ELLSWORTH — A composting company based in Winterport has gotten a grant to expand its operations in Ellsworth and move toward its goal of accepting food waste from local residents.
Maine Organics, a subsidiary of DM&J Waste, has been awarded just under $32,000 by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The funding will allow the company to put a roof on one of its composting facilities and free up another building for more waste, said Josh Wellman, who co-owns the company with his wife, Tracey.
“This will help us to expand composting,” Wellman said.
Maine Organics has been operating its first and only compost facility behind the Ellsworth Transfer Station for a little less than a year. The company has contracts with the city to take its biosolids waste (i.e. sewage sludge), as well as with The Jackson Laboratory for mouse shavings and with Maine Shellfish.
“Clam shells, fish, dead crabs — whatever Maine Shellfish is throwing away,” Wellman said. “[Composting] is a business that’s going to take awhile to grow. It’s a slow process just making the material.”
After tumbling the material in an industrial mixer with wood ash (for color and pH balance) and shavings (for carbon), the mix is left to sit inside for 21 days, with air continuously piped through it. After that it is moved outside for at least 30 days, sometimes up to a year. The longer it sits, the less it smells, said Wellman, who advises visitors to keep their windows rolled up.
“It has to be pretty old,” he said. “We’ve got some that’s almost a year old.”
The aged product is for sale by the yard, both to commercial and residential operators, who use it for fill and gardening. Most steer away from using the biosolids compost in the garden for, well, olfactory reasons, said Wellman, but the seafood is popular.
“It’s kind of a soil amendment. You could plant right in it. Boosts the nutrients in your soil.”
Wellman said the facility is equipped to handle compostable plastic materials, such as dog waste bags, which don’t break down in a normal household compost, because of the temperature.
“It goes up to 170 degrees. The heat breaks it down,” Wellman said of his company’s process.
Maine Organics has been mostly taking commercial waste, but Wellman said he’s been having discussions with local schools and restaurants and plans to eventually move into residential food waste.
The couple haven’t decided on a time frame yet, or whether or not to offer drop-off or household pickup services.
“We’ve just been getting our feet wet,” Wellman said, estimating that the company has produced roughly 6,000 yards of material, most of it from biosolids. “We need to get the food waste in. All that food is just going to be going to a landfill, and we could just be composting it.”
Americans throw away some 60 million tons of produce every year — roughly half of all the vegetables that are grown in the country — according to a recent report in The Guardian.
That’s not only because of that half-eaten lunch salad you trashed or that artichoke you forgot to use, but also because grocery stores and warehouses chuck scarred and blemished vegetables that don’t meet industry standards. Much of this winds up in landfills.
But cities around the country have started composting initiatives in recent years, and some have seen big progress. San Francisco claims to have diverted 80 percent of its waste away from landfills after passing strict waste management laws a decade ago.
Some programs have faced hurdles. New York’s composting initiative has struggled to get its citizens to change their habits, in part because cleaning out the brown bins distributed by the city, one resident told The New York Times, is “honestly somewhat gross.”
These kinds of initiatives may be a way-off in Ellsworth, but Wellman said he and his wife are hoping they will soon be able to offer residents an alternative to trashing their food scraps.
“I think it’s the future,” Wellman said.