Area composters encourage making good use of food waste

The Recorder, March 17, 2017, By Aviva Luttrell

On a recent morning, Northfield resident Steve Roberto took two yellow pails from his trunk, surveyed the contents, and emptied them into a dumpster at the Northfield Transfer Station.

The containers were full of leftover food, including fruit, cabbage, broccoli, ginger — even a hot dog — which would soon find a new purpose as compost, a key ingredient in organic farming.

Roberto brings his food waste to the transfer station two or three times a month, where it’s picked up by Triple T Trucking and brought to Martin’s Farm in Greenfield. In about four months, Roberto will be able to buy the finished product to use on his own farm in Northfield.

“I think composting is a great thing to do,” he said. “It’s a great program.”

Northfield is one of seven towns in Franklin County that offers free municipal composting to residents. Most transfer stations charge to take trash, but compostables and recyclables have value, so towns typically don’t charge for those materials.

“Trash disposal is very expensive in this region, so whatever we can save from the trash and instead compost or recycle, we’re saving the town money, we’re saving ourselves money and we’re saving space in landfills,” said Amy Donovan, program director of the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District.

In addition to Northfield, Greenfield, Whately, Leverett, New Salem, Orange and Wendell also offer municipal composting programs. Whately pioneered the idea in 2003 as the first town in Massachusetts to offer municipal composting.

These programs accept many materials that are normally destined for the trash, including meat, poultry, fish, cheese, eggs, small amounts of bones, fruits, vegetables, breads and grains. Non-recyclable paper wastes such as napkins, paper towels, paper egg cartons, paper plates and soiled pizza boxes are also accepted.

“Franklin County is arguably the leader in the state on commercial composting,” Donovan said.

Donovan noted that home composters should not add animal products such as meat, bones and dairy to their bins, and also avoid fats like peanut butter and excessive amounts of mayonnaise. Decomposing meats, fats and dairy not only smell bad and attract pests, but can also produce anaerobic bacteria that interfere with the normal composting process.

Roberto has been composting for about 20 years, but said he prefers to bring his food waste to the transfer station to avoid attracting nuisance animals — such as bears and raccoons. The Northfield Transfer Station has been running its composting program since 2008 and collects 56 tons of biodegradable waste per year, according to Donovan.

“At home, none of the compost goes in with the trash, so (the trash) stream is cleaner,” Roberto said, adding his household only generates about one bag of trash every two weeks. “It’s not hard to do if you just dedicate a little bit of space to it.”

Smaller-scale composting
Seventeen miles away, at the Orange Transfer Station, residents can place biodegradable items into free compost containers instead of into pay-as-you-throw trash bags. From there, it’s picked up by Rick Innes, owner of Clear View Composting, a small commercial composting facility in the Randall Pond Industrial Park. Clear View also services the New Salem and Wendell transfer stations.

Innes said he collects an average of three tons of biodegradable waste from the Orange Transfer Station per year.

After hauling the food waste to his facility, Innes combines it with other materials and places the mixture in aerated static beds — large wooden bins vented with pipes along the bottom that allow oxygen in.

“Food waste by itself is a total disaster,” he said, explaining that in order to strike the right balance of carbon and nitrogen, he uses a special recipe of leaves, wood chips, non-recyclable paper and other materials.

After three months in the aerated beds, the compost is then put into windrows, where it will stay for another three months. Innes turns the rows monthly.

“One of my rules is that if I don’t think the compost is truly finished, it gets more time. I don’t sell stuff that I don’t think is truly mature compost because I think that’s how your ruin your reputation in this business,” he said.

Larger-scale programs
At Martin’s Farm in Greenfield, owner Adam Martin uses a similar process, but on a larger scale.

“We can take all the raw materials, which is cardboard, paper, clean wood, grass, horse manure, leaves and food waste, we can take all those items and turn them into a soil in 13 weeks — at a screenable state,” he said, adding that’s with ideal weather conditions.

Martin’s Farm takes food waste from the Northfield, Leverett and Greenfield transfer stations. The Whately Transfer Station is serviced by Bear Path Farm.

When the materials arrive at Martin’s Farm, they’re dumped on a special concrete pad and any contaminants, such as plastics, metals and glass, are removed. Martin said he’s typically able to get 90 to 95 percent of contaminants out in the first step.

From there, the materials are mixed together and ground into smaller pieces in a special machine called The Beast. Martin said compost should have a 30:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio, composed of carbon-rich materials, or “browns,” such as dried leaves and wood chips, and nitrogen-rich materials, or “greens,” such as grass clippings and food waste.

“I can’t just take the cardboard and paper, grind it up, put it in rows and expect magic to happen. You have to have the right ratios,” he said. “That is so important, having the right recipe.”

The mixture is then placed in long windrows, with 500 cubic yards of grinding per row. He said the rows will downsize by at least a third by the end of the process.

Over the 13 weeks, the rows are turned seven to 10 times. During that time, their temperature, oxygen and moisture content are carefully monitored.

“The piles are living, microbes are a living thing. You have to keep them element-happy so they can do their job well,” he said.

Once it gets to a screenable state, the compost is screened using a large machine that makes it very fine. Then it’s left to cure for about a month before it’s sold.

“I’m very strict on my quality of compost and I’m working with Penn State University now and their laboratories doing soil analysis,” Martin said. “Anybody can make a compost. You can have two composts that look relatively the same, but the quality of the soil — the compost itself — can be completely different. That’s where my heart is. My customer success is my success.”

The impact
Sitting in the farm’s office on a recent afternoon, as large trucks drove in and out with loads of waste, Martin explained that composting is more important than ever — especially in Massachusetts.

“We have less than 8 years,” he said. “Our landfills are at capacity.”

To put things in perspective, he said establishments such as schools, hospitals and restaurants throw out an average of ½- to ¼-pound of food waste per meal, and households throw out between 20 and 45 percent of all groceries, on average.

Martin said he hosts an open house in the spring and gives tours of the farm so people can get a first-hand look at how composting works, and hopefully feel more connected to the process.

“It’s letting them understand when they leave that they do make a difference,” he said.