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Lessons from Huron's curbside composting

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/14/09 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Local food system, Reduce

When the city of Huron made national headlines in the spring of 2009 for launching a citywide composting program, it took everyone but the handful of private and public partners who got it going by complete surprise. How did this small 'bedroom community' (pop. 8,000) pull off the first curbside food waste pickup program in Ohio (and likely the Midwest)?

Huron is a case of all the elements coming together at just the right time. First, visionary landscape design company, Barnes Nursery, Inc. is only six miles from the furthest point in the city. Being closer means Barnes can charge relatively low tip fees of $25 per ton for their composting service. By comparison, Erie County landfill rates are $40.75 with planned increases over the next 3 years. The economic incentive for food diversion grows as this difference increases.

"The reason it worked in Huron is it's a small city that's a little higher educated and a little above average in income," says Sharon Barnes, owner, Barnes Nursery. "It has a single hauler that picks up everyone in the city. It's all about location of (the compost) facility. It makes a difference in the pricing; the further away, the more it costs."

A lynchpin was finding a waste hauler willing to invest time and money into an unproven market. Most haulers would rather service the Mall where an eight-yard dumpster is more likely to be filled with 150 pounds of "fluff"-boxes and Styrofoam-than a restaurant where the same sized dumpster could weigh 1 ton, Barnes says. Duke Fultz, owner of FSI, saw food waste as an opportunity, she adds.

Together, they talked to the city about starting a program where residents collect fruit and veggie trimmings, wrap it in a newspaper and shove it in their yard waste bags each week. A few years ago, Huron added an option for yard waste – households can pay an additional eight dollars a month to have FSI pick it up and take it to Barnes.

With a license from the state to operate a Class II waste facility, Barnes invested in equipment and manpower to shred food and yard waste, cover it with wood chips, and turn the pile to speed the decomposition. A business like Barnes – or Rosby's in Independence and Sagamore Soils in Hudson – makes compost, a nutrient-rich soil amendment, for retail sale.

The city was on board, but when they approached Erie Solid Waste District about matching their application for an Ohio Department of Natural Resources Market Development Grant, they were turned down. The problem the county had was $20 million in bonds for its own landfill meant removing anything from the waste stream would cost them money.

"It's a teeny county," Barnes explains. "Only 45,000 people. And it's rural, except along the lake, so they don't get the waste in to support the debt. They don't want me to take food waste out. One waste hauler wanted me to pay them $5 a ton to do this. Their fees are $50 a ton at the landfill and ours are $25 a ton. This only works when we can save waste generators money. It doesn't cost $50 a ton to compost."

Undeterred, Barnes and Fultz approached Ottawa-Sandusky-Seneca Solid Waste District, just down the road where FSI had customers, to join them. They agreed.

Their application rose to the top of ODNR's pile because it addressed one of the most difficult to solve waste problems-transporting food waste, which is the heaviest and most expensive to haul.

"You need to have some champions in the processing and collection portion," explains ODNR Division of Recycling and Litter Prevention staffer, Chet Chaney. "Sometimes in transportation that's hard because waste hauling is waste hauling; they know what they're doing and they make money at it. What worked in Huron is the waste hauler had the right route density (number of pick ups by area).

"Because food is mostly liquid weight, it's an inherent problem, and that's why FSI wanted to design a certain truck," Chaney continues. "Because it's so heavy, to make it economically beneficial, you have to have collection point and point of disposal fairly close. Sharon Barnes was one of first to walk down this road. They're right there and willing to try different things."

In Erie County, food and organic waste diversion to composting has the potential to more than double the waste recovered from the landfill at no subsidized cost to the county, Barnes and FSI wrote in their grant to ODNR. They asked and got $260,000-half for FSI to buy a new truck for food waste pickup, and half for Barnes to purchase new equipment such as a windrow turner and screen to process the food waste and turn the compost pile (Barnes would spend double that, with the state eventually agreeing to apply the difference as their local match).

