The Gold in the Garbage

The Food Garbage Texture And Objects. Stock Photo, Picture And Royalty Free  Image. Image 68577946.

In Winchenden, Massachusetts and Brattleboro, Vermont, food waste generates many $100,000s in revenue. In Sterling, waste management is on track to cost us over $1,000,000 by 2025. Why are we using our resources this way? Garbage is certainly gold for somebody. Why not us?

Ten years ago, we were doing a pretty good job of recycling compared to other towns. Now, we are near  the bottom of the pack for recycling, or rather, the top of a much bigger trash heap. 

We stuffed our regional landfills by as much as 1,000 pounds per household in 2011; today, we’re dumping as much as 1,500 pounds per household. Bolton tosses less than 750 pounds per household. What gives? Are they more frugal, and smarter, in Bolton? I doubt it. 

There two big reasons for our big garbage. First, Sterling has unlimited bag pickup. It seems that people from more restrictive towns drop off their garbage here. This means your taxes are paying for solid waste from other towns. Second reason is our household recycling errors. We have to STOP putting recyclables in a plastic bag. Anything in a plastic bag gets added to the solid waste in the truck. And, keep in mind that if you put out the wrong recycling bin for the week, if it is picked up it gets added to the solid waste in the truck.

Whatever the reason, there is an opportunity to turn the tables. Or, rather, clear the tables in a very smart way. 

Every year, even though Massachusetts boasts one of the highest recycling rates in the nation, the Commonwealth disposes enough trash to fill 74 Fenway Parks. Some 28% of the “trash” in your average trash bag is compostable—meaning it is organic food waste that could be removed from the waste stream. For every ton of food waste composted, nearly a ton of greenhouse gas emissions is avoided. In landfills, that food waste decomposes in the absence of oxygen and produces the greenhouse gas methane, which is 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Those strange white pipes sprouting in landfills help that methane get into the atmosphere.

The Commonwealth is committed to helping us save money on waste management by eliminating or reducing what ends up in landfills. MassDEP regulations now ban the disposal of food and other organic wastes by organizations generating more than one ton of these materials per week. If you’re wondering, “major generators of food waste” in Massachusetts include food processors, wholesalers, grocery stores, institutional food service providers, and large restaurants. 

And this is the gold in food waste: today, landfill operators charge about $40 per ton to accept it. Here in Sterling, instead of paying others to take our food waste (such as from the schools and Senior Center), Sterling could get paid to take regional food waste. MassDEP is keen to help Sterling learn how to be a food waste landfill operator. We already have one grant to study the idea. The quick responses to our questions and requests makes me optimistic about further grants and aid.

So how would a food waste landfill work? And, would it work?

Where would our “customers” come from? Food waste in the region currently gets trucked some distance, and for many food waste generators, our landfill would be closer and thus a better deal. Princeton’s Environmental Action Committee (EAC) has already reached out to us to ask how far along we are with our operation. They want to know if we plan to accept food waste and if our operation would allow similar access to Wachusett Earthday towns.

We’re still in the early stages of the Operation Deep Soil, our future Sterling food waste composting operation. We have a site, next to the Police Station, adjacent to a former landfill. We’re just completing a study (funded by DEP) of how we could establish and operate a food composting operation. We’ve been looking at other successful, cost-reducing efforts in our region. 

One example is Catlin Farmstead in Winchenden, home to the herd that produces milk for Smith’s Country Cheese. The herd also produces the manure that goes into Otter River Black Gold compost, 640 yards per month, 10 months of the year. The compost is available by the pail, the bag, or the truckload. Bulk price is $40-60/yard. I estimate that compost contributes more than $300,000 in revenue per year. Sterling Greenery uses Black Gold compost. 

What does it cost to make the compost? In order to speed the composting process, each yard of fresh manure is mixed with about 4 yards of wood chips, sawdust and ash. The compost is processed under a fabric roof structure, and turned and screened at the one month mark. This process produces lovely soil in 2 months. As an added benefit, the heat from the composting operation warms the cow barns. The composting operation uses an old backhoe and a new screener, plus two open sided, vinyl-roofed “barns.” MDAR grants have helped fund the operation. 

Our second example shows that composting doesn’t require  that much of an investment. At the Windham Solid Waste Management District (WSWMD) in Brattleboro, they pile the food waste plus the right mix of cardboard and wood chips, and wait 8-12 months. They have a front end loader to pile up 20-foot wide, 10 foot high, 200-foot long windrows, and a screener to sift the composted soil. They have a scale that handles cars, huge trucks, and semi-trailers, to track different types of waste. 

Begun in 2015, the WSWMD operation has made about $190K in the past 2 years by charging for food waste dropped off from commercial operations (residents are free), and charging for the compost product. It sells composted soil only bulk to garden centers and landscapers so as to minimize the number of transactions and not be involved with bagging soil. Clearly, a municipal food waste operation can be successful. 

Here in Sterling we have what our consultant (Bob Spencer, Executive Director of WSWMD and former Sterling resident) calls a “perfect” site, much larger than we need to start with, easily four times the space of Windham. We have more chips and a larger yard waste collection than Windham. We already own a screening machine, and a front end loader, which will suffice to cover the low volume startup phase. We’d need someone part-time on site  to accept waste and in future, sell compost. We already know MassDEP will fund training. Why wouldn’t Sterling be just as successful as Windham?

Two big questions that remain: 

1, What’s the best way to get food waste from our kitchens to the landfill? Individual drop off, or a service that picks it up? What sort of service?

2. What level of quality do we want to achieve at what cost? Are we aiming for the black gold of compost that we can grow our food with, or a landscape-quality compost that may have toxic nano-particles in it?  

What do you think?


Published by Sue Aldrich

I'm a talented writer who connects business goals with technology, to get your message across through readable and engaging content. I have expertise in personalization, customer experience, journey optimization, recommendations, and search. I also research and write articles on sustainability for my hometown newspaper, Sterling Meetinghouse News.

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