the resident response was so enthusiastic and so many people were asking, like you know, this is great, but I would love to just go out to my car, you know, and not drive to this drop off site or whatever, especially in the winter, which totally understandable as someone who does not have curbside organic sales. So I do not want to drive to a drop off site in the winter. So that kind of big out our wheels spinning and being like, ok, this is a resident desire, you know how can we accomplish it? And that dovetailed with a few other things like a county mandate for increased organics and, you know, not being organized for recycling and not having good resident education and price discrepancy and all these other things that we were hearing. And so that's when we kind of were like, ok, well, maybe a solution is to organize collection. If we did that, we could also bring curbside organics collection, because if we just left it in the open system, we could require the haulers to offer it, but then they would price the system at or price the service at whatever they wanted, and especially if it's a subscription service, it's going to make it more expensive, which is something you know that you want to have widespread adoption, which is hard to do with an expensive service. And so all those pieces kind of came together for organizing and for curbside organics.

Marc Culver:

Cool, cool. So talk about maybe the, now that you're implementing that, some of the challenges that you've had with that maybe even the residents maybe have had with it, and maybe even touch a little bit on contamination. Because that's the one thing that I've really been curious about is, depending on how you're collecting it and that, how are you, is somebody analyzing it occasionally to kind of figure out how much contamination is in there? And that.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah Well, there's kind of a few different things that go into this, so we this is going to get a little in the weeds.

Marc Culver:

That's okay, we're nerds, we want to get it in the weeds, yeah it's so true.

Rachel Lindholm:

So with collection of any sort you have different systems, I'm sorry. You can have a fully automated system, you can have a semi-automated system and in some cities with organics collection, depending on their system, if there's especially like one hauler and depending on the contract, frequently they will have carts like lids opened and checked before the cart is tipped so that they know that contamination is not going in, because contamination in organics in some ways they're taking a harder line with it than say, contamination in recycling. Part of that is like the infancy, relative infancy of the system and trying to build something from scratch. That's just, that's better and less contamination, and part of it is it's a lot harder to get some pieces of contamination out of essentially big dirt pile than it is on a conveyor belt. So all that to say is at first we had one hauler who was checking and we have a variety of requirements in our contract and one of our haulers was choosing to check the carts before they tip them because at that point they weren't fully automated Since then. Which helps? Obviously you're going to reject a cart, tag it if it has severe contamination, which is great for education, for the residents. Residents are like wait, why wasn't this emptied? And also they have a piece of paper that tells them why it wasn't empty. So one hauler was doing that at first. Since then, all of our haulers have switched to fully automated systems, which means they can see what's going into the truck, but they can see it as it's going into the truck, so you only know a contamination as it's happening and obviously you can't get it out. So that has the potential to increase contamination. However, what we've seen. We conduct annual audits of our organics and we actually did our audit for this year on Monday, like this week, so perfect timing. So we audited a load from all three haulers and it showed surprisingly, incredibly little contamination, which is great. I shouldn't say surprisingly, because our audit last year showed us the same thing, but I'd say surprisingly just because you worry that folks might slip into habits or maybe you get an off day or whatever the case is. But it was just very low, which was awesome. I'm still working on the exact percentages, but it's very small. We had between like two and five to seven pounds of contamination for a load, and loads are hundreds and hundreds of pounds, so it was great. Most of the contamination we saw was molded fiber products, which, if you're familiar with composting, is going to be tough anyway. It's tough for me and this is what I do every day. So that is stuff that's good. We're happy that we didn't see contamination like glass or electronics or stuff that's clearly not organics. The stuff that was contamination for the most part was stuff that I understand why folks are confused and could think it's organics. So we're doing good on the contamination front, which is great, and I think part of that is because we had a lot of early adopters. We do a lot of education and our system is structured where not everybody gets an organics cart by default. You have to sign up for one. It's not an extra cost. Everybody pays for the system, just like you pay for treasure recycling. But by not delivering a cart we help make sure that there is not a potential situation where folks don't know what they just got a cart for and use it as an extra garbage cart, use it as an extra recycling cart, are mad that they got an extra cart, don't ask for it to be removed. There's so many situations that can happen with a variety of structures and programs. The way we went, we just knew that it was going to be smarter for a solid rollout, even if it meant that we had fewer carts out there to begin with.

Marc Culver:

So what's your participation rate right now?

Rachel Lindholm:

We're hovering around 30%, which is great, and we've actually been pretty steady. Probably fewer folks signed up when we launched two years ago, but yeah, it's been good and part of that is just that, because I have my hands in so many different things, I just haven't had the time to do a full campaign to increase participation, which I know would be easy to bump it up. The other thing is some folks choose to use our drop offs, even as a part of the curbside program. They don't want an extra cart, so that kind of skews our numbers a little bit. We know we have more people participating, but whether they're going to the drop offs or they're doing backyard composting or they might be sharing an organics cart or something like that, we know that there are more people participating than the haulers have records of?

