Composting: because waste is a terrible thing to waste

The fully enclosed Earth Flow composting system  can mix and shred up to three tons of organic waste per day.
Photo courtesy of Green Mountain Technologies

The fully enclosed Earth Flow composting system can mix and shred up to three tons of organic waste per day.

Stepping into the breach of a decades-long Island battle, Green Mountain Technologies (GMT) president Michael Bryan-Brown and sales manager Mollie Bogardus recently came to Martha’s Vineyard to pitch Island-wide composting.

Mr. Brown and Ms. Bogardus made their initial foray to the Island in May to speak at a composting conference organized by Tomar Waldman of Vineyard Haven.

“We gathered so much information in May, and we recognized the huge opportunity here,” Ms. Bogardus told The Times at the recent Living Local Harvest Fest in West Tisbury. “Hauling waste off the Island was even more expensive than we expected, as much as $300 a ton. And compost here is imported. It starts at $35 a [cubic] yard to well over $60 a [cubic] yard. We became convinced this is a no-brainer. There’s tremendous savings to be had here.”

The Massachusetts Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs stated in a 2010 report, “Castoff food is the largest single component of the waste put in landfills and burned in trash incinerators. Twenty-five per cent of the waste stream in Massachusetts (after recycling), is food waste, compostable paper and other organics.”

Mr. Brown said waste equals costs for residents of Martha’s Vineyard. “You have the highest disposal costs in the state and maybe New England,” Mr. Brown said. “Twenty-five percent of waste is compostable waste. So you deduct that from the total cost, and look at the price that farmers and landscapers pay for compost on the Island, it’s a win-win situation.”

Pay dirt

According to a Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) report, dated December, 2009, “Currently we ship 33,500 tons of trash off-Island each year, accounting for 15 percent of the Steamship Authority’s freight traffic. Our generation of waste is growing much faster than our year-round population. We import compost at great expense, while shipping off sewage sludge and organic materials we could use to make our own fertilizer and compost. A diverse and local composting infrastructure is needed on the Island. Composting can take place effectively in a wide range of scale and sizes: small backyard bins, community gardens, onsite systems at schools and hospitals, rural and urban farm based operations, and large low-tech and high-tech regional facilities.”

The last landfill on the Vineyard closed in 2009. Since then, waste has been shipped off Island, truckload by truckload. In 2009, according to MVC estimates, it cost a little more than $10 million to get rid of Island waste, a quarter of which, worth $2.5 million, could be composted. This substantial savings doesn’t include the benefit passed along to Islanders by having home-grown compost available on the market, Mr. Bogardus said.

“A lot of the farmers can’t get the good compost because they can’t afford it,” said Ms. Bogardus. “For the landscapers who are servicing the expensive homes, the cost probably isn’t much of an issue, but to the average citizen or farmer, $60 a yard for compost is a lot of money.”

Green Mountain Technologies (GMT) produces a wide range of composting systems that can handle from 100 pounds to 500 tons of organic waste per day. The company, which has been in operation for 20 years, is keenly aware of the challenges of waste disposal on an Island — they’re based on Bainbridge Island, Washington, an island slightly smaller than the Vineyard, where they have two composting facilities in operation and another under construction.

They also have installed composting facilities in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and are in negotiations with the U.S. military for a facility on the Marshall Islands. To date, GMT has been awarded three patents and has another patent pending for its composting technology. Mr. Brown, a graduate of Tufts University, grew up on the North Shore of Massachusetts and, being an avid sailor, has made many visits to the Vineyard.

Trash talks

Mr. Brown and Ms. Borgadus recently met with Don Hatch, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District (MVRDD), which serves Edgartown, West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah, accounting for roughly half the Island’s waste. The Oak Bluffs-Tisbury refuse/recycling cooperative (OBTRRC) handles the refuse of those two towns. According to Mr. Brown, their meeting was a productive one, and there is a glimmer of hope for composting on the Island. That’s good news, because there is a looming imperative.

“Don is very optimistic about putting a small project together to try something next summer, so there would be at least some on-Island capacity to meet the new DEP regulations,” Mr. Brown said.

“Which is July 1,” added Ms. Bogardus. He meant the start date for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed commercial food waste ban. The measure would require any entity that disposes of at least one ton of organic waste per week to donate or re-purpose the useable food.

“The win for the district is to promote themselves as the solid waste answer,” said Ms. Bogardus.

Cautious optimism

“It’s a small initiative,” said Mr. Hatch, emphasizing that the project was in its nascent stages. “We’re just at the beginning of the process, nothing’s approved, nothing’s guaranteed.”

