BioCycle October 2007, Vol. 48, No. 10, p. 43
Since 2004, a successful program has been conducted to get organics out of the waste stream. Now a formal expansion plan is being developed with the expectation of capturing 70 to 80 percent of prospective generators.
Molly Farrell Tucker
BASED IN MONTPELIER, The Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District (CVSWMD) has the first Zero Waste Plan in New England for managing solid waste. To reach its goal, CVSWMD is collecting organics from businesses, schools and residents for composting.
Formed in 1984 to provide recycling, composting and management programs, CVSWMD serves 22 mostly rural communities including the capitol, Montpelier. In April 2003, the District’s board of supervisors adopted a ten-year implementation plan called Working Toward Zero Waste, making the District the largest group of municipalities in the U.S. to adopt a goal of zero waste.
Vermont discards more than 600,000 tons of solid waste annually. The state’s initial goal was to divert 50 percent of this waste from landfills by 2005. Instead, the diversion rate kept dropping from 34 percent in 1998 to 31 percent in 2001, and to 29 percent by 2004. An audit conducted in 2001 by DSM Environmental Services, Inc. found that food waste accounted for 21 percent of Vermont residential waste that was being landfilled. “We realized that getting organics out of the waste stream was a critical first step to working toward zero waste in the District,” says Tom Anderson, of CVSWMD.
CVSWMD began collecting organics in April 2004, after receiving a $21,055 grant in June 2003 from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation to promote and set up food waste collection routes in Barre and Montpelier. Prior to this, the District’s organics programs focused mainly on residential compost bin sales, workshops, technical assistance and Christmas tree mulching. CVSWMD also provided technical support to two farms that were composting residential leaves.
The Organics Program now collects food residuals from businesses and schools in three areas of the District, the more densely populated Montpelier-Barre area, and the small towns of Bradford (population 2,716) and Hardwick (population 3,260). The Business Program collects organics from restaurants, workplace cafeterias and grocery stores. The School Program targets school kitchens and cafeterias, and is serviced through the same hauling program as the Business Program. The Residential Program focuses on home organics diversion.
COLLECTING AND COMPOSTING FOOD RESIDUALS IN MONTPELIER/BARRE
CVSWMD hauls organic materials from businesses and schools in the Montpelier/ Barre area to Vermont Compost Company (VCC), which is located on an 18-acre farm on the outskirts of Montpelier. The food residuals are dumped into a receiving area and blended with manure and hay before being fed to the compost facility’s flock of 1,200 free range chickens. After the chickens have their fill, the remaining food residuals are composted in outdoor windrows.
Owner Karl Hammer started VCC in 1993. The compost site is not currently regulated by Vermont, and a composting permit is not required because the food residuals are delivered as a feed ingredient for animals. Hammer estimates that each chicken eats about a dry pound of food residuals per week.
The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and CVSWMD provided funding to VCC in 1998 and 1999 to support Hammer’s plan to feed food residuals to chickens. “Karl wanted to see whether he could develop a secondary income from eggs,” says Donna Barlow Casey, executive director of CVSWMD. “He also wanted to see if chickens that ate clean food scraps would create a higher-quality egg.” Hammer used the funds to purchase an initial flock of 250 chickens and build the fencing and feeding areas.
From 1998 to 2000, VCC collected food residuals six days a week from Montpelier businesses, sometimes with a mule-drawn wagon, and fed the food scraps to the chickens. “The food waste was very clean, but it’s an exhausting thing being a garbage man,” notes Hammer.
VCC’s largest supplier of food residuals, New England Culinary Institute (NECI), took over the route from 2000 to April 2004. “NECI already had a supply truck and used that to collect the food waste,” explains Hammer. “We’re located less than half a mile from NECI’s main campus, so it was easy for NECI to get to us.” In April 2004, CVSWMD took over the route from NECI, collecting food residuals from four Montpelier businesses (a delicatessen, food cooperative and two restaurants), as well as an elementary school and high school in Montpelier.
“It was not our intention to become professional haulers,” says Anderson. “We waited until we had enough data, figures, efficiencies and systems worked out to approach private haulers about taking over the route. When we talked to them, we didn’t see a high amount of interest based on the workload and what Karl and the District expected. Karl’s chickens get the first pick at the food waste, and Vermont Compost sells its compost to organic farmers, so we really need to hold the line on contamination.”
