A promising initiative


News this week about a test of composting technologies to address the management and cost of the waste created by Islanders and their summer neighbors and visitors is welcome. Typical of the Vineyard, the initiative is only a nibble at the possibility that composting large portions of waste can be both effective and economically rewarding here as it has been elsewhere — on Nantucket for example, since the late 1990s. The composting experiment has been a long time coming for typically Vineyard reasons.

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s Island Plan, years in development, was completed in 2010. The plan addressed waste issues, as writer Barry Stringfellow reminds us in his report this morning.

“We import compost at great expense,” MVC planners wrote in the Island Plan section devoted to waste management, “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.”

But, the authors of the Island Plan also acknowledged the difficulties such a shift in thinking would face. “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 reuse programs, and makes it harder to reach the critical mass needed for some kinds of processing. This inhibits opportunities to increase recycling and reuse programs and more sustainable processing practices. As transportation and processing costs continue to climb and population increases, an approach to waste management which integrates all handling systems would not only be more efficient, but 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. A coordinated approach would facilitate dealing with increasingly complex and costly requirements and technologies, and would make it possible to more efficiently finance necessary infrastructure improvements.”

Don Hatch, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District (MVRDD) — the four-town waste management district that does not include Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, which operate their own district — is navigating the planning and financial route to the creation of a composting test effort. He was a member of the working group that wrote the Island Plan section on waste management, and he benefits from an insider’s understanding of the strenuous political inertia that can slow the pace of change on Martha’s Vineyard. The effort he and the MVRDD are making is a critically important one that ought to attract broad support from leaders in all the Island towns. Late to the composting party, the Vineyard can nevertheless take advantage of a technology that is environmentally improving and fiscally beneficial at the same time.