St. Cloud saves $100,000 switching to compostable bags

Photo courtesy of Public Works
Photo courtesy of Public Works

St. Cloud Public Works is helping to save the city about $100,000 annually by moving away plastic yard bags and welcoming a new compostable bag design.

Making the transition from plastic to compostable yard bags was an internal decision made by the Public Works Department. The driving force behind the idea was to implement an initiative to help reduce the amount of waste headed to landfills.

Per year, Maintenance Supervisor for Sanitation and Parking Daniel Legatt said Public Works sold roughly 130,000 to 160,000 plastic bags. The first order of compostable bags came in late 2014. Public Works sold about 10,000 to 20,000 compostable bags that year.

While making the transition, there was still a mix of compostable and plastic bags, because Legatt said the department wanted residents to use up the remaining plastic bags before making an entire switch to compostable bags.

And so, when Public Works came to pick up the yard bags, they were throwing a fair mix of plastic and compostable bags into the truck. From there, staff members would have to sort out the plastic bags from the compostable bags at the compost site.

This year, Legatt said the Public Works team worked 10 months out of the year, given the mild weather conditions. In past years, they would still work around seven to nine months out of the year separating the plastic bags from the compostable bags.

The de-bagging process proved difficult at times, too, he said. At the compost site, a few staff would load the plastic bags onto a conveyer belt for shredding. When the bags and yard waste came out on the other side, another staff member would help separate the plastic from the waste, so that plastic pieces didn’t enter the compost pile.

This was a nearly impossible task, though, he said. Plastic pieces from the bags would become shredded into small pieces that would go unseen. It was like finding a needle in a haystack.

The transition from plastic to compostable completely eliminates that process.

“Gone, completely gone,” Legatt said.

He explained that between providing fuel for the conveyor belt and the Bobcat, the overall maintenance of the machines, paying two to three full-time staff and all the time spent on runs and in the process, Public Works is saving roughly $100,000 and is able to put staff on other projects that have taken a backseat.

From an environmental point of view, by eliminating plastic from landfills, St. Cloud’s carbon footprint becomes smaller, while soil contamination and pollutants are also reduced.

“This was an achievable objective,” Legatt said. “That’s part of our sustainability efforts, being environmentally friendly and doing whatever we can to prevent waste from entering landfills.”

The number of compostable bags sold increased in 2015, but along with them came complaints from residents using them, Legatt explained.

One of those residents was St. Cloud State Professor Michner Bender, who teaches classes on waste management.

“They’re not very good,” Bender said. But, as an environmentally-conscious person, he said, “I like the idea.”

He explained that when you filled the bag, it had to be taken to the curb directly afterward because of how fast the bags began breaking down.

“There were several times I had to double bag,” Bender said.

Legatt said the first shipment in 2015 was defective. The first problem, the bags broke down at an “accelerated rate,” meaning that waste materials that produced juices, like fruits, sped the compost process up significantly, he explained.

The second issue had to do with the sealing resin. The resin wasn’t made quite right, so it wouldn’t seal the bag at the correct temperature, causing convenience and handling issues for residents and the people stopping curbside to pick them up.

That being the case, when people, like the Public Works department, came to pick up the bags, the waste materials would fall straight through the bottom.

Brad Kothman, assistant maintenance supervisor for sanitation and parking, explained residents were upset with the mess. Public Works sent staff to some homes to clean up after faulty bags.

Kothman said the department has done field testing with several hundred bags, taking advice from residents to see what’s still needed for the 2016 batch coming mid-April.

“It’s a very difficult challenge to have, because you want bags to break down, just not too fast,” Kothman said, adding that some bags broke down too fast and others too slow in certain weather conditions.

What’s New for 2016

There’s a different approach with this coming batch of bags. They still allow for 30 gallons of material, with a max weight at 40 pounds–down from 50 with the plastic bags. The new bags have a reinforced bottom with a star-seal design.

Drawstrings haven’t been incorporated into the new design yet, because of cost and meeting certain criteria on the manufacturing end. The set cost for the new star seal bags is 75 cents, up from 15 cents for the plastic bags.

However, even with the increased cost and bumps in the road last year, the continued use of compostable bags proves beneficial in a number of ways, and Bender said especially from an environmental standpoint.

Bender said, “There are real concerns about plastics in the environment… [Plastic bags] don’t go away.”

Legatt said by fully switching to compostable bags, the city prevents roughly 50 tons of plastic waste from entering the landfill.

Despite the high failure rate of the 2015 order of compostable bags, Bender plans to continue using the compostable bags.

“Anything that would eliminate plastic from the waste drain would be good,” Bender said.

And while Bender doesn’t collect a lot of lawn waste, because he opts to mulch instead, he resists throwing the yard waste away in plastic bags.

“I’m not going to throw it away in a trash bag,” he said. “I think recycling programs and trash program are fantastic. Anything that keeps things from going to landfills is great.”

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