Woodstock Organic Waste wants your compostables
An estimated 74 percent of trash generated by restaurants and schools could be composted, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. When haulers pick up trash from Woodstock’s restaurants, they take it to the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency (UCRRA) in Kingston for weighing. Even though both food and food-soiled paper products, such a pizza boxes, can be processed in an industrial composting system, and even though there is such a brand-new system onsite at the UCRRA, the trash is then trucked to a landfill near Syracuse or Rochester.
Because the compostable material is mixed with regular trash, it has to be transported more than 250 miles in a vehicle that gets two to three miles per gallon. At that landfill, it rots and expels methane, said to contribute to global warming at a level 23 times higher than carbon dioxide. If the organic waste stayed in Ulster County, it could be converted into compost for use by local landscapers and gardeners. The tipping cost for trash is $103 per ton. UCRRA currently charges $33 per ton to drop off compostables.
“This is a no-brainer,” said Abby Bressack of Woodstock Organic Waste (WOW), an independent working group of Woodstock Transition. Bressack and the two other members of WOW, Jo Yanow-Schwartz and Joy Gross, are determined to make large-scale composting a reality in Woodstock and ultimately throughout Ulster County. But there are a number of kinks to work out.
Of the three major pieces of the puzzle, the biggest one, the industrial composting system, is already in place. The members of WOW have been speaking to restaurant owners about separating their compostables, a process that will take some adjustment but could, they hope, become as reflexive as culling recyclable cans, bottles, and paper. But separation is useless until there’s a trucking company willing and able to haul compostables to the UCRRA at a price restaurant owners can afford.
The established haulers “are not embracing the program,” said Michelle Bergkamp, UCRRA’s Recycling Coordinator. “They make a lot of money on garbage. Some of them already have the technology — they have the truck dedicated to food waste composting, which can’t leak. These are large national companies. One is an $18 billion company — you’d think they would be able to make it work. We have the facility, and there’s lots of interest, but the prices for hauling have deterred smaller businesses.”
A pilot program set up in spring of 2012 exceeded expectations and made back the investment of installing the composting system, officially called the Organics Recovery Facility. UCRRA continues to receive compostables from grocery stores, colleges, and a few restaurants, enabling the facility to create a soil enrichment substance that it sells at $43 per ton, mostly to landscapers and to topsoil producers who blend the compost with another product for resale. One ton, approximately two cubic yards, fills the back of a pickup truck.
“We don’t produce nearly enough to supply farms,” said Bergkamp. “We would love to advance composting in Ulster County.” But the participating businesses are serviced by two haulers, Waste Management and Royal Carting, which find the economics of hauling do not make it worthwhile to pick up compostables from a few individual restaurants in Woodstock.
Worth the gas money
Lori Caso of Waste Management said her company has helped implement compost hauling for a few large-scale businesses, such as a project in Chicago, where eleven Whole Foods markets have been separating their compostables. But in general, servicing individual restaurants for composting is not cost-effective for such a large hauler.
Julian Lesser is eager to jump into the breach. Lesser calls himself “a serial entrepreneur,” someone who likes to start businesses, sell them once they’re established, and move on to something new. He recently sold Boro Magazine, a publication he produced in western Queens, to a larger publisher. In the course of his venture, he became involved in a Queens composting project, leading him to the idea of offering hauling of compostables in the Hudson Valley through a business he calls Compost Valley.
“The prospects are tremendous,” he said of his new startup, based in Kingston, “but we have to lay the groundwork. I assumed everyone was as excited about composting as I was. But they’re not, and they don’t really understand it.”
Lesser sees composting as an almost effortless way to combat global warming. “You just sort out the organic material so it won’t become methane gas. And compost itself is extremely valuable to add to the ground, so much better than using fertilizer made from petroleum. We’re depleting our soils, since fertilizer gets washed away as soon as it rains. Compost continues to break down and self-releases.” And landfills are filling up at an alarming rate.
