Will Sterling Compost Food Waste?

What do you think composting food waste in Sterling means? How do you think it would be done?  

There are many approaches to composting, and I’ve been involved in researching the methods that would be the best fit for Sterling. A report commissioned earlier this year describes a primitive, town-managed operation that is wrong for us — an opinion shared by nearly everybody. Forget that idea. Commercial operations are far superior, and we should all be looking at that approach as a model for Sterling. 

Some background:

Last year a group calling ourselves Keeping Sterling kicked off a project to explore a community plan for municipal food composting, and bring our recommendations to Select Board and DPW.

Why remove food from our solid waste stream? 

  • Food waste composting will almost certainly be mandatory in our region, as it already is in many towns and some states. If we start now, Sterling can have the jobs and revenues from composting operations, as well as state funding to get started. If we drag our feet, our taxes will help some other place get the jobs and revenues.
  • As an agricultural community, composting is our history.
  • Food waste makes up roughly 25% of all solid waste and costs $90/ton to get rid of. That cost is spiraling upwards faster than inflation. Anything we take out reduces our costs. 
  • If we have a composting operation, we can engineer soil for our rainwater management projects, avoiding a big expense. 
  • Food in landfills is 100x worse for the environment than composted food. 

Mass DEP offers study grants once a site is selected. We jumped on this chance to get some practical information. Former DPW Superintendent Lyons endorsed using town land adjacent to 190 and Bartlett’s Pond. The study, published in June, recommended starting with primitive operations, requiring little more funding, and using town equipment & part-time personnel. Incoming waste would be buried with our town’s ample supply of wood chips, showing: 

  • A 2 acre site would support Sterling’s estimated 15 tons/week (1-2 truckfulls), and as much as 50 tons/week. 
  • This primitive composting requires no new equipment. 
  • DEP is eagerly investing in municipal composting. 

Our ongoing research convinces us that this primitive approach is unsuitable for Sterling: compared to commercial operations, it’s too slow and too smelly. We don’t want this approach for our town. Under Mass DEP regulations, commercial operations must contain odors, and DEP provides help reaching that goal. Commercial operations bring expertise and accountability.

What we know right now:

There is Money in Compost. Businesses in Massachusetts make money while satisfying DEP regulations. Dumping costs us $90/ton, whereas compost sells for $40/ton. 

Start with a Tight Enclosure. It speeds the composting process from 10 months to a few weeks, controls the water runoff into a septic tank, allows odors to be controlled, protects from rain and critters.  Each load of scraps is screened, chopped, mixed with wood chips, placed in piles on a floor with drains and air supplies. In 7 – 14 days, the mixture breaks down, successfully protecting nearby residents from odors. The mixture, which now looks and smells like dirt, gets placed in piles outside. Over the next 2-3 months, it heats up to destroy bacteria, insects, and seeds.

What About Plastics? Our facility will handle clean food scraps from residences and small institutions such as Senior Center. We can’t handle packaged food, which requires a costly depackaging facility.

When Does Work Begin? We’re hopeful this appears on next year’s town warrant. But discussion hasn’t even started nor decisions made. It isn’t even clear whether Sterling wants to benefit by being a regional compost leader.

Next Steps: We need the Select Board to appoint a committee to address food composting. Open questions include: 

  • Where is it sited
  • Who operates it
  • What funding is required
  • How shall waste be collected
  • What waste shall be accepted

Check out the Keeping Sterling group on Facebook for more information.


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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