Go forth and compost: Hampshire County has a way to go, but improving

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For the Gazette
Published: 11/7/2017 7:15:32 PM

In March, Chicopee’s Mayor Richard Kos said the city’s landfill — which much of Western Massachusetts, including the Pioneer Valley, uses — will be completely filled by 2018. In the next 10 years, the remaining 20 landfills in the commonwealth are likely to follow.

From officials in Franklin and Hampshire counties to the federal government, many see composting as a saving grace for the region, diverting food and other organic waste from landfills.

Currently, municipal waste transfer stations in western Massachusetts send most waste to the Chicopee landfill, as well as the Southbridge landfill outside the region and Covanta Incinerator of Springfield, which uses oil and coal to combust some 408 tons of waste per day.

The state’s Environmental Protection Agency says 25 percent — or at least 1 million tons — of the waste stream is food and organic waste. Each year, Massachusetts uses up 1.5 tons of landfill capacity and pays further environmental costs — despite a statewide committment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

Amherst and Northampton are the only municipalities in Hampshire County collecting food waste for compost at their transfer stations. They send that waste to Martin’s Farm in Franklin County. Martin’s Farm isn’t a public composting facility, but it processes most of the organic waste in western Massachusetts. The farm receives some 14 tons of organic waste per day, or about 3,654 tons per year.

The PVPC reported that the region is over-reliant on the agricultural composting facility, which can only accept 15 tons a day. It was found in 2010 that, for six municipalities out of 20 in Hampshire County alone, 15 tons of food waste was produced per day.

That’s why Martin’s Farm has been a boon, though a modest one — and why there is an eminent need for new composting facilities.

“Franklin County is actually pretty far along in comparison to other counties in western Mass because of Martin’s Farm in Greenfield,” said Amy Donovan, the program director for the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District.

Donovan cited a 2010 study by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, which found that a serious setback in waste management was the shortage of compost facilities. There are seven, as of October 2017, that take food waste, not just yard waste, in western Massachusetts.

That could be improved with a regional program, the PVPC found.

Grant money and revenue from new composting facilities, whose projected revenues were cited at $613,775 back then (likely higher now), would go toward the establishment of a regional composting facility.

Initial collection is an easy part for a municipality to do on their own, contracting with a hauler and paying about $100 — as in Northfield currently — for a month-to-month program to deliver food waste/organics to drop-off programs at recycling centers or transfer stations.

“In addition, a regional program could help avoid duplication of effort, consolidate and strengthen the voice for composting, and improve the level of service,” wrote the PVPC.

But there are no public curbside food waste collection programs in western Massachusetts, and private haulers may or may not offer the service here.

Because the priorities and scale of private composting facilities can change, the PVPC recommended working towards a regional composting facility that is sure to meet growing need and capacity.

Accounting for at least five acres per facility, as well as proximity to the most important food waste generators and routes, and the differing pick-up needs (supermarkets and restaurants, versus residents), and finally the composting technology appropriate to process materials at each site that make up the waste stream, the PVPC recommended four new sites: one at at Barstow’s Longview Farmland Dairy in Hadley (which has an anerobic digester currently), the Hampshire College site in Amherst, the closed Northampton Landfill and the Food Bank Farm in Hatfield.

Adam Martin is also applying for a permit to increase the amount of organic waste Martin’s Farm can process per week beyond a general permit. Currently, the facility is authorized to process up to 105 tons per week. The six largest municipalities in Hampshire County — Amherst, Belchertown, Hadley, Northampton, Easthampton and Southampton — produce around 147 tons per week, according to the PVPC.

In Franklin County, seven municipalities offered food waste collection at the transfer station. Greenfield collects the most, followed by Northfield, Leverett, Whately, New Salem, Orange, and Wendell. 115.7 tons plus food waste tonnage from Greenfield (a considerable amount not specified) was composted that year.

In Hampshire County, the Hilltown Resource Management Cooperative, encompassing 11 towns, is host to two towns collecting food waste: Amherst and Northampton, with 20 and 151.9 tons respectively, totalling 171.9 tons composted, with plenty more potential.

Since 2014, Massachusetts has required all businesses producing over a ton of organic waste per week to compost it, whether there is a public option available for collection or not. A school of over 4,000 students is also subject to the Commercial Food Waste Ban.

Massachusetts is ahead of many states in this way, even compared to California and Vermont, which adopted the law a few years later.