Mr. Hatch is looking into the GMT Earth Flow system, which could be sited next to the recycling area at the Edgartown transfer station. The enclosed unit mixes food waste and grass and wood chips and can convert between 500 pounds and three tons of organic waste per day. The Earth Flow looks like a greenhouse and it’s about the size of a flatbed truck. It takes 21 days to process waste into compost. It works on a “plug flow” system, not a batch system, which means the operator can add varied amounts of waste and take out compost in increments. This allows the system to better handle the summer surge, when half of the Island’s waste is produced, he said.

Mr. Hatch stressed, repeatedly, that the unit is enclosed, so there will be little smell, thanks to the extensive air filtration system. He also said, repeatedly, there will be no exposed waste to serve as vermin and avian vectors.

“It’d be nice if we can do it,” said Mr. Hatch. “If the DEP puts in waste ban for commercial restaurants and grocery stores this summer, there’s about eight sites on the Vineyard that could be affected. In 2015, they’re talking about a residential waste ban. Either way, it’s going to be a mandatory issue. It would be good to be in front of it.”

Mr. Hatch said he will be working on the application and applying for a state sponsored Community Innovation Challenge (CIC) grant, with the assistance of Bill Veno at the MVC and with Ms. Bogardus.

“First I’m going to see if it’s even feasible to purchase this equipment,” Mr. Hatch said. The Earth Flow system will cost around $150,000. “Once we know, I’ll present it to the town selectmen and the neighborhood.”

Island incongruity

With strict land use regulations and thousands of acres under conservation protection, the Vineyard is thought to be on the forefront of environmental protection, but when it comes to waste disposal, the Island is behind the curve. According to a 2008 study by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, recycling rates for the six towns averaged about 27 per cent.

In an email to The Times, Fred Lapiana, director of the Tisbury Department of Public Works, which oversees the Oak Bluffs-Tisbury refuse/recycling cooperative (OBTRRC), said their recycling rate was “about 40 percent.” Nantucket — with its centralized recycling and composting facility— is at 91 percent. San Francisco, a city of more than 815,000 people, has a recycling rate of more than 70 percent and is on track to be fully self contained by 2020.

A major impediment to more effective waste disposal on the Island is the lack of a cohesive Island-wide waste policy. While New York City — which started residential organic waste recycling programs this summer — has one department of sanitation for 8.3 million people, the Island has two departments for 17,000 or so year-round residents.

As the MVC reported in 2009, “The fragmentation of current management systems — among towns and between the public and private sectors — increases administrative and operational costs, has resulted in varying disposal practices for people across the Island and within towns that present barriers to increasing recycling practices and re-use programs. The combined volume of waste resources could open up new opportunities such as composting and building materials recycling to draw us nearer to being a zero-waste community.”

Mr. Brown hopes that a methodical approach to composting can be instituted, regardless of local politics.

“I think a distributed system is the way to go,” he said. “We think it could be practical to have a system at every one of these drop centers. You go to Aquinnah drop center, drop your recycling, and drop your food waste and not even have to go to a transfer station,” he said. For smaller locations, Green Mountain produces an “Earth Tub,” a jacuzzi sized composting vessel that can process up to 100 pounds of waste a day, ideal for schools, large landscapers, restaurants, grocery stores and drop centers for smaller towns.

Dirt is the new clean

Increased composting on the Vineyard can mitigate the growing phosphate pollution problem in the great ponds and estuarine waters caused by chemical fertilizers. Whereas chemical fertilizers are full of phosphates and must be applied once or twice a year, a layer of compost comprises organic nutrients, and one application can last several years. Compost can also be a highly effective barrier to chemical-laden storm run-off. “Compost use can reduce watershed contamination from urban pollutants by an astounding 60 to 95 per cent,” according to a May 2013 report from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. “Because compost can hold 20 times its weight in water and acts like a filter, it can reduce erosion and prevent storm water run-off.”

For Islanders who want to use compost in their yards, but are concerned about the smell or the possibility of attracting an army of skunks, Ms. Bogardus had reassuring words. “By the time this goes on your lawn, there is no odor,” she said. “You can pick it up, hold it in your hand, you’d never know it was made from waste. We’ve never had a problem with it being a vector for wildlife.”

“There really is not a downside for anyone,” said Mr. Brown. “If you can show people the environmental advantages and articulate the value, hopefully it’ll minimize the fractious behavior. Since there’s such a compelling financial component to it, I think it’ll be very difficult for people to say ‘no.’”