Marc Culver:

Yeah, interesting, that's interesting. I had a question, I lost it. How big is the cart?

Rachel Lindholm:

32 gallons, yeah, so we defaulted to the small, just the industry. Small Because, to be honest, and even that's too big for the amount that most people are composting as it should be. You should not be selling a 32 gallon cart with food waste for one week. I mean, unless you have 20 people in your house or something, I guess, or a restaurant out of your house, yeah, Right, exactly, but for most families that should not be getting full, and we do hear that from folks and we understand. But it's just, carts aren't really made smaller. So there is an option for them to get a larger cart if needed, but they have to prove that it is necessary and the city and the hauler have to sign off on that. We haven't had any situations that require a 64 gallon organics cart. So, yeah, most people are throwing a bag, two or three bags of compost in their week, maybe a few pizza boxes, a few egg cartons, things like that. But it's not, definitely not. That's another education part is like people get so used to filling their trash or recycling, which not necessarily great either, but that's what they're used to. So I think, oh, I need to fill this cart, or it's weird that I'm not filling this cart, and it's like, oh, it's actually not. It's not. If you did, then we'd need to do food waste prevention education instead.

Marc Culver:

So yeah, and I think I heard you say that you offer this weekly. So does that mean you're doing organic recycling and waste all weekly?

Rachel Lindholm:

Recycling's every other week, okay, okay, and so that's kind of also at. It's not an exclusive Hennepin thing, for sure, but most cities in Hennepin are on every other week, which obviously different for us in St Paul, being used to weekly collection. But so, yeah, so recycling's every other week, trash is, you can have the option of every other week. That was another part of organized collection that we wanted to bring in was for folks who weren't generating a lot of trash, who wanted an even smaller option. Of course, since 32 is the smallest, you can't really get smaller. So what do you do? You go bi-weekly, so we do have four trash options, and that does include every other week. So organics is weekly, especially because during the summer you don't want that to be sitting yeah, you definitely don't. And yard waste is weekly during the season as well.

Marc Culver:

So I was only gonna ask about, you know and I think this is an issue with all of the carts, but particularly the organics cart just the cleanliness of it and like what is done? Is there anything that's done to try to maybe clean those out on some sort of basis?

Rachel Lindholm:

Well, that's up to a resident. You can clean your cart as much as you want, but we do provide. You know, if folks call me and they're concerned about their car, you know I have a list of stuff, I run through with them. You know it's like, okay, well, are your compostable bags like holding up? Are they breaking down in your cart? And that's why you're having issues. You know you can put certified compostable bags. You can use paper bags as well. So we have folks who would take their compost, put it in a paper bag, put the paper bag in the organics cart, and they prefer that, which is great. You know, it's really just making sure your organics is contained. You know we don't recommend folks putting organics loose into their cart, stuff like that. And then, of course, if you do have issues, it you know, take a hose, yeah yeah, clean it out, right. Then we you know it's it also folks are concerned about odor or bugs or things like that, and there are definitely different things you can do to prevent issues like that. So Interesting.

Marc Culver:

Well, I particularly resonate with the concept of we'll just make sure you're contained. You're putting it in a compostable bag or a paper bag which is compostable, or what have you. Yeah, cool. Well, that's, that's interesting. That's some really good information. Do you have any suggestions for a community that's considering starting an organics program and there are going to be a lot of cities in Ramsey County?

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, hopefully, the next year or so that we'll be, we'll be starting this, so I think and this is going to depend, obviously, on the city and the county it's in I think one thing that's worked really well for us in Hennepin is having the organics drop off grant program. So it's been an easy way for the cities to apply for funds from the county to start a drop off program, which is, you know, you're dipping your toes in the water, you're not committing an all out, but you're getting a feel for the service, the program, what residents want, need questions, things like that. It offers a really low barrier to entry, participation, because a lot of what I think hinders organics participation is is a lot of like the stereotypes. You know people are worried about the odor or the or the bugs or XYZ, and it's like, well, this is stuff you're already putting into your trash or down a garbage disposal, which is also not great, you know. So it's not like you're creating a bunch of trash you've never had before. You're just dealing with it in a slightly separate way and there are there are best management practices to deal with that. Whether it's residents always love to tell me that they put their organics in the fridge or freezer and that completely eliminates any of you know the issues that people normally think they have. Personally, I don't have space in either. I keep my organics out, right next to my trash, and I don't have odor issues like ever, unless I'm already putting something that previously smelled into the organics.

Marc Culver:

Like the organics doesn't make something smell, but for me, for me, wait a minute. You said you keep your organics in next to your trash, so so you, just you do like a drop off there, right, or do you?

Rachel Lindholm:

have curbside where you are. Yeah, no, no Cause. Yeah, I don't wanna make sure that same pile didn't have some pile of the cream.