When no private hauler expressed interest in taking over the route, CVSWMD continued running it. “We were committed to keeping the ball rolling,” says Anderson. “I’d seen other communities get a pilot program going and then stop the pilot to evaluate it. They didn’t realize that if you capture positive momentum you have to keep it going.”
CVSWMD now has 27 business customers in the Barre/Montpelier area. When approaching business about joining the Organics Program, it provides two brochures, one that emphasizes the environmental benefits of composting organic materials, and one that focuses on cost savings.
FUNDING THE ORGANICS PROGRAM
CVSWMD fully subsidizes the businesses in the organics program for three months. “This is the lure,” explains Anderson. “When the District approaches restaurants, they’re very busy and thinking day to day. Some are very environmentally minded and will say ‘I’m on board and I don’t care what it costs’ and others are very concerned with costs.” CVSWMD staff collect data for three months to determine what the generator’s actual organics diversion rate is. The business can use this information to go back and renegotiate with its waste hauler to lower its trash rate.
Businesses and schools in the Montpelier/Barre area are provided with 48-gallon totes to store the organics until collection, each of which holds an average of 220 pounds of food residuals. Two complete sets of totes are assigned to each customer, so that clean totes can be delivered when the filled totes are collected.
VCC charges CVSWMD a $1.50 cleaning fee to wash out each tote with a propane-fired pressure washer after it is emptied at the compost facility. The cost is absorbed during the three-month subsidy period and passed along to the customer after the subsidy period ends.
After the subsidy period ends, CVSWMD also begins charging the businesses and schools $5 for each collection stop, and VCC begins charging generators a $30 per ton tip fee. (VCC charges CVSWMD the $30 tip fee during the subsidy period.) Tip fees at the two landfills in the area, in Coventry and Moretown, Vermont, range from $75 to $79 per ton. There is also a $21 district surcharge and a $6 state surcharge, bringing the total to about $110 per ton, depending on the business arrangement with the hauler.
The District accepts all types of food residuals including fruits, vegetables, meat, bones, seafood, flour, bread and pasta as well as egg cartons and coffee filters. Kitchen staff put food scraps in five-gallon plastic buckets which CVSWMD gets for free from Ben & Jerry’s Homemade and other food manufacturers. Kitchen workers either store the 48-gallon totes outside and empty the five-gallon buckets into them, or keep the totes in the kitchen until collection day. Some totes that are stored outside are padlocked to keep trash from being dumped into them.
Organics are collected in a 26-foot box truck with a lift gate in the back. The truck can hold 27 totes per run. Two drivers ride together on the collection route. “The District does this for safety reasons, such as backing up the truck in school areas, but it also doesn’t want the drivers to get burned out by the job,” explains Anderson. “The District hopes someday to be able to afford a more sophisticated and efficient truck that will require only one driver, but until then is staying with two drivers because they complement each other,” he adds. “They’re not just the drivers, they’re valued members of the team.”
The drivers collect organics in the Montpelier/Barre area on Tuesday and Friday. The route takes about six hours a day, says Menendez, and averages 59 miles on Tuesday and 75 miles on Friday. During the summer, when schools are closed, the Friday route is 55 miles. “The shorter Tuesday route throughout the year allows us to expand the route and bring in new businesses or restaurants without having to add another collection day,” she notes.
Totes from larger generators such as Hunger Mountain Co-op, a food cooperative, and Shaw’s Supermarket are collected two times a week. Food residuals are also collected twice a week from generators who don’t have enough storage area for the totes such as Julios, a Tex-Mex restaurant. Totes from small food residual generators are collected every two weeks. The nonprofit Family Center of Washington County produces very little food waste but was interested in being part of the organics program. “The Family Center wanted to do it so badly that we try to help them with it,” says Anderson. “We are able to collect from them because they are located near a large generator, the Vermont College cafeteria.” Some Montpelier businesses were having their dumpster picked up three times a week before signing up with the Organics Program. “Once they removed the food waste from the dumpster it didn’t smell, so it didn’t need to be emptied as much,” says Anderson.
