The Otter Tail County Solid Waste Department held its 4th waste audit of Fergus Falls residential garbage last week. Past waste audits were held in 2015 prior to single-sort recycling being implemented, 2017, 2019, and now 2021. A waste audit is a physical analysis of the waste stream, with waste being sorted into categories to learn about disposal trends. Past audits focused on recycling rates before and after single sort recycling was implemented. Data from repeated waste audits can show trends over time and can be used to inform educational initiatives and programming. Garbage from 230 households in the same neighborhood was collected for each audit, brought to the Recycling Center, and sorted by hand into the following categories: garbage (for example non-recyclable packaging, bags, pet waste, personal hygiene products), recycling (plastic containers, glass, metal cans, paper, cardboard), organic waste such as food scraps or wasted food, Household Hazardous Waste (paint, cleaners, rechargeable batteries), reusables (items that could have been donated or used in some other way such as toys, books, clothing), electronics, and scrap metal (wire hangers, pots and pans, wire shelving).


Per Household Waste Generation – The average amount of waste generated per household each week was between 31 – 34.5 lbs for the years 2015, 2017, and 2019. Waste generation was up an astonishing 6 lbs per household per week in 2021 for an average of 40.5 lbs per household, likely due to the holiday weekend preceding the waste audit. The 2021 audit was the only year the waste audit fell right after Thanksgiving, which although was a deviation from how past audits were done, revealed some concerns about food waste and recycling during the holidays. It is estimated that we generate 25% more waste during the holidays, which is supported by findings from the 2021 waste audit.

Recycling – Findings from past waste audits found that the amount of recycling mixed with household garbage decreased significantly after the single-sort recycling program started, from 25% in 2015 down to 11% in 2019, demonstrating the effectiveness of the program at getting residents to recycle more. However, 2021 was the first year since single-sort recycling started that recycling in the garbage increased, suggesting that recyclables are put in the garbage more often at holiday gatherings than during a normal week. Simply putting out a bin labeled for recycling at holiday gatherings could reduce the amount of recyclables ending up in the garbage.

Organics and Food Waste – The 2019 waste audit focused more specifically on food waste and showed that 25% of residential garbage is organic matter, half of which was food waste that could have been prevented, much of it in unopened packages. The 2021 waste audit had similar findings, with 26% of the waste being organic matter, and a large portion of that was from food in unopened packages which if stored properly or eaten before it went bad would not have been wasted. This much food waste has an environmental toll and wastes money – the estimated cost of food waste for the average family of four is $1,500 each year from food waste that could have been prevented with proper storage, more careful shopping, and other food waste prevention strategies.

Reuse and other categories – Approximately 3% of the waste was items that could have been donated or reused in some other way, including clothing, holiday décor, household items still in the original packaging, bedding, and more. Please remember to donate useable items instead of throwing them away. Very small portions of the waste stream were items that could have gone in a scrap metal bin, to the Household Hazardous Waste program, or demolition landfill material.

“The City of Fergus Falls urges all residents to take advantage of the “Single Sort” collection service that the city operates (made possible by the recycling fee that is paid by every utility account holder).  We had great momentum in the first few years of the program and we would like to see the amount of recyclables collected to continue to increase.  As we are in the Holiday Season, participating in more social gatherings and/or family get togethers, please consider having readily available and conspicuous containers for recyclables. Eliminating or reducing food waste is also key in reducing the weight (tons) that we are paying to dispose of; residents are encouraged to consider backyard composting to reduce how much waste will either end up in a landfill or incinerator”. – Len Taylor, Fergus Falls Public Works Director

The Otter Tail County Solid Waste Department would like to thank the volunteers that made 2021 and other past waste audits possible, and the City of Fergus Falls for coordinating collection of the waste for each audit. Participating in the audit this year were Jeff Legge – who has volunteered at all four waste audits, Sue Wika – sociology instructor at M State who also participated in 2019, and 17 sociology and humanities students from M State.

“Community involvement is long-standing tradition in the sociology department at M State Fergus Falls. It’s wonderful to work in partnership with Otter Tail County Solid Waste so that students can learn about community values and practices. It was an eye-opening experience.” –  Dr. Sue Wika, M State Instructor

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