Marc Culver:

I wasn't aware of that. I'm not a part of it.

Rachel Lindholm:

No cause. Even the insider, like baseball, even the Ramsey County pilot. I don't think there are any pilot areas in St Paul's, Like. I think all of the pilot areas are the outer suburbs for right now. So yeah, I do organics of like I don't know how I would be able to do this job and not do it.

Marc Culver:

Oh, yeah, you don't wanna be an hypocrite yeah.

Rachel Lindholm:

Right right, I bring them to cause I also. We have organics at our public rich facility and it's my job to empty those. So either I'll bring it with me when I'm emptying that or I'll use a drop off in the neighborhood that I live in, you know. Is it as convenient as curbside? No, but I also live in an apartment so I wouldn't have curbside anyway.

Marc Culver:

Got it.

Rachel Lindholm:

Got it, yeah, but yeah, I do organics and I keep it out and it's fine.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, so actually and you know we're gonna wrap up here in a minute, but you just touched on something there that for multifamily complexes and that that they may not have access to the same program, right yeah.

Rachel Lindholm:

Which is why we keep our drop off program going in Richfield, because we recognize that it's highly used by multifamily properties. One of our drop offs is across the street from a multi unit high rise, so it's just like this is a program that's important to keep going, even once you have curbside. But that's not to say we have at least two buildings in Richfield that have in building organics collection, which is next level, and it's great and it's awesome. It's certainly not the norm, but it's cool that buildings are interested in doing this and then educating their residents about it as well, cool.

Marc Culver:

Well, I always thank you. This was really educational. It was educational for me just because we have been my time at Roseville. We were always so eager to get something going, particularly curbside, and we had a couple of drop off locations, but it was at least available to us. But it's good to hear some of the actual experience of implementing that curbside program. So, as we wrap up the podcast here, one thing that I usually try to talk to my guests about is the use of technology in their jobs and where they've seen some advances in technology really help with some things, or maybe some things they see on the horizon. So, from a sustainability perspective and I don't know if you wanna focus on solid waste or a different component of your job but where have you seen technology really make a difference? And I'm just bringing this on you, I didn't prep this, no, it's all good, I have an answer.

Rachel Lindholm:

I have an answer I'll keep it in solid waste. So I think there's a lot of uses for technology, both on our municipal side, as it relates to solid waste. So I try and automate as much as I can in terms of when folks move in and move out and setting up service and canceling service and things like that. So that's been great and helpful, and our GIS staff are the brains behind that for sure.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, GIS is a common answer in this.

Rachel Lindholm:

Yeah, it really is. I know that there's ways to improve things, but do I have the tech? No, but GIS staff do, so shout out to them. But also I think the technology is huge on the hauler side of things. So we see a lot more happening and of course it depends on the company and what they're investing in and what they're choosing to prioritize and things like that. But what's really exciting for me is hopefully at some point it becomes industry practice to have better location mapping, because a lot of what we run into is issues with missed pickups or folks saying, oh, like a driver saying I was here but not having the data to back it up, or there's just a wide variety of issues with collections. So to be able to pinpoint and have automatic pictures taken at a stop and things like that, to really cut down on the issues that are being had. Because when you aren't the hauler as the city, or probably even if you are, you obviously have to work with a lot of other companies and staff and so just to resolve a single missed pickup issue can sometimes take a long time. So by having that automatic location data, those automatic pictures, it really helps to say yes, the hauler was out or no, the hauler was not here. Yes, the resident is reporting a true missed pickup. No, they're not. Whatever the situation is and that would cut out a lot of time for me. So I see more and more of that happening, especially with the larger haulers, but it will be cool when it's more of an industry standard.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, I agree, and we've seen a lot of advances in technology on the hauler side. You talked about automated collect, the stuff of the fans and the geotagging and the pictures and such, which makes life easier for the driver or the operator as well, but then leads into other issues of if the cart is overflowing. Yeah, most of all yeah. Yeah, so well. This has been great. I really appreciate this, rachel. Thank you, it's just kind of short notice, no problem.

Rachel Lindholm:

This has been really informative and thank you, awesome Thanks for having me.

Marc Culver:

All right, and one last thing before we go. If you have enjoyed this episode and the podcast in general, we ask that you help us spread the word. If you're on LinkedIn, comment Don't just like it, put a comment in there on the Public Works Nerds posts. You can find us on YouTube, so put a comment on there, retweet to one of our posts or repost it on Instagram, however you do that, but more importantly, better yet, tell your colleagues about the podcast. Thank you, nerds out hey.

Solid Waste in Richfield, Minnesota
Organized Collection and Recycling in Richfield
Exploring MRFs and Recycling Concepts
Recycling Markets and Organics Collection Challenges
Organics Collection, Cart Sizes, and Cleaning
Recycling and Technology in Waste Management