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Olga Peters/The Commons

Bags of leaves collected from Brattleboro households goes into the compost file.

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From kitchen scraps to garden gold

Windham Solid Waste Management District's composting program going strong

BRATTLEBORO—A large mound of kitchen scraps, paper, leaves, and wood chips bakes in the afternoon sun. The Windham Solid Waste Management District likes its organic scraps hot — specifically at a minimum internal temperature of 131 degrees fahrenheit.

In a few months, the heaps of debris will transform into a rich compost.

Dick Petrie, site manager and shop foreman, walks from the piles of fresh kitchen scraps to where a small bunny-slope pile of freshly screened composted soil sits ready for sale at $30 a cubic yard.

He digs into the compost letting what looks like dark, rich dirt fall from his fingers.

“Never thought we’d get such a nice product,” he said.

Petrie has worked for the district for 11 years. He said he felt skeptical about composting but has changed his mind.

Last summer, Petrie found a melon plant happily growing from one of the compost piles.

They were delicious, he said.

Petrie turns the piles of compost every three days, weather permitting.

“It’s a steady battle” keeping the right ratio of kitchen scraps to leaves and wood chips so the wind doesn’t blow everything away, Petrie said with a smile.

Executive Director Robert Spencer said the compost should be mixed with soil or loam rather than applied full strength to a garden. The compost retains moisture well and can be mixed into potting soils or into sandy soils.

Last week, Spencer used fresh compost to patch the district’s capped landfill where erosion had worn away the topsoil.

Petrie and Spencer have managed the district’s composting program for three years. As the state implements its universal recycling law, Act 148, the district expects more residents will turn to composting to save money.

Act 148 requires municipalities to charge for trash disposal based on volume or weight. Most people know this type of program as pay-as-you-throw (PAYT), where households are charged through either weighing trash bags at a transfer station, buying special bags, or purchasing stickers that are placed on trash bags.

Spencer said that composting and recycling represent two methods for reducing trash disposal costs.

“Our goal here as a district is to maximize the diversion of waste from landfills,” Spencer said.

Brattleboro will transition to a pay-as-you-throw trash disposal model on June 29. Most towns in the district have transitioned to some form of PAYT.

Vernon transitioned to PAYT last year, Spencer said. The town also set up a Project COW (Composting Organic Waste) compost collection bin.

Between residents taking advantage of recycling and composting, Vernon reduced its trash by half, Spencer said.

After June 29, Brattleboro residents will need to purchase yellow (small) or purple (large) trash bags for household rubbish. Trash haulers won’t pick up trash not contained in the town’s bags.

Local stores carrying the bags include the Brattleboro Food Co-op, Dottie’s Discount Foods, Hannaford, Price Chopper, Cumberland Farms, Brown and Roberts Hardware, and Fireside True Value Hardware.

The yellow, 15-gallon bags will cost $2 each and the 32-gallon purple bags will cost $3 each. Rolls of five bags will cost $10 and $15, respectively.

A pilot program prepared people for a state law

Brattleboro is the first and only town in Vermont to offer municipal-sponsored curbside food-scrap collection, said Spencer. The pilot launched in 2013 with 150 people. The town instituted a town-wide program in 2014 and now 1,000 residents participate.

“People like this, they want to do it, they get it,” Spencer said.

Spencer complimented Brattleboro for being six years ahead of the state’s composting mandate. He hopes more residents will enter Brattleboro’s curbside compost program.

Under Act 148, composting for private households remains voluntary until 2020. Mandatory food scrap diversion kicked in for facilities such as supermarkets, generating more than 104 tons a year in 2014.

This summer, facilities generating more than 52 tons a year will need to start diverting their food scraps from landfills.

Any resident from the district’s 19-member towns can bring compost to the transfer station on Old Ferry Road. To sign up for Brattleboro’s Curbside compost program or for more information, visit the town’s website at www.brattleboro.org.

In addition to residential food scraps, the district also accepts approximately two tons of scraps a week from local supermarkets, said Spencer.

Keene State College is also “gearing up” to send its food scraps to the district, he said.

