May 20, 2008 | General

Tribal Composting Projects Across The U.S.

BioCycle May 2008, Vol. 49, No. 5, p. 24
Composting initiatives by Indian tribes vary in size, processing method and range of feedstocks.
Jerome Goldstein

IN A little over a year, the Ho-Chunk Nation – a tribe in Black River Falls, Wisconsin – has diverted almost four tons of food scraps from landfills to a community compost site. Unlike most programs created to divert organics from disposal, the Ho-Chunk Nation launched its effort as a health initiative to address a major concern: diabetes. Through its work, the Nation found a way to address not only its impact on the environment, but also the health of the community by encouraging gardening, healthier living and better food choices.
“Diabetes is a huge health concern for the Ho-Chunk Nation, and it is addressed through many of the nation’s health programs,” says Kevin Gunderson, an environmental specialist for the Tribe. “This composting program is intended to play into those other programs by promoting an overall healthier lifestyle.”
The Ho-Chunk Nation, with the help of a Solid Waste Management Assistance Grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5 office and tribal funding, created the program. Food scraps are collected from the local Majestic Pines Casino and are weighed twice a week by Ho-Chunk’s Environmental Health Office staff. The scraps are then taken approximately three miles off site to the composting area. Typically, a day of collection at the Casino will yield about 150 pounds of food residuals. Health Office staff operate the composting site (windrow turning, etc.). Compost became available in spring 2007, and was distributed first to gardens in the Nation’s communities and then to individual members. There are plans to expand the program to each of its three casinos.
This tribal food scraps composting project is among six covered in this article. These success stories come primarily from the EPA’s Tribal Waste Journal, an annual publication that discusses waste diversion in these communities, making connections between saving money and diverting waste, between compost, healthy soils and good nutrition. The tribes utilize a variety of composting methods, including backyard bins, windrows, vermicomposting and aerated static piles.
Bordered by Canada to the North and Glacier National Park to the West, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation covers more than 1.5 million acres of plains, rolling hills and mountain forests in northwestern Montana. Despite its vast size, the Blackfeet rallied their 10,000 residents to turn a small EPA grant into means for reducing waste and nurturing its community. Harnessing the creativity of all its members, from organizations like Head Start and school children, the tribe got its vermicomposting program up and running. Central to this success are Gerald Wagner, Director of its Tribal Environmental Office, and Mary Ellen Flamand, Solid Waste Coordinator.
Through a waste stream analysis, Wagner found that a large portion of the waste stream was food residuals. Because of harsh weather and long, cold winters beginning in October and lasting through early May, vermicomposting worked because it can be done indoors in places such as under the kitchen sink or in a back pantry. And the red wigglers consume more than their body weight every day, with an end result of nutrient rich compost and worm tea.
“Vermicomposting is a great way to get tribal members into a recycling mindset and into separating wastes,” emphasizes Wagner. “With vermicomposting, they are already separating out food scraps, so then separating aluminum, glass, plastics and cardboard is a logical next step. We are in the process of opening a new transfer station and planning an outdoor composting operation, which will reduce the waste amount passing through the transfer station.”
Adds Mrs. Flamand, “We’re also encouraging tribal members to grow their own foods. Diabetes is a major health issue on the reservation, so by growing healthful foods, people will improve eating habits and their health.” Flamand is also working with the extension agent at Blackfeet Community College, who is running the greenhouse and now has two giant worm bins that use food scraps collected at the local restaurant and Head Start program. They built an indoor/outdoor composting system that can handle worms, hay and food scraps that “have produced spectacular results in the greenhouse.”
Individuals working for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ composting operations possess the perfect blend of technical expertise, business acumen and cultural knowledge to run two successful programs – one for food scraps and one for biosolids – at the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina. The tribe credits well-trained composting operators with saving them thousands of dollars in tipping fees annually. By selling compost to tribal members at bargain prices, these employees also have encouraged community members to return to the tribe’s agricultural roots through gardening.
To reduce waste disposal costs, the Cherokee began composting biosolids from its wastewater treatment plant in 1995 and expanded its operations to collect food residuals in 1997. Today, the tribe composts approximately 72 tons/month of food scraps collected from seven local restaurants, including three within Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, and 96 dry tons/month of biosolids. The food scraps compost sells for $35/ton, while the biosolids compost garners $15/ton.
Considered a landmark program, the tribe’s composting operation has been lauded by EPA and other organizations. The tribe, however, needs to look no further than its customers to recognize its success. “Our repeat customers say our compost is the best in the world,” says Ritchie Bottchenbaugh, a composting supervisor for the tribe.
