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The more than 300,000 households in Ramsey and Washington counties — including St. Paul — soon will be able to recycle food scraps curbside in what promises to be the biggest innovation in East Metro residential recycling since the advent of curbside pickup of plastics, metals and paper three decades ago.

Ramsey/Washington Recycling & Energy broke ground this spring on a more than $40 million expansion at its Newport facility to make room for high-tech robotics that will sift out the biodegradable bags residents will use to dispose of food scraps in their trash bins. The goal is to start curbside pickup for single-family homes, apartments and condos in late 2022.

Nicole Stewart, Washington County's senior environmental resource manager, said capturing food waste — which makes up 25% of trash — will help achieve the state's recycling goals for metro counties.

"This is really that next wave of capturing and getting those additional recyclables," she said.

The east metro collaboration will be one of the largest curbside organics recycling programs in Minnesota. Minneapolis and about 60 other cities across the state currently have curbside organics recycling but in most places, it's a city-by-city effort, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The Ramsey/Washington program will add more than 50 new communities to the list, with a combined population of more than 800,000.

"It will be a big addition in terms of access to curbside organics recycling," said Tim Farnan, principal planner at the MPCA. "I know there are a lot of folks clamoring to have this service here. They are excited to see it come online."

Farnan said organics recycling is a relatively simple thing residents can do to feel as if they are chipping away at climate change and environmental justice issues.

"You can really have very little trash with this," he said.

A second phase of the Newport site expansion will focus on recyclables recovery. New equipment will retrieve cans, plastics and cardboard erroneously thrown into the trash — an estimated 400,000 aluminum cans and as many as 750,000 plastic water bottles per day.

Ramsey and Washington counties began collaborating on waste management in the 1980s with an eye toward recycling and avoiding landfills. The counties in the past few years studied several curbside organics recycling options before deciding on this method, which won't require a separate organics bin.

"This is a more economical way where we rely on the existing waste haulers to collect from the households," Stewart said.

It's also user-friendly — residents won't have to store another waste bin, Stewart said, and they will be able to order their organics recycling bags online at no cost.

But mapping out the logistics of curbside collection and sorting is just part of the preparation. The counties also have to figure out where to send organic material for composting and recycling, said Zack Hansen, Ramsey County environmental health director.

Curbside aluminum, plastic and paper recycling started decades ago because there were markets for those recycled materials. Markets for organics, including businesses that have expanded from composting yard waste to organic waste, are now emerging, Hansen said.

The counties also are exploring the use of anaerobic digestion technology, in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material without oxygen, that can both manage waste and create a source of energy.

The technology already is in use in other industrial settings, including animal feedlots, Hansen said.

Residents of Ramsey and Washington counties already can recycle organics, but they have to drop waste off at designated sites. About 11% of Ramsey County residents are currently dropping off their organics, Hansen said.

"The sites are there for the early adopters — people who are excited about doing something like this," he said.

A survey taken in both counties indicated that 90% of residents would likely participate in a curbside program, Stewart said.

St. Paul resident Jennifer Nguyen Moore said she's eager for curbside organics pickup to start. She said she already does some vegetable and fruit scrap composting in her backyard and drops off her remaining food scraps at one of Ramsey County's 16 sites.

Moore, who has a degree in environmental policy, makes it a priority to recycle her household organics, but said she understands that others may not have the time or access to a vehicle.

"They need to make it as easy as possible," she said. "I don't like driving to drop off a bag. I know a lot of my neighbors don't participate because of that one extra step."

Moore, who is Vietnamese, noted that while environmental stewardship is a value that cuts across cultures, recycling campaigns sometimes miss immigrants and people of color — a blind spot that the ease of curbside pickup might remedy.

"I think it's really important that we take action now. I am thinking about our future generations," she said. "I want to make sure we have clean air and clean water for our kids."

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037