The dirt on compost

Quoting data from the state, Spencer said that if 60 percent of Windham County’s organic waste is funneled into a composing program, the county would collectively collect approximately 5,000 tons a year.

A handful of compost is really the “left over bodies of micro organisms,” said Spencer.

Compostable organic waste like vegetable peelings, paper, egg shells, tea bags, or tissues, are broken down through an aerobic process, explained Spencer. Micro organisms feed off of the waste and then die.

“Bulking agents” like wood, leaves, paper, and cardboard allows air into the mounds of waste, he said. Paper and cardboard helps absorb liquid in the food scraps and reduce nuisance odors.

“My recipe is basically one part leaves or wood chips to one part [food scraps],” Spencer said.

More leaves and bulking agents are needed at the district, he added.

So far the quality of the compost remains high, Spencer said. Most of the participants remember not to put glass, metal, or plastic in with the organic materials.

But so far, participants have volunteered to compost, he said. After June 29, people may be more concerned about saving money than preserving the compost’s quality.

The district stores the decomposing food scraps in windrows en plein air.

State law requires the district turn the compost over five times in a 15-day span. Internal temperature must reach a minimum of 131 degrees fahrenheit, said Spencer. The state and federal Environmental Protection Agency require that temperature threshold to kill possible pathogens in the scraps.

Spencer said in addition to bacteria and heavy metal tests required by the state, the district also sends compost samples for testing. The additional tests include checking the “bioassay,” or what percentage of seeds germinate in the soil, and the level of organic matter.

According to Spencer, compost has relatively low levels of nutrients. The soils in Vermont’s sandy river valley soils lack organic matter and this is where compost helps a lot.

Converting the facility?

The district possesses a small food waste composting facility permit from the Agency of Natural Resources that allows it to accept up to 2,000 cubic yards of food scraps and 3,000 cubic yards of carbon material a year, said Spencer.

Carbon material includes items such as wood, leaves, grass, and soil.

To date the district has made minimal infrastructure investment in its food scrap program, said Spencer.

“This is very low tech but it works,” he said.

Expanding the program requires more equipment and more money, he said.

Spencer said that $1 million to $2 million would help purchase equipment the district lacks, such as a grinder for the waste and wood pieces. Grinding the food scraps and carbon materials into finer pieces helps the waste break down faster.

The district would also invest in a screener to clear out items that don’t break down in the composting process, such as pieces of metal or plastic that sneak into the food scraps. Right now, the district rents a screener.

Long-term, said Spencer, the program would require a building with concrete pads and an aeration system. This type of facility would help the district help the natural aerobic process.

An uncertain future

As different provisions of Act 148 phase in over the coming years, Spencer said the environment will also shift for the district.

“The future of this facility is unknown,” Spencer said.

Most communities want to transition to single-stream recycling where paper, plastics, cans, and glass are commingled, he said.

Single stream is easier, Spencer continued. Households don’t have to separate their recycling and haulers don’t need to purchase special trucks.

The district’s recycling equipment is dual stream, he added. A conversion would cost approximately $2 million.

Worldwide, the recycling economy is “upside down,” Spencer said. It costs more to recycle than toss trash.

The district has hired an engineer who specializes in composting-facility design to explore the feasibility of converting the Old Ferry Road transfer station to a full-time organic composting facility.

Spencer said that the district is also discussing potential collaborations with the company that bought the assets of the defunct Carbon Harvest.

Carbon Harvest had intended to generate electricity from organic materials. The company filed for bankruptcy last year.

According to Spencer, NEO Energy LLC based in Portsmouth, NH, now has the 2.25-acre site. The company specializes in producing renewable power from food waste through anaerobic digestion which produces methane.

While it’s early in the game, the company has created a new organization called Brattleboro Organic Energy, LLC, said Spencer. One of its first tasks will be restoring the district’s generators powered by landfill methane.

The generators have a combined capacity of 550 kilowatts an hour, Spencer said. Lately, they’ve only received 130 kilowatts an hour of power because of declining methane levels in the landfill.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #308 (Wednesday, June 3, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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