Big picture, you have to measure your tonnage before you can figure out how to manage your waste hauling contract to your maximum benefit, Barnes advises.

"When a hauler comes to your institution or city, they sometimes give you one price for the pick up and trip. The problem is, you really don't know your tonnage," Barnes explains. "You don't know how much you're throwing away. So, the way I've learned what waste is costing you is to break it down and ask your waste hauler, 'What does the pull cost? What is the exchange? And how many tons (are they) taking each time?'

"You want whoever is picking up your container to be able to weigh it. Pay as you throw and pay for what you throw. Not a lot of haulers are offering that.

"Once you get control of that, the recyclables container is going to cost a fraction (of a trash dumpster). When you get organics and recyclables out, there's hardly anything for the trash container. Most companies don't like hauling organics, because it weighs more. If they have a compactor truck picking up 50-yard organic waste, they can't go to 50 stops; they can only go to 15 stops. Their trucks weigh out at 10 tons."

The sustainability movement entering the mainstream is starting to crack the veneer of the waste hauling empire in the favor of those interested in separating the waste stream.

"If you want a food waste program, it means I have to find hauling. Back in 2006, all of the contract haulers said, 'I own your waste from the minute we take it off your property.' Now the atmosphere is different. It's more customer service – 'where do you want us to take it?' When the economy was wild and crazy, they didn't care because ten more people were waiting for their services. Plus, this green movement is not a fad. As bad as the economy is, people are still talking about doing this."

Even with all of the pieces in place, Barnes says, the city is only collecting a fraction of their capacity of food waste for composting. Some 1,800 households are paying the $8 for yard waste (and thus food waste) pickup from April to November, so part of the reason for less than 100% participation may rest with a lack of education -- even though the city produced and distributed brochures and held public meetings on composting. The city also didn't want to spend the money for special food waste containers -- a lack of uniformity that could lead to lower participation (really, how can people be expected to handle runny food scraps in newspaper or yard bags for a week?). Admittedly, there's room for improvement.

What lessons can other cities-and advocates-take from Huron's example? The following are tips from Sharon Barnes on laying the groundwork.

1. Find out if your city has a contract for waste hauling. If the city handles its own yard waste, does it want to take food scraps? If yes, would they have problem if their residential yard waste facility turned into a Class II facility? It costs only $2,500 for a state license to operate a Class II facility. "Find out where they city stands," Barnes adds. "Do they want food composting?

2. Does the city know what the volume is of residential drop off that goes to their site? Are they willing to develop that site for food waste, or do they want to bid out to a private facility? "If you use an outdoor windrow, you need a big yard so you can grind up and build a 14 to 16-ft wide and 8-ft high row of material," says Barnes who had to purchase property to add the city's food waste. "The microbes do their work and heat up the piles to about a 155 degrees Fahrenheit. We turn them with a windrow turner, and they heat up again. They go down in volume by 50% and then we push together into two windrows, but you need a big space for that."

3. The trucks that work best for food pickup are rear loaders. Trucks with a self-contained compactor are the easiest thing. With the front loaders, water slops down front of truck (that's what FSI purchased, but they're thinking about toters).

4. If residents interested in an option to add food and could it be done with a Class II facility like Rosby in a cost effective way? When you get quotes, you want to work with facilities that have scales to weigh the material. "Even though food is heavier, it's not somebody's guess. When you want to talk about specifics of hauling versus tipping, you'll want to ask, 'What size container? Where are they taking it? How often? You always want your own bill, a landfill bill, because a hauler will give one price, but they're going to charge a little bit more than the landfill does."

Barnes final lesson is it's better to make and use compost onsite than to get into a complicated hauling contract.

"As we get better at separation, we can entertain that outdoor windrow composting is not the answer for the long term. We know biosolids and more putrescent waste we need higher technology to get a distillate that you put back in the soil. But it's important we continue to compost in traditional ways, and find waste-to-energy solutions for more putrescent waste. We aren't going to do it overnight. The secret is to have right approach; we want to see communities take the steps because only a few of them will rekindle Huron's efforts."

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