KEEPING THE LID ON CONTAMINATION
The two CVSWMD drivers play an important role in reducing contamination in the totes. CVSWMD keeps a database on every food waste generator and assigns a different number to each tote before it is delivered to the business or school. The drivers initially screen each tote at the business site by flipping open the lid and picking through the top six inches with an eight-inch-long garden fork. “The drivers are not there at 5 a.m. with a packer truck when no one is around,” says Anderson. “They’re there during business hours and go in and talk with the businesses.”
“The District has an agreement with the businesses,” notes Anderson. “If there is one piece of contamination, the driver will pick it out of the container. If there are two pieces of contamination, the driver will pick them both out and look more closely for a third piece. If there are three pieces of contamination, the driver will reject the load. It is then the business’s problem. They can either have an employee pick through the container, or throw the contents of the container in the dumpster.”
If contaminants are found in a tote once it is dumped at the VCC facility, an employee writes down the number of the tote and contacts Lydia Menendez, CVSWMD’s special programs assistant. Menendez calls the generator’s contact person and lets them know about the problem. “Immediate reinforcement is very helpful,” she says. “It’s a little complicated because the district is providing a service – trash removal – and now is nagging the customer about contamination,” adds Hammer. “But food waste collection is also saving the generators money, and that helps get through the rough spots.”
“The District has got it organized,” says Hammer. “There is excellent accountability. VCC is getting a really clean sort from the food residuals. We made it very clear that we would have zero tolerance for contamination and they understood and embraced that.”
A bigger problem than contamination is keeping the totes from freezing during Vermont’s cold winters. The CVSWMD drivers sprinkle a layer of sawdust in the bottoms of the empty, clean totes before delivering them to keep food waste from sticking to the bottoms. “That’s the hardest place to get the food waste out of,” notes Anderson. “The bottom of the tote isn’t flat because of the molding around the wheels, and the food waste gets stuck in there.”
CVSWMD also asks businesses to keep the totes inside during the winter if possible. If food waste is frozen in a tote, VCC employees hit the sides of the tote with a rubber mallet they call “The Persuader,” which makes the food waste come out
To reduce odors during the hot summer months, CVSWMD provides generators with buckets of sawdust and encourages kitchen staffs to scatter a four-inch layer over the top of the food waste in each tote. “We discovered that the sawdust acts as a great biofilter to keep odors down and eliminate maggots,” says Menendez.
Hammer says some odor problems are inevitable with the double-walled plastic tote that is being used. “Wash water gets in between the walls of the tote, so the totes never get completely dry,” he notes. “The wash water has food waste in it which causes odors, and the plastic totes themselves absorb odors. We’ve haven’t solved the problem yet.”
BRADFORD AND HARDWICK
CVSWMD began collecting organics in the town of Bradford in November 2004. There are only 21 generators in the town, including restaurants, schools and grocery stores. By May 2005, six businesses and a school were participating. Initially, CVSWMD hauled organics from the Bradford route to a large farm in Bradford for composting, but problems there led to the switch to the nonprofit, Highfields Institute in April 2007. “A farm of that large a scale is not used to putting time into the composting process,” says Thomas Gilbert, programs director at Highfields Institute. “It is focused on field crops and animals. One of the biggest challenges for a lot of farmers is developing the sensitivity to managing a biological system, which is what composting is. It’s a whole different mindset than managing an engineered liquid manure system.”
CSWMD began collecting organics in Hardwick in February 2007 in partnership with Highfields Institute and the Northeast Kingdom Solid Waste District. “Hardwick is in our district, but is on the boundaries of it,” explains Menendez. “In order to make density sufficient for a food waste collection route, we are also collecting from generators outside the district.” Seven schools and businesses are currently participating, including three within the CVSWMD and four in small towns outside the District. “We will be slowly expanding this program, as we continue to do outreach in the Hardwick area,” says Menendez.
“Collaboration between the Districts will help build an economy of scale sufficient to establish a sustainable hauling program,” notes Gilbert, “and it has also catalyzed critical relationships between the Districts. This has resulted in the transfer of skills and resources, as well as cooperation in areas like compost training at schools where you now often find trainers from both Districts and Highfields Institute efficiently implementing one program.”
