When we fail to properly compost, most of our organic waste is likely to end up in a landfill. There it festers for years and produces methane gas that contributes to climate change.
At Public Goods we’re on a mission to increase the amount of compostable material we use for packaging and products. We also want to educate our readers and members about the issue of composting and how they can get involved. To walk the walk — both figuratively and literally — we signed up for a tour of the Staten Island municipal composting facility.
After arriving at the port, NYC Department of Sanitation workers picked us up in a van and drove to the site. As we approached the facility we were struck by a cordoned off area with piles of discarded concrete and vehicles. A speedboat was nestled awkwardly among the rubble, its tip pointing upward at a 45 degree angle. In the middle of the debris there was a tall flagpole with the American flag flapping elegantly.
The tour guides later explained that the area was a concrete landfill that doubled as a training ground for law enforcement dogs. It was a sort of obstacle course that challenged the dogs to quickly identify new smells and search both vehicles and difficult terrain.
Mike Leblanc and Scott Morrell, both Denali Water Solutions employees and contractors for the city, began the tour by answering questions and explaining basic aspects of the municipal composting system.
The process begins when people donate bags of compost or compostable waste at various drop-off locations in the city. Large trucks carry the donations to the facility.
The center primarily accepts waste from Staten Island residents, but they do sometimes take leaves — 110,000 cubic yards so far — from other burroughs. Workers often add wood chips to accelerate composting.
As Leblanc and Morrell fielded questions, they teased an introduction to “the Tiger.” By the time they finished the initial briefing, we were dying to know what it was.
Several attendees raised the issue of storing, submitting and distributing compost in plastic bags.
“We would love to see brown paper bags here,” Morell said.
Plastic bags are the convenient choice for sure. Because they are difficult to rip open, however, they ultimately create more work and waste for people like Morell and Leblanc.
There are mountains of plastic bags in landfills around Staten Island. Some of them are sent to a plant in New Jersey, Leblanc said, to be burned for energy. The humus generated at the facility is, ironically, distributed in plastic bags.
The facility gives away all of this compost for free and offers deliveries within the five boroughs. Both individuals and organizations rely on the supply for gardening, public parks, land development, agriculture and erosion control. One way or another, it all goes back to the earth without emitting more carbon.
Once the opening discussion concluded, it was finally time to meet the Tiger, a massive $1 million machine that separates compostable materials from trash. The barrel of the tiger spins so fast that it can rip the wrapper from a ketchup packet and sort the ketchup into the compostable waste section. Perhaps the contraption was named after the growling and screeching sounds it makes during this feat.
We were disheartened to see useable waste trickling out of one side of the behemoth while large clumps of plastic garbage fired from the other. This disparity, we theorized, meant many residents were including lots of trash and plastic in their compost drop-offs.
Facility workers operate construction equipment to transport the useable compost to gigantic mounds and piles — also called “windrows” — that stretch for dozens of acres. Another gigantic machine called a Scarab (featured in the top image of this post) runs over these windrows, raking as it clunks along.
Later the workers pilot a truck that sprays water on the compost. The combination of moisture and movement accelerate the transformation from waste to humus.
With enough time and heat, the compost becomes ready for distribution. Leblanc said an average temperature of 136 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.
Various wild animals were roaming about the piles during our tour. Several geese had nested atop a few of the mounds. Turkey vultures scavenged for whatever scraps were intact and edible. Leblanc and Morrell had seen opossums and skunks skulking around at night.
As Leblanc and Morrell guided us through the fields, they mused on the disappointing state of education and policy on composting in the U.S.
“Europe has been doing this forever,” Leblanc said.
He argued that kids in the U.S. should be educated on compost from an early age. This training might prevent them from developing the apathetic attitude that has been far too common among older generations.
But hopefully it isn’t too late for us adults. We documented the tour because we wanted people to understand what happens to their compost and how it impacts local environments.
The first step is education and inspiration; the next is action. If you haven’t been composting, maybe it’s time to start.
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