The Center for Ecotechnology, a non-profit based in Northampton, has a contract with the state to run a program called "RecyclingWorks MA," helping businesses recycle and educate them on their composting options for compliance.

Lorenzo Macaluso at the center has a staff of about 70. They have qualified for state grants since they were made available in the ‘90s to work with farmers, waste generators, and haulers to support waste reduction and augment composting in the region.

Last week, the CET received $100,000 from a private foundation for their work to promote composting, with an invitation to apply for $200,000 more.

Businesses issued a Notice of Noncompliance or warning letter from the state are contacted by CET, which helps them comply. But Macaluso says businesses don’t have to wait; if they have compost needs, they can reach out.

“We might just give advice over the phone to businesses about how to structure a program with their hauler or educate their staff on how to properly separate materials,” said Macaluso. “Sometimes it’s much more comprehensive. If the business is larger or they have a complicated situation, we’ll send field staff to provide cost-assessment of restructuring waste-hauling contracts.”

The Masschusetts EPA reported in 2013 that recycling-based manufacturers create 25 times more jobs, 10 more times at materials recovery facilities, than at disposal facilities.

Unlike the fumes from incineration and anerobic landfill mush, composting is almost always an oxygenating process of decomposition with a useful output. Compost adds physical, chemical and biological value by strengthening root structure and improving the soil’s ability to retain and percolate water. It adds nutrients and feeds microorganisms.

There are a few important anaerobic composting facilities close by, one in Hadley, one in Deerfield, and one in Sheffield and only two others in the state. These digesters operate without oxygen, which serves to process mostly manure in a compressor. This special method of composting captures the methane from manure and uses it to power renewable energy. They cost a few million dollars.

Most composting facilities use the aerobic process, “turning the pile” of organic waste to aerate it periodically so that oxygen can circulate. With the materials allowed to breath, they can decompose into nutrient-rich soil, rather than staying stagnant to emit methane and seep.

Since the ‘80s, when data first showed that seepage from landfills was indeed polluting the water supply, western Mass. municipalities chose to cap most of its landfills and dumping grounds.

“Diverting organic waste from a landfill seems simple enough, and it is,” said Donovan. “But it means engaging more residents to compost and creating more composting facilities.”

Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School will reopen a composting facility in Northampton in 2018 that has been idle since 2004, with the capacity to absorb 25-30 tons of food waste per week.

Since its closure, composting in Northampton became less robust. Changes in administration and internal disputes about the program meant there wouldn’t be service any longer to supermarkets, a public school, Smith College, Hampshire County Jail and restaurants.

The PVPC stated that the site’s closure provided a key lesson to public officials.

“Organics programs must have the support of local decision makers, including politicians and administrators. Though they may seem far removed from the program’s functioning, they are critical to decisions that will keep programs on track.”

Facilities Manager Tim Smith will run the revived composting facility at Smith Vocational, which is projected to save the school $4,000 per year on compost to fertilize its farm fields. It will also generate income from the sale of leftover compost,

However, not many schools in Hampshire County compost, apart from a number of schools in Amherst and some in Northampton.

“What’s great about Franklin County is that almost all schools are composting,” said Donovan.

The schools that do compost have an average of reducing waste individually by 86 percent.

“Trash disposal is very expensive in this region, and it’s only going to get more expensive when those landfills fill up and close up, so whatever we can save from the trash is going to save money and save space in landfills,” Donovan said.

Composting culture and a waste reduction ethic also harmonizes with social needs, like jobs for justice and food security.

The Pedal People Cooperative in Northampton offers weekly to monthly pickups of trash, recyclables and the cheapest rate for compost under 300 pounds, with 500 to 600 customers. They have handled solar panels, CSA shares, bikes, fridges, and a 100 sq. ft. greenhouse in their bike trailers. From organizations, they ask for a sliding scale contribution between 0 and $500 across bikeable distances.

“We are in business not just to make a living, but to be a living model of a different way to do things in a car and profit-centric culture,” said a Pedal People spokesperson.

Time is of the essence, and cities and towns can take the initiative to create a collection program, expand existing programs, as well as join district waste management bodies to facilitate a countywide process for composting.

Collaboration among these county entities could lead to a regional compost program, with the capacity to establish a regional processing center, ensured to meet the needs of western Mass.’s food and organic waste.

As the celebrated Sufi poet Jalalu’din Rumi said, “The ground’s generosity takes in our compost and grows beauty! Try to be more like the ground.”

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