Compost and Solid Waste, Is there a difference?

There are two extremes in recycling: On one hand are people who separate and recycle every last bit of discarded material that they find. On the other hand are those who lump everything together as mere "trash". These same lines of thinking hold true with compostables too, and the stakes may be even higher than with other kinds of "refuse".

Those who have used it know that compost isn't trash, but a valuable resource. Your efforts to provide composting information and opportunities can really make a difference for your community.

Why Compost?

State Recycling Goals:

Composting programs can help towns meet state recycling goals. The State Planning Office Waste Management and Recycling Program awards credits for composting programs that meet certain criteria. The HCPC can provide details.

Finished compost is used by backyard gardeners and public works departments. It is the best source of organic matter for a garden area or a newly seeded yard. According to the Hancock County Soil and Water Conservation District, the demand for compost among area farmers far exceeds the supply. As demand for locally grown food increases in Hancock County, the need for compost will likely continue to grow. Producers of large volumes may be able to sell their mature product to nurseries. Communities with municipal compost piles sometimes give away compost to residents.

Composting Program Tips:

There are several ways to compost ranging from the simple backyard pile to large windrows at a major commercial site. As communities develop a composting policy, they should consider the following guidelines:

Department of Environmental Protection Permitting Procedure

(subject to change check with DEP or HCPC to assure these are still current)  

While larger volumes of compostable material are subject to DEP permits under Rule 419, (see: the following amounts of material are exempt:

Definitions of Type 1 residual waste:
Type I-A residual. "Type IA residual" means a residual from a known source that does not contain hazardous substances above risk based standards in Appendix 418.A of DEP rules and that has a carbon to nitrogen ratio greater than or equal to 25:1, such as leaf and yard waste, wood chips and some vegetative wastes.

Type I-B residual. "Type IB residual" means a residual from a known source that does not contain hazardous substances above risk based standards in Appendix 418.A and that has a carbon to nitrogen ratio greater than 15:1 but less than 25:1, such as animal manure and most produce and vegetable wastes.

Type I-C residual. "Type IC residual" means a residual from a known source that does not contain hazardous substances above risk based standards in Appendix 418.A and that has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 15:1 or less, such as fish wastes.

"Pre-consumer" vs. "Post-consumer"

"Pre-consumer" refers to raw vegetative food items such as peelings and rinds. "Post -consumer" materials include mixed table scraps and food that has a high fat content. Post-consumer materials are more challenging to compost and may cause odor and vermin problems.

Pure vegetable wastes can be treated as leaf and yard wastes and are subject to the same DEP permitting requirements. Items such as coffee grounds, tea bags and egg shells may be composted with pre-consumer vegetative waste.

Composting Options: a comparison of different large scale possibilities:

Home-based composting is the first choice for most towns in Hancock County, but other options should be considered too.

Farm-Based/Commercial Composting

Available equipment and organics such as straw and manure make farms ideal for compost operations. Neighbors are already used to the sounds and odors of farming operations, so there are likely to be few complaints if the site is properly managed. Other food based businesses, such as seafood or blueberry processors are also prime candidates.

Quality control is a must when feedstocks are sent to farms since end products are primarily used to improve soils for food crops. Plastics and other contaminants can be a real problem. Another concern is the cost of transportation. Compostables that putrefy quickly cannot be stockpiled for long. They must be delivered regularly and often. To make matters worse, in our region, the larger farms are generally some distance from the majority of compost generators. The HCPC will work with any town to help arrange hauling from generators to composters.

An even more direct approach is to use food residuals as pig feed. Anyone contemplating this approach should check with farmers on what constitutes acceptable feed for their pigs. There are also state and federal regulations regarding feed for commercially raised animals.

School and Institutional Composting

Schools and institutions that offer meals generate large volumes of food residuals. Some may want to deliver compostables directly to another site. While it is possible to compost post-consumer food materials, strict quality control is important. This is often difficult where small children or people with special needs are involved. Staff or students must be available to monitor the flow and assure that proper composting procedures are used.

Some schools have developed on-site programs. In addition to a good "hands-on" learning experience, these programs can excite young people about the importance of composting and they in turn can inspire their parents. Another benefit is a organic matter for a school-based garden. One school in Maine (Cape Cod Hill School, which serves New Sharon and Vienna) has developed a sophisticated program that accepts post-consumer wastes in a pest-free building. The UMCE has videos showing what various schools in Maine have done. These programs are particularly suitable where there is a teacher with a strong interest in composting.

Municipal Composting

Municipal sites in general, are more easily accessible to residents than other options. Another advantage is that town officials are not subject to changes in policy or costs beyond their control. Composting can also be promoted in conjunction with other solid waste policies. For example, a town that is planning a pay-by-the-bag solid waste policy could offer free disposal of compostables at a municipal site. This might make it easier to sell such a policy to voters. The major disadvantage is that the town must assume the costs and effort of managing the site. This includes quality control and regular turning of the pile.

Several towns in Hancock County already have composting sites that accept yard waste, which could be expanded to accept food waste. This option may be particularly useful in areas where there are a large number of restaurants or institutions that are not composting on their own.

The City of Ellsworth has studied alternatives for large scale composting since 2007. Their findings are posted online.

George Washington, the father of compost?

Compost Happens. Although its popularity among Americans has greatly increased in recent decades, most of us realize that composting is nothing new. Microbes have been consuming plant litter since the beginning of life on Earth. But did you know that George Washington may have been The Father of Composting for our fledgling nation?

When the cannonballs stopped flying and the British went home, the Commander of the colonial forces retired to Mount Vernon to build his estate. In his plans, old George didn't forget to consider the inevitable waste disposal issues. He provided for them by including a structure known at the time as a "stercorary" or "dung repository". The 12' by 32' roofed structure is only a few hundred yards from the Washington mansion. Now it's being restored to its former "glory".

This excerpt from a 1796 letter by Mr. Washington indicates that more than just animal manures were composted there: "Let others rake and scrape up all of the trash, of every sort and kind (I mean that will make dung) throughout the houses, and in all the holes and corners, and throw it into the stercorary."That's great advice Mr. President!

Tip for gardeners:

Use mature compost only. Stu Campbell, author of the popular composting guide, "Let It Rot!" says that compost is ready to use when:

Active Large -Scale Composting Sites in Hancock County*

  1. Bucksport transfer station. Type IA, pre-consumer windrow.
  2. Doug Gott & Sons, Southwest Harbor., Type I, seafood windrow
  3. EMR Inc., Southwest Harbor, Type I, seafood windrow.
  4. Town of Stonington, Type IA, yard waste windrow.
  5. White Buffalo Forest, Gouldsboro, Type. I, seafood windrow 

* Source: Maine State Planning Office

Alternatives to municipal and commercial composters include farmers, institutions and individuals. Call HCPC for an updated list.