The tribe’s food residuals composting program begins at the restaurants, where employees manually separate kitchen waste and remove contaminants such as plastic and glass materials. Tribal utilities employees collect the food scraps as frequently as two or three times per day to maintain a positive relationship with the restaurants. After collection, the containers are transported to the tribe’s waste transfer station and weighed to maintain accurate records for documentation and reporting requirements. They then mix the food residuals with wood chips and sawdust – derived from chipping community members’ yard trimmings in a Duratech tub grinder – as well as shredded waste paper from tribal office buildings. The wood chips and paper serve as a source of carbon, and the wood chips facilitate aeration.
After mixing materials with a front-end loader, the tribe then places the mixture in windrows that measure 100 feet long, 4 feet high and 6 feet wide. The piles are turned once on the first day, then three to four times per day for the remainder of the windrow process. The piles must remain at a constant temperature above 135°F for 15 days, a standard that the Eastern Band of Cherokee generally exceeds. After approximately four weeks in the windrows, the new compost is transferred to a covered storage area for curing and screening.
A different composting method is used for biosolids to comply with USEPA’s Part 503 pathogen and vector attraction reduction requirements and to reduce moisture. Biosolids are first dewatered and chemically treated at the tribe’s wastewater treatment plant, then composted on a bed of wood chips using a forced aerated static pile (ASP) method in a roofed, partially walled building. A perforated plastic pipe runs through the pile to help ensure that conditions do not become anaerobic.
The tribe exceeds EPA’s time and temperature requirements for biosolids composting to ensure that all pathogens are destroyed. It takes 13 to 15 days to reach 146°F, and the temperature is maintained for 15 days. Then, the compost is placed in a curing pile until the moisture level drops to 30 percent or less. After the compost moves through the curing pile, it is screened to a quarter inch size. To ensure the quality of its compost, the tribe sends samples for nutrient and metals testing to an EPA accredited facility.
Another tribe that initiated biosolids composting is the Prairie Band Potawatomi in Kansas. Serving as an environmental specialist for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Mayetta, Kansas, Steve Duryea describes the primary equipment which includes a 14-foot Titan dump trailer, a Bobcat S250 Hi-Flow with optional tracks and a Brown Bear Paddle Aerator, which has been upgraded.
The biosolids composting facility became operational in September 2004 and saves the Nation $12,000 annually in disposal fees. The facility processes nearly 670 tons of pressed sludge, diverting more than 1,150 cubic yards of material that would have gone into the landfill. In the process, it has created 1,200 cubic yards of compost that are used in-house.
Located in northeastern Minnesota, the Fond du Lac Tribe has provided 200 vermiculture bins and 200 backyard composting bins to its community. For the Tribe’s Environmental Program, backyard composting bins were an easy sell to the Reservation Business Committee (RBC) because of the money they would save. Waste sorts had demonstrated that food scraps comprised roughly 15 percent of the reservation’s waste stream, so the tribe could lower its disposal costs by diverting food residuals to compost bins.
The Fond du Lac tribe tapped the knowledge of local experts and learned through Cornell University’s composting web site, which contains comprehensive guides, curricula and case studies.
Staff and students at the Oneida Nation’s Turtle Elementary School in Wisconsin care for thousands of worms that process food scraps and old newspapers into compost. Science teachers help students feed and care for the worms (Lumbricus rubellus), which can eat half of their body weight in 24 hours.
When the vermicomposting program at Turtle Elementary School was proposed, some faculty members argued that students would not be able to remember which food scraps to collect for the worms. It took only three days for the children to master their new roles in the cafeteria. Kindergartners through eighth graders collect food scraps in five-gallon red bins each day during lunch. Older students weigh the scraps, load red containers onto a wagon and feed the worms daily (in less than 15 minutes), burying extra scraps in an outdoor compost pile.
The Tlingits people of Kake on Kupreanof Island, relied on an abundant supply of raw materials to get composting off the ground. In 2001, faced with the collapse of the island’s timber industry, Sam Jackson, President of Kake, decided to pursue composting as an economic development project. He realized that the fish waste generated by the village’s cold storage company could be combined with the slash and downed timber to create nutrient-rich compost.
Kake invested more than $1 million in new equipment, purchasing a 2200 Cat backhoe, a l6-foot Scarab turner and a bagging machine. Workers use the backhoe to dig a long “V” down the center of each row of sawdust or wood chips before adding fish waste.
Bob Miller, manager of the composting program, is hoping to obtain a contract from a large retailer that needs a large supply of compost. If this happens, composting on Kupreanof Island could mitigate a regional environmental problem because fish processors throughout the region are looking for alternatives to dumping fish waste into local bodies of water where it upsets the ecosystem.

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