The organics were collected in Bradford on Monday morning and in Hardwick on Monday afternoon and hauled to Highfields Institute in Hardwick, which operates a compost facility. The 121-mile route took seven hours to complete.
In August 2007 Bob Sandberg, a hay farmer in Corinth, took over the Bradford collection route and is composting the organics on his farm. “The food scraps will provide a critical source of organic nutrients for Sandberg’s hay operation,” notes Gilbert. This is Sandberg’s first composting venture. “Part of what made his site possible is that he already had some equipment and a large enough area on his farm to incorporate a composting area,” says Menendez. Highfields Institute trained Sandberg in composting techniques, and CVSWMD is still offering training and technical support to generators in Bradford. CVSWMD also provided technical support to Sandberg including information about how it collects data, tracks contamination and uses collection methods for billing. “Things like that are very easy to share and hand over,” says Menendez.
An estimated 1,337 tons of organics have been diverted since April 2004. This included 1,116 tons from the Montpelier-Barre area, 189 tons from Bradford and 32 tons from Hardwick. “There is no scale on the truck, so we weigh multiple totes to get averages and use the EPA’s food per pound estimate,” explains Menendez.
FUTURE PLANS FOR THE ORGANICS PROGRAM
In July 2007, the District began developing a formal expansion plan for its organics programs and hopes to complete the plan by December 2007. “In order to expand the programs, we will need to increase the efficiency of our collection methods,” notes Barlow Casey. “This will include purchasing a larger vehicle designed to hold significantly greater quantities of material. Hauler fees may also need to increase now that we understand the true cost of preparation, technical support and collection. We hope that increasing operational efficiencies and the number of customers serviced will help to limit any rate increases for customers.”
“This is the first program of its size and kind in the area,” notes Vicky Viens, compost specialist for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. “With the District’s resources and goals, it has a substantial chance of being sustainable. The district has invested a substantial amount of its own resources in the program. I think it is doing a great job. They started out on a smaller scale to learn the ins and outs of how to do a successful program and are expanding.”
CVSWMD’s ultimate goal is to offer food scrap diversion to all schools and commercial generators within the District. There are 300 potential nonresidential food waste generators in the 22 towns in the District. This includes 179 potential business food waste generators within a 30-mile radius of Montpelier, and 63 generators within two miles of Vermont Compost. “As we engage in this level of aggressive expansion, the District may also decide to initiate a mandatory food waste diversion requirement, but we think that we can realistically capture 70 to 80 percent of those prospective customers without it,” says Barlow Casey.
ZERO WASTE PLAN TO SUPPORT DIVERSION
In the summer of 2001, a private sector partnership proposed a landfill for one of the largest member communities in the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District (CVSWMD). CVSWMD had also begun researching waste issues in preparation for writing a new ten-year solid waste implementation plan. “I began asking why we needed landfill space and why we were unable to achieve higher recycling and diversion rates,” says Donna Barlow Casey, Executive Director of CVSWMD.
A CVSWMD staff member found the Del Norte Plan (the first Zero Waste Plan in the United States) and gave Barlow Casey a copy to read. “It changed the way I looked at waste!” she says. “I came to see the waste industry as requiring waste generation in order to continue to exist. The reason recycling rates were stagnating or falling without ever crossing the 50 percent threshold was not because consumers had lost heart or interest, but because the system was not built to manage unwanted resources. From concept to infrastructure development, the system is designed to support the transportation of waste to a place where it is buried or burned. Diversion occurs only to the extent that it can fit into and follow the model established to manage waste. What if the way to achieve high diversion rates was through some other system? What if the incentives, programs and approaches to redirecting materials needed to be different?”
Barlow Casey says it became clear to her that the District would need to think differently in order to succeed at diversion. “We needed to assume that waste was not a necessary outcome of modern life and to rethink our program, infrastructure and rules to support a no-waste or zero waste system,” she explains. Barlow Casey began to write the draft of the District’s 10-year solid waste plan from that perspective. “Staff helped identify issues and solutions, and together we agreed that while our board might not adopt it all, getting some of these new thoughts and commitments into our plan would be a step in the right direction,” she says. On April 7, 2003, the CVSWMD board unanimously supported the draft in its entirety and made the commitment to immediately begin working on its implementation.