What's in your garbage? UMN study examines food-waste habits of more than 120 Maplewood households

University of Minnesota researchers will spend the next six weeks digging through more than 120 residential trash bins in search of discarded food and organics.

The grimy work is part of a new study examining the food waste and organics disposal habits of 126 households in Maplewood. Local officials hope the effort will inform future organics-collection efforts.

“There has been rising interest in understanding food waste and organics disposal, and that’s what (this study is) doing is contributing to an understanding of that in people’s homes,” said Vanee Dusoruth, a U doctoral candidate in applied economics managing the study in partnership with Ramsey County and the city of Maplewood.

Food waste is a major economic and environmental issue. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of the nation’s food supply — worth billions of dollars — is wasted. And much of that food ends up in landfills, where it quickly produces methane as it decomposes.

Participating households were given educational materials on the issue of food waste prior to the study. Researchers will examine whether the materials influence residents’ disposal habits.

“We want to understand how people process that information and if that has any meaningful impact on behavior,” Dusoruth said.

The study will also look at whether food-consumption habits and the way participants value their time affect disposal habits, she said.

NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH

The study will begin Wednesday. Maplewood participants will take their trash out for their normal weekly pickup, which a single hauler will collect and send to the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus. A team of students will then sort through the trash and pick out foods and organics, which they will weigh and log data on.

The students participated in a trash sorting at the Livestock Arena on the St. Paul campus Wednesday to prepare for the study. One student dropped out within minutes of learning she would be sorting real garbage.

Hennepin County waste reduction and recycling specialist Nancy Lo, who led the training with Dusoruth, offered the students some sound advice: “Don’t grab what you can’t see.”

“There will be maggots, dirty diapers, lots of poop and bad smells,” Lo said. “You never know what some people will throw away.”

INFORMING FUTURE WORK

Researchers will analyze participants’ trash until the final collection of food and organics waste on Oct. 24. Participants will complete an exit survey upon completion and receive $100 for their involvement.

Dusoruth said she will submit a report on her findings to Ramsey County by the end of the year and hopes to publish academic papers within the next year.

Officials from Ramsey County and Maplewood hope the findings will help inform future efforts to mitigate residential food waste.

Mary Elizabeth Berglund, an environmental health supervisor with St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health, said the data on residents’ disposal habits will be useful for future county organics programs.

“We’re excited to see the results of this whole study,” Berglund said.

Chris Swanson, Maplewood’s environmental and city code specialist, agreed and said the results will be valuable to communities throughout the Twin Cities metro area.

“Nobody really knows in the cities how to do collection of those materials yet, so I think this will give us some good information to work with,” Swanson said.

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Slider photo credit: John Autey/ Pioneer Press