A Community Composts

Aug 29, 2019

The aerobic in-vessel composter at Island Grown Initiative's Thimble Farm in Vineyard Haven on Martha's Vineyard. The pile of fresh sanitized compost is in the forefront. That will be set to cure for another three months or so before it can be used on gardens and farms. All the compost is tested for safety and screened before it's sold or used.
Credit Ali Berlow

I’ve got a composter’s heart though the truth is, I’ve been really bad at it. But I finally got my shot at redemption because now nearly all my kitchen scraps go to the Martha’s Vineyard Food Waste Initiative. From coffee filters and spent grounds, to egg shells, dried bits of cheese, pork bones and fish racks - even the small sum of bacon fat from breakfast.

Tons of local food waste goes to the Initiative at Thimble Farm in Vineyard Haven where it gets a whole new life and not in a landfill. Some of it even turns into feed for their hens.

Eunice Youmans heads up the island-wide collaboration whose goal is reduce local food waste by 50% by the year 2030.

“We have almost 300 chickens now they eat about half a ton of food waste a week and then weekly we scoop out their bedding and all that and so then that is another piece of our recipe for our compost,” she said.

The hens are some of the first beneficiaries of local food waste and help sort out the trash that shouldn't be there like aluminum foil, plastic and metal flatware. Their eggs are sold throughout the island.
Credit Ali Berlow

I buy those eggs. And that compost recipe she’s talking about, starts with you and me.

Eunice says that when most Americans go to the grocery store and buy five bags of groceries, two of those are thrown into the waste system.

An average person in the states wastes about 240 pounds of food a year, and costs around $1,800. When you think about it, food waste includes all the water and energy it takes to grow, catch, harvest, process, and distribute food.

Consider all the places besides home where food is wasted…from grocery stores and restaurants, to schools and hospitals, cafes, potlucks, picnics and catered events. It’s staggering and it’s expensive.

Eunice, along with stakeholders, and that includes the local town governments, are working at addressing all the issues around food waste with real life scalable solutions.

“Just food waste alone we estimate costs about $620,000 a year to ship it off and entomb it in a landfill. That’s not including what we all pay in our taxes because all these waste operations are underwritten by town budgets, so that doesn’t even include the full cost.” She added, “so I think the financial pressure is going to be a big driver in moving this forward.”

In 2014 Massachusetts imposed the Commercial Food Disposal Ban, which says if you produce one ton or more of food waste, any given week of the year that you are not allowed to put it in a landfill.

So that’s one pressure says Eunice. “The second pressure or ‘carrot’ actually that the EPA has issued, has created all these amazing grant programs and these are big money, this is $250,000, $150,00 grants for infrastructure development for food waste and composting and all that kind of stuff.”

I asked Eunice what’s the worst thing that can happen to a community compost program?

“Not doing a good job. So I think the challenge with food waste is that it’s yucky. It’s super yucky. And in the summer it’s even more yucky. So, our job right now is to make sure that we do it really well and it’s really tidy and we’re very consistent so that’s the number one thing, this is a yucky thing and we have to manage it correctly.”

That’s where the machinery comes in. Like their aerobic in-vessel composter.

Eunice described it as about the size of the back of a large tractor trailer truck, the shape of a paper towel roll with one little gear that goes around it that spins it four times every hour. It’s a simple machine. The organic process is what heats everything up and cures the compost.

After three days of turning food waste, the stuff that comes sits for about three months and then it’s ready to use in gardens and farms. This year they expect to transform about 360 tons of waste into almost as much compost.

“Our farmland is pretty depleted it needs compost it needs these things so actually in 2009 the Martha’s Vineyard Commission Island Plan said we need to stop shipping our food waste off the island this is a commodity that we’re also shipping in, that we actually need to restore our soils and make them more bountiful here on the island,” Eunice said.

The connection between food waste and climate change is why Eunice does this work.

“I worked in climate change for a long time. I wrote a lot about it and thought about it and it was really depressing over time and so you try Meat Free Mondays and you try to do these little things and be mindful and it just felt like it wasn’t enough I just felt like I wasn’t contributing.”

My food waste - coffee filters, spent rose hips, corn husks and cobs and other things I won't mention. Every few days I drop it into their collection bin at Thimble Farm in Vineyard Haven. The MV Waste Initiative also has food waste collection sites at the transfer stations.

Food waste is responsible for eight percent U.S. emissions, that includes growing the food that we’re going to waste, processing and manufacturing it, transportation and landfill gases.

“So actually if we can do something about food waste and we can do something about this methane emissions, we can actually do something about climate change in our own homes in our own lifetimes so for me this is unbelievably empowering and it just gives me tremendous hope, Eunice added.”

Hope and eggs and good compost that makes healthy soil, because you can’t grow good food without it.

“This is why we do it because we can actually have really lush, abundant farmland here.”

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Refed.com is a great all around resource about food waste and how to do it from the home to the business. They even have a roadmap!

https://www.refed.com/?sort=economic-value-per-ton

Here's the link to Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection's waste & recycling grant information: https://www.mass.gov/service-details/massdep-waste-recycling-grants-assistance

For resources and possible funding opportunities through the EPA go here: https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/resources-and-possible-funding-opportunities-related-food-system

For information about the Martha's Vineyard Food Waste Initiative, go here:

http://www.igimv.org/about/staff-board