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Giving food waste new life; Osakis schools part of compost program

Steve Vrchota (left) and Nathan Reinbold show off a garbage pile in the materials recycling facility tipping floor that hopefully will contain less organics as their new program kicks in. (Judd Martinson | Echo Press)1 / 2
The organics recycling table at the Osakis school creates an easy way for students to separate trash and recyclables from their trays. (Contributed)2 / 2

A new program in Douglas and Pope counties aims make better good use of food waste by turning it into soil-improving compost and to improve the efficiency of its garbage incinerator.

The program hopes to accomplish this with the cooperation of schools, restaurants and other food-based business, at no cost to them.

"About 40 percent of garbage is food waste or soiled non-recyclable paper," said Steve Vrchota, executive director of Pope/Douglas Solid Waste Management.

Vrchota is in charge of the Alexandria facility that burns garbage, turning it into usable energy. Food waste doesn't burn well like other garbage and turning it into compost uses organic waste to its full potential, explained Vrchota and environmental coordinator Nathan Reinbold.

"It's a better use of materials," Vrchota said.

The goal is for food to be turned back into food through composting creating better soil. Adding nutrient-rich humus from the compost to sandy and rocky soils helps grass and gardens be more productive.

Producing food, recycling organics, making compost, which helps food production all over again illustrates the "recycling triangle," Reinbold said.

Pope/Douglas Solid Waste Management is inviting schools, restaurants, or any commercial businesses disposing of food products to join the new Pope/Douglas Organics Recycling Program. The program would use all food scraps (including meat, bone and eggshells) and soiled non-recyclable papers such as paper plates and napkins, chopsticks, corn dog sticks, tea bags and coffee filters.

Several schools joined a "pre pilot" program last year including Osakis, Woodland Elementary, Alexandria Area High School and Minnewaska, Reinbold said.

"It didn't cost us anything," said head cook at the Osakis school district, Judy Thornbloom, about joining the organics recycling program.

Another reason Osakis joined was to teach kids to recycle, Thornbloom said.

The school uses a table with three different compartments for trash, recycling, and another for organics. Thornbloom mentioned the school improving from throwing away eight to nine bags of garbage to recycling eight bags of organics and only throwing away one or two bags of trash.

The program will add another bin to locations for organic recycling, just like regular recycling and garbage, explained Reinbold. The effects on the environment, publicity of going green and cheaper cost are incentives for customers to join.

Pope/Douglas Solid Waste Management purchased a truck and will pick up organic recyclables one or two days a week determined by the amount of organic recycling a business generates. The service will be free as part of a two year pilot project. After two years, the agency will decide on a cost, but it will be cheaper than regular garbage, Vrchota said.

Vrchota mentioned that it's still critical to recycle versus throwing everything in one garbage can. The facility tries to separate recyclable materials out of garbage, but often the recyclable products are contaminated by food waste that was mixed in with the garbage. Organic waste not only inhibits salvaging other recyclables, but creates a bad work environment for the employees working in the facility.

The organics the company picks up will be transported to Tri-County Organics in St. Cloud for composting.

Solid Waste Management already purchased the truck and has a driver for the organics recycling program. "Everything will be here in August," Vrchota said.

The recycling center encourages people to consider the recycling pyramid: reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, dispose. The most effective option is to reduce consumption, such as choosing to use a glass instead of a plastic water bottle. The least effective is disposing garbage, Vrchota said.

More information can be found about the new recycling opportunity by visiting or calling 320-763-9340.