But even for Lesser, with his idealistic vision, the economics won’t work unless he gets a substantial number of restaurants to participate. “I’m not going to come up to Woodstock to pick up from one restaurant,” he explained. “I need to have 20 businesses, or it’s not worth the gasoline. I want to drive up and fill up the truck. To make this move quicker, I’m offering additional bins that would be community drop space for residences in town, or for businesses that are too small for a 64-gallon tote. People can use the community drop for free.”
He sees community involvement as key to making large-scale composting doable, and he thinks Woodstock is the kind of place to make it happen. Lesser appreciates the efforts of community groups such as WOW, who have been surveying restaurants in town. The WOW women (who state that men are entirely welcome to join their group) have found a mix of enthusiasm and reluctance on the part of local restaurateurs.
Yanow-Schwartz, Gross, and Bressack are willing to go in and train restaurant staff to separate out their compostables, which include not only vegetable scraps and leftovers but also items that would not be appropriate for backyard compost piles — meat, bones, paper products soiled by food, biodegradable cutlery — but can be handled by the UCRRA facility. Aside from the logistics of separating items and storing them in an outdoor bin until pick-up, restaurant owners are concerned about the additional cost.
“We’re hoping that since they will cut their trash by almost three-quarters, they can renegotiate the contract with their hauler and use a smaller trash bin,” said Bressack. “Theoretically, it will cost less down the road.”
Surrounding states make it law
Lesser scoffed at the logistical issues, which he said could be easily overcome, citing the options of compostable trash bags and the rinsing mechanism built into trucks designed to haul compost. However, he does expect that composting will make costs rise for small businesses. “It comes down to enough people seeing the value and wanting to do it,” he stated. Or, both Lesser and Bergkamp pointed out, the government is likely to make them do it.
Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut have mandated composting, and Rhode Island is considering a similar measure. Vermont’s law requires all residents to recycle or compost food waste by 2020, prohibiting the disposal of compostable materials in landfills.
“When nearby states pass this kind of law,” said Bergkamp, “New York usually follows suit. Why wait till it’s mandated when we can be ahead of the game?” At this point, Ulster and Onondaga Counties have the only municipal composting units in the state.
The WOW members, recognizing the potential of governmental clout, are crafting a resolution that they hope the Woodstock town board will adopt by way of encouraging — not requiring — local restaurants to compost their organic waste. The three women have been researching resolutions passed by other municipalities, such as Seattle and Gainesville, Florida, as well as studying composting programs established in other parts of the country.
Dan Leader, proprietor of Bread Alone bakery in Boiceville, operates three cafes in the Hudson Valley, including one in Woodstock. He is in favor of composting. “We’d love to be part of it,” he said. “We’re constantly trying to reduce our waste. If we can do it, there will be no hesitation on our part.”
To join the volunteer efforts of Woodstock Organic Waste, contact Jo Yanow-Schwartz at 845-679-4024 or email@example.com. For more information on local large-scale composting, see http://compostvalley.com/ and http://ucrra.org.
A local case of composting
The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park has been separating and shipping out their compostables for the past 20 years. Andra Sramek, Supervisor of Grounds, Recycling, and Horticulture, said the process goes smoothly. Each of the 42 kitchens and five public restaurants has three bins, designated for trash, recycling, and composting. Contents of the compost bins are carried out to a 20-cubic-yard dumpster, and the compostables are picked up twice a week.
The school has a long-term relationship with McEnroe Organic Farms, which has a 1000-acre spread in Millerton in northern Dutchess County. The farm runs an extensive composting operation under a permit from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Two million pounds of compostables per year are transported from CIA to McEnroe by Liberta Brothers, a hauler based in Pine Plains.
CIA has the advantage of free labor in the form of students who carry the compost to the dumpster and rinse the bins. On the other hand, a new class of students turns over every three weeks, so the training process is ongoing. Each spring, McEnroe delivers a load of finished compost to the school for application to the onsite gardens. Sramek said the students love to see the end result of their labors in the form of rich soil amendments, even if the substance they’re seeing was produced by the efforts of a past class.
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