Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Municipal Composting

Reprinted with permission from the Valley News. May not be reproduced or distributed.

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer

   Hanover -- Town Manager Julia Griffin's job description does not mention banana peels, coffee grounds or leftover pizza. There's no reference to moldy bread or rotting lettuce. But lately, Griffin has been thinking a lot about these things. She's on a mission to get Hanover to compost.
   "We could really extend the life of the Lebanon landfill if we could pull all the food waste out," Griffin said from her office last week. "Not only can we reduce our solid waste cost and volume, but we'd be recycling the waste going to dumps to food production instead."
   Griffin is perhaps breaking the stereotype of what comes to mind when people picture a compost connoisseur. She doesn't wear Birkenstocks or muck boots to the office, and her work generally focuses on town ordinances and finances rather than tractors and chickens. She's known around town as a woman who gets things done. So when Griffin leans forward in her office chair and talks excitedly about a plan to entice Hanover's downtown restaurants to recycle their food waste, she seems to be driving home a point: composting has gone beyond the realm of farmers and natural-food junkies and made the leap into the world of business and city planning.
   "Our challenge is to make it cost-effective," Griffin said. "It's simple and straightforward, but there's a level of logistics to work out."
   After taking a tour of Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District's composting facility in Montpelier last year, Griffin approached retiring Bernice A. Ray Elementary School principal Bruce Williams about starting a composting program there. Williams, a gardener himself who had already helped implement a school vegetable garden, was immediately receptive.
   "We'd been talking about this for many years," Williams said. "But Julia Griffin and the town of Hanover were really the organizing forces that got this thing rolling."
   Griffin is more modest. She says others in the Hanover area had broken ground well before she got involved: Dartmouth College composts and reuses 263 tons of food waste annually, Kendal Retirement Community also composts, and the group Sustainable Hanover has long pushed for measures to reduce waste. But the kind of successful, large-scale operation that Central Vermont Waste operates is yet to be found in the Upper Valley.
   "We need a force like that around here," Griffin said.
   In the meantime, the most logical place to start a pilot program was with some of Hanover's youngest residents.
   "The idea from the get-go was, you start with the younger children and they'll become advocates," Williams said.
   Though they've been recycling for three decades, this past school year was the first that Ray School students practiced composting, and they've so far diverted more than a ton of food waste. Because each class eats lunch individually, instead of in one large cafeteria, each room has its own bucket system that students flock to at the end of lunch.
   "That makes quality control easier to manage," Williams said. "We make sure we're clean and efficient."
   Behind the school, next to the big green Dumpster and bins of recyclables, a line of clean, trash-barrel-like "totes" stand ready to collect the food waste. Custodial supervisor Brian Lukowitz said that some people were initially skeptical about the hassle or hygiene of composting, but "we think the composting process is actually cleaner than having all that slop in the Dumpster -- boy does that stink!"
   With the compost system, a layer of sawdust (donated by the high school woodshop) is placed over the food waste, and the totes are picked up weekly by Bob Sandberg, who brings the waste to his farm in Corinth and returns the containers clean and ready for the next batch.
   "We don't have any issues with either critters or insects," Lukowitz said.
   Eventually, Williams envisions a system that will enable the school to use its compost in the vegetable garden. But for now, employing Sandberg makes the most sense.
   Sandberg's service makes sense to Emily Neuman, too. As sustainability coordinator for the Co-op Food Stores, one of Neuman's tasks is to ensure the grocery stores in Hanover, Lebanon and White River Junction meet their zero-waste goal.
   "Being a company that deals with a lot of food, we had to figure it out," Neuman said, of the logistical challenges. "There was no other way about it."
   Neuman said that the Co-op stores currently donate about 40 percent of their unsellable food to the nonprofit organization Willing Hands and 20 percent to local farms for pig feed. The remaining 40 percent -- about 315,000 pounds of food waste last year -- goes to Sandberg.
