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Community Members Meet to Discuss Sustainable Waste Management

Alex Schlee | Staff Writer | 2-3-2012

A group of about 35 community members met in a small cafe called the Rail River Folk School, located in an old warehouse near the south end of the Irvine Avenue bridge on Tuesday, January 24th to sit in on a discussion about Bemidji’s waste management. 

The Folk School is a compact collection of different meeting places packed into one small warehouse room.  The school serves as a cafe, a library, a classroom, and an art exhibit all in one.

“We saw this space and fell in love,” said Jessica Saucedo, one of the co-founders of the Folk School.  “We wanted a place to host classes and create a community meeting place.”

The Folk School hosts many different community events, including the local farmers market, and a series of meetings called Sustainability Tuesdays.  The Folk School began working with the coordinators of Sustainable Tuesdays at the beginning of January.

“We’ve offered classes like this before, but they were never to this magnitude,” said Saucedo.

Sustainable Tuesdays are a series of presentations sponsored by the Minnesota Green Corps and the Indigenous Environmental Network.  These meetings have been taking place every Tuesday since January 10th, and will continue through the 31st.  Due to scheduling conflicts, the meetings will be moving to Mondays starting next month.  Each meeting, lasting from 6 to 8 p.m., features a variety of different speakers and discussions.  Tuesday the 24th’s meeting was “Cafe Night,” and featured a discussion with local guest speakers.

Three speakers attended the presentation: Steve Strasser, a habitat resource manager who works for a “Re-Store” here in Bemidji; Brandy Toft from the Leech Lake band of Ojibwe, who works for Leech Lake Air Quality; and Josh Burnham, an entrepreneur in vermiculture (the farming of worms for composting purposes).  A fourth speaker was scheduled to present at the meeting, but could not make it there on time.  He did end up giving his presentation after finally arriving, but this was not until the meeting was over and many had left.

At the Cafe Night, visitors to the Folk School could move around in small groups between guest speakers.  Each speaker gave a short presentation on their field of expertise.  Strasser spoke about reusable building materials, Toft spoke about composting in establishments on local reservations and then about radon emissions in homes, and Burnham spoke about using worm farming for fertilizer.

Steve Strasser spoke about the Re-Store, a local building supply thrift shop, at Tuesday’s meeting, informing guests about the store’s services and mission to provide the community with a sustainable building resource.  At the Re-Store, building materials from old homes can be taken to be reused for new homes.

This practice saves materials from going to waste at the local waste management plant, where old building materials that can still be put to good use are often taken and disposed of instead.  Strasser’s Re-Store often finds itself in competition with waste management companies due to its being mistaken for a small business, as opposed to the non-profit organization that it truly is.

The Re-Store’s business is to tear down old homes and collect materials from it that can be reused in the building of new homes.  The kind of materials that they look for include plywood, floorboards, two-by-fours, and old trusses, amongst other things like furniture and appliances.  The store sells materials it collects to the public to raise money for the Habitat for Humanity organization.  In addition to materials collected from tear-down jobs, the Re-Store also accepts donations from the community to its stock.

Another speaker at the meeting was Brandy Toft, who works for Leech Lake Air Quality, and is an active member of the Leech Lake Objibwe community.  She gave three short presentations on the meeting on the 24th, the first about composting in her community, and the other two about air quality and dangerous household chemical emissions.

The Leech Lake Reservation’s “Green Team” has recently come up with the idea of composting on the reservation, specifically in some of their largest establishments such as the Palace Casino and Hotel, the Tribal K-12 school, and the Tribal College.  Compostable materials used by the reservation include paper, cardboard, food scraps, and fiber products.  The practice of composting waste rather than paying to have waste management companies take care of it has saved the reservation a lot of money; it is projected that $14,000 dollars will be saved.

In addition to saving money normally spent on waste management, saves money on water and fertilizer in agriculture.  The Tribal K-12 school uses their compost for a school garden, the Palace Casino uses theirs for landscaping, and the Tribal college uses theirs for a campus garden and assorted landscaping projects.

Toft then went on to give two smaller presentations of air quality. The first focused on “burn barrels,” an outdated practice of burning household waste in a barrel in one’s backyard known to emit dioxins and carcinogenic toxins. The second looked at radon emissions and urged the audience to have their homes screened for high radon levels.

The final speaker was Josh Burnham, who farms worms to produce fertilizer, which he sells locally.  He uses earthworm manure just like many use livestock manure to produce fertilizer.

“With worms, you don’t have to worry about the smell,” said Burnham.

Burnham uses food scraps from BSU’s dining hall to feed his worms.  He has been collaborating with BSU since November.

So, how does BSU handle it’s waste?  The Sustainability Office is working on a vermiculture study similar to Josh Burnham’s enterprise, and the Walnut Dining Center actively collaborates with Burnham’s worm farming by providing him with leftover food scraps.  In addition, all campus buildings contain recycling bins for fiber products and plastic and aluminum containers, a policy many BSU students are probably familiar with.

According to Erika Baily-Johnson, the coordinator in BSU’s Sustainability Office, BSU is working on a procurement policy that would consider the life cycle of products the university would purchase when ordering them.

These meetings discussing sustainability will be continuing, now on Mondays instead of Tuesdays, though still in the same location.  The last meeting of the month on January 31st featured a waste expert panel where audience members could find out what happens to their garbage once it’s picked up.