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Superior leaders take fact-finding tour of WLSSD composting facility

The visit provided an up-close look at the site in action.

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A group of Superior officials led by Western Lake Superior Sanitary District Environmental Program Coordinator Sarah Lerohl, front, walk up to a fresh pile of food waste that is being processed into food waste during a tour of the WLSSD composting facility Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram)
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Superior officials and staff explored new options for the city’s food waste Friday, Sept. 17, at a tour of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District’s compositing site in Duluth. The fact-finding mission was preliminary.

“This is our first step. We just wanted to see how WLSSD operates and take it from there,” said city councilor Ruth Ludwig, who represents the 7th District.

Ludwig and her husband John are master gardeners who compost at home. As part of the Superior Community Gardens Association, they’ve also helped launch composting at the Oakes Avenue Garden.

“I thought, ‘You know, it would be nice for Superior to have a city-wide composting program.’ And why reinvent the wheel when it’s already taking place here?” Ludwig said.

Superior Mayor Jim Paine said he was following the councilor’s lead.


“I have both a personal interest, I share a lot of her values on issues like environmental protection and self-sufficiency and just a love of gardening, but I think there’s a lot of serious municipal policy implications,” Paine said. “I think this could be a real benefit to the city. So here to learn, here to follow.”

Nicholas Ledin, who represents the city's 1st District, and members of the city’s public works staff also took the tour. Their guide was WLSSD’s Environmental Program coordinator Sarah Lerohl.

“Our goal is not to make compost or make money, which is a really nice part … our goal is to keep this out of the landfill,” Lerohl said.

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A sign sits beside a composting bin at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District site in Duluth Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram

Roughly 30% of the food supply in the nation is wasted, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Much of that unused food makes its way into landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in 2018, more food waste reached landfills than any other single material in everyday trash, comprising about 24% of what was brought to landfills.

This look at composting comes as Superior prepares to close its 40-acre landfill in May 2026.

"The plan is we’re going to be bringing our waste here and basically tagging on to having a contract with WLSSD just like they have a contract with us. So they’ll have a separate hauler and it will just go to a different landfill," said Superior Public Works director Todd Janigo, possibly the 200-acre landfill in Sarona.


WLSSD has been collecting yard waste since the 1990s, Lerohl said, and added the municipal component in 2006 when a law made it mandatory for restaurants under certain licensure to compost their food waste with the city. The sanitary district runs a source-separated organic materials facility, which collects the food and yard waste separately, then mixes it in correct proportions to create compost, which is sold each spring.

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A group of Superior leaders stops beside a pile of completed compost at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District's Duluth facility as environmental program coordinator Sarah Lerohl, left, holds up one of the items customers are most likely to find intact in their compost, the bar code sticker from a piece of fruit. "You can scan this at Super One," she said. Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram

The nine-month process to turn waste into compost involves a concrete pad, aerators, screening apparatus and heavy machinery to turn and move the product. Private haulers bring the compost in from restaurants and community sites.

"Nobody pays to get rid of their food waste here, but they do pay for hauling," Lerohl said, although the sanitary district contracts with a regular hauler to pick up food scraps at its nine community sites.

Janigo asked if contamination at the community composting drop sites was a big issue.

"We seem to find anything with a bin or a lid fills up with trash," he said.

Haulers take a look in the bin before taking it. If they see non-food material, they flag it and it must be picked up as trash.. Lerohl said because the bins were positioned at public sites where someone nearby can keep an eye on them, such as church parking lots and retail businesses, they haven't had many problems with contamination.


"I have one up at the Essentia Wellness Center in Hermantown, and that’s been almost a year, and had it picked up as trash once because it was inundated, but I feel like that’s not too bad for 52 weeks," Lerohl said.

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Superior officials and city staff stop at a food waste drop-off bin on the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District property during a tour of the district's composting program Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram

Assistant public works director Chris Carlson and Paine asked if it would be possible to add Superior sites to WLSSD's composting routes, or if they could get a contract to bring Superior compost to the Duluth facility. The city could contact haulers to check on feasibility and cost, Lerohl said.

A composting program would require staffing, bags and bins, even if the city could send its food waste to WLSSD. Much of the budget would go toward staff, as outreach and community engagement are a big part of the job. WLSSD has one full-time staff member devoted to composting, and four additional employees work with compost-related programming.

The Superior contingent rounded out the visit with a tour of the concrete composting pad, where gulls and geese picked through steaming piles of food waste, and saw piles of finished compost waiting to be sold in the spring.

It was educational, Janigo said.

" No promises, no direction," he said. "This is how they do things over here."

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Left to right, Assistant Public Works Director Chris Carlson, Superior Mayor Jim Paine, city councilor Ruth Ludwig and her husband John examine an Earth Cube, a new on-site composter that the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District will be experimenting with in the WLSSD parking lot Friday, Sept. .17, 2021. (Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram)

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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As reported by Douglas County Circuit Court.