   On his twice-weekly trips around the Upper Valley, Sandberg makes about 40 stops to pick up bins of waste, utilizing Vermont state regulations that allow farmers to compost just about everything, including meat and dairy products. New Hampshire does not allow meat at composting facilities, which makes large-scale composting difficult there, as few businesses or restaurants have time to sort their food scraps, Neuman said.
   At Sandberg's farm, Cookeville Compost, a 30-by-30-foot pile stands about 10 feet tall. Sandberg churns and aerates the massive compost pile regularly with his tractor.
   Heat generated by the composting process reaches temperatures up to 150 degrees -- hot enough to melt snow in the winter. Once it "quits heating up," Sandberg said, he lets it cure for a couple months, and then, presto: "the most beautiful fertilizer you can imagine!"
   Unlike chemical fertilizer, Sandberg said, compost isn't water-soluble, so it doesn't wash away in a heavy rain. And unlike food that decomposes at a dump, the composting process doesn't give off methane.
   About half of Sandberg's compost is sold by the tractor-load to local farmers and gardeners for $25 a bucket. The other half is spread on his hay fields. He hopes to expand his operation in the future: more and more businesses contact him about composting every month, he said.
   Sandberg thinks more and more communities will follow in San Francisco's footsteps and enact mandatory composting laws. "Might as well get a head start now, because we're going to have to do it anyway," he said, referring to the thinking of some of the businesses that employ him.
   In Hanover, "the Co-op became a test (for the town) to see whether Bob (Sandberg)'s program worked," Neuman said. And has it?
   "It has worked perfectly. Bob does all the things we couldn't figure out how to do," she said.
   That includes saving money: The Co-op pays Northeast Waste Service by the pound for its waste removal, so reducing the amount of trash that goes to the landfill results in savings.
   With the implementation of its compost program, the Co-op has halved the amount of waste it sends to the dump. And while there's a cost to Sandberg's services (around $14 per tote), Neuman said that in 2010, the Hanover and Lebanon stores alone saved around $7,000.
   There is one sticking point: No one else in the area seems willing to take on the job of picking up and transporting the food waste.
   "It's a fair amount of work," Sandberg said, noting that an interested farmer would need to apply for a permit, have a truck and a trailer for picking up the waste, and also have a tractor, a pressure washer and the 150 or so totes he keeps in constant rotation to get the business started.
   "The big challenge for this project to take off is to find a site where the food waste can be taken, to work out hauling and to make it easy for businesses to compost," Hanover's Griffin said. Businesses also need a financial incentive.
   Toby Fried, owner of Lou's Restaurant and Bakery in Hanover, said that he tried composting last year and lost money on the venture, because he and other downtown businesses share a large Dumpster. No matter how much -- or how little -- waste they fill the Dumpster with, each business pays a flat monthly rate, not a per-pound rate like the Co-op (which owns a trash compactor).
   "Nobody has individual trash cans," Fried said. "We just dump into one big one and we get billed on a monthly basis whether we use it or not."
   "In theory, if you compost you'd have less trash and reduce your trash bill, but in this case it didn't work," he added.
   Matt Brown, a sales executive with Northeast Waste, said that his company's dump truck picks up 150 Dumpsters daily, including those shared by Hanover's downtown businesses. Weighing each one just isn't possible.
   However, Brown said "there's something on the horizon that will certainly make a difference for the food industry."
   "We just got introduced (recently) to a new machine," he said. "It extracts all the water out of the food waste ... and turns it into steam and evaporates. What's left can be used as a fertilizer."
   Brown said he didn't have any further information about the process yet, but will know more in coming weeks.
   Griffin is open to the idea. Her goal, and that of the town, is to reduce the amount of waste entering the landfill each year. "Whether you're composting in a local farm or doing machinery-based composting" doesn't matter, she said. She added that an estimated 40 to 60 percent of restaurants' total waste is from uneaten or unused food.
   Fried, of Lou's Restaurant, said he hopes the town, the waste companies and downtown businesses will be able to figure out a way to make composting feasible.
   "It comes down to the logistics," he said. "Most restaurants would do it if it made sense."
   Krista Langlois can be reached at or 603-727-3305.

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