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Minnesota State Fair studies how to make tons of trash disappear

In the Eco Experience building, this giant ball of paper, weighing 426 pounds, represents how much paper Minnesotans throw away every 30 seconds Monday, Aug. 25, 2014 at the State Fair in Falcon Heights. Jennifer Simonson/MPR News1 / 2
David Gingold puts a new trash bag in a garbage can at the Minnesota State Fair Monday, Aug. 25, 2014 in Falcon Heights. Gingold works all 12 days of the fair supervising groups of volunteers who raise money for their organization by picking up trash on the fairgrounds and keeping the trash cans from overflowing. Jennifer Simonson/MPR News2 / 2

FALCON HEIGHTS - Every day at the Minnesota State Fair, a crew of more than 200 workers and volunteers clean up the fairgrounds.

Fairgoers pitch their cans and bottles into 450 different recycling bins. Nearly everything else -- cups, utensils, the leftover fried whatever on a stick -- ends up in more than 1,100 trash bins. All that trash -- 650 tons of it last year -- goes off to an incinerator.

With all the food waste generated at the fair, there is great potential for more composting. Commercial composters can take everything from meat to dirty napkins and turn it into a rich mixture used for farming and landscaping.

With that in mind, this year the fair's trash supervisors are trying to figure out how to make the fair a zero-waste event. The fair likely is off to a good start, given the 41 tons of waste it sent to a composter last year, sanitation supervisor Cory Franzmeier said.

There are several "recycle your corn cob" bins next to the corn roast. Behind the Grandstand track, several dumpsters are dedicated to food waste.

"Our composting program all started with the corn cobs," Franzmeier said. "Every year we try to grow it a little more, so as you can see we have lemon peels and potato peels."

Franzmeier's staff is exploring whether the fair could compost even more waste, such as napkins and serving boats. They plan a trash audit to determine what percentage of the total waste is compostable.

"We're trying to do the best we can to get to that point of being a zero-waste event, or close to it," he said. "We'll learn a lot after this fair, I mean it could very well be possible that that garbage bag could be compostable and everything in it could be compostable."

Franzmeier predicts plastic ups will be the item that holds things back. Most of them aren't compostable, and he said switching to a type that is won't happen overnight with the hundreds of fair vendors that set up shop for just 12 days.

"I think everybody's trying to get to this direction. It's not a perfect situation, but I think we do a pretty good job of getting everything where it should go," he said.

One State Fair exhibitor cheering on efforts for more recycling and composting is the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which coordinates the fair's Eco Experience.

"We look forward to see what they come up with," MPCA spokeswoman Pam McCurdy said. "I think it's just going to get better and better."

The MPCA did its own statewide trash audit and found that both food waste and paper are ending up in landfills more than they should. One of the main attractions at this year's Eco Experience is the world-record-breaking largest ball of paper that represents how much paper Minnesotans throw away in 30 seconds.

"With our last waste composition study we said wow, we're still throwing a billion pounds of paper away every year," McCurdy said. "That's a lot of paper. A lot of paper that actually gets reused, so it's a resource and it provides jobs all across the state."

The huge ball of paper and signage have turned lots of heads as Minnesotans realize how much waste they create and how much could be recycled if people tried.

"I'm always surprised, because it's not that hard," Julie Steinhagen of Chaska said of recycling. "Every 30 seconds. That's incredible."