Bemidji State University alumna Aili Kultala ’19 is working hard to convince you to think twice before throwing household food scraps in the trash.
Hailing from Stacy, Minn., Kultala works for Minnesota GreenCorps, a statewide environmental protection initiative coordinated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and is assigned to Beltrami County as a Waste Reduction, Recycling and Organics Management team member. Kultala’s job to educate the public about important waste management practices through Beltrami County’s composting program.
Food waste education is important to Kultala. She saw first-hand how much food is wasted each day as a student worker in Bemidji State University’s Sustainability Office, helping coordinate the office’s “Weigh the Waste” project.
“Once a semester, we would weigh and categorize students’ food waste to show how much waste was generated,” she said. “With that data, our office would work to implement ideas to reduce food waste in BSU’s dining halls.”
Kultala draws on these experiences to help manage and educate citizens about Beltrami County’s two compost collection bins – one at the Bemidji transfer station and another about 30 miles north near the town of Blackduck.
These large, steel bins combine nitrogen-rich organic matter like food scraps with carbon-rich organic matter like yard trimmings. Oxygen, heat, worms, fungi and microbes begin the decomposition process as the bin fills up. Once the facilities’ bins are full, they are taken to a nearby Polk County facility where they are dumped into windrows to complete the decomposition process.
Beltrami County’s compost program has seen impressive growth since it began in June 2019. According to Kultala, 63 residents, three businesses and two schools have been regular contributors of food waste and other organic material. To date, over seven tons have been composted in Beltrami County; Bemidji State University has dropped off nearly four tons of compostable material from their dining halls since January 2020.
So what’s the harm in dumping food waste in the garbage?
“Contrary to popular belief, food scraps sent to landfills don’t break down to compost. Landfills lack the right environment; oxygen, microbes and bacteria are needed to break down food scraps,” she said.
Without oxygen, microbes and bacteria, food waste produces large amounts of methane - a harmful greenhouse gas – as it decomposes.
Composting has benefits beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on landfills. When added to gardens, landscaping and farm fields, compost improves soil structure, enriches the soil and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, whose runoff can pollute lakes, rivers and other water sources.
The environmental studies grad is encouraged seeing Beltrami County’s response to composting, especially for such a new county-wide initiative.
“It’s exciting to see composting coming to the forefront of conversation in northern Minnesota,” Kultala said. “I hope to help change the perspective that waste is inevitable, but preventable.”