Larger composting machine could start churning scraps into plant food this year

A former concessions stand in City Park is slated to be the site of a commercial-scale composter that could give second life to food scraps on a bigger scale, potentially reducing the volume of trash that Wrangell pays to ship off the island.

The folks reviving the community garden have budgeted $19,500 toward the composter, which will be located at the garden on the former Lions ball field.

Valerie Massie, coordinator at Wrangell Cooperative Association's Indian Environmental General Assistance Program, said IGAP had initially set aside $9,500 for a commercial-size compost machine from the $17,000 awarded by the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, a statewide nonprofit, last November.

IGAP was able to add $10,000 to the composter budget after the Alaska Division of Agriculture awarded a grant, too, in December.

Instead of a 20-pound capacity composter, they can look at a 50-pound composter.

"Now that we have more funding than we expected, we can purchase a larger composting unit or (still get the smaller one and) allocate some of that funding to the electrical installation and usage. We have not decided how to use it all yet, but we will make a purchase of either a small or large composter by the end of February," Massie said.

Power will need to be routed to the concessions stand to run the composter.

A 50-pound capacity composting machine - using heat, heat-resistant microorganisms and agitator blades to rotate the scraps while water evaporates from the machine's exhaust system - can break down food waste into five pounds of compost in a couple of days, compared to the year it takes the current cold composting system to turn green garbage into compost.

Compost, however, is not soil. It is known as a soil amendment -a mixture of ingredients used to fertilize and improve soil, rich in plant nutrients and beneficial organisms. Plants usually can't grow in compost alone because the nutrients are too concentrated, the material is too light and the water drains too fast.

When the community garden was first established in 2009, and before it fell into disrepair roughly a decade later, the composting output was used in the garden beds, Massie said last Tuesday. The composting operation at City Park was revived last summer and a bin of compost has been produced, she said.

The benefit of a commercial-scale compost machine is it can process animal products, and food grease like olive oil, Massie said. Dairy, meat and oil can't go into cold compost bins.

A commercial machine can also compost green bags that look like plastic, marketed as "compostable" by the manufacturer, but aren't actually compostable in the cold compost bin. Those are the bags that have more of a matte finish than the shiny plastic, Massie said. "Some well-intentioned people put those in the cold compost. ... I had to put up a sign at Twisted Root that they can't be composted."

In addition to meat, dairy, oil and those misleading green bags, the commercial composter can take fruit and vegetable peels and scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, coffee filters, paper towels, cardboard, straw, corks if they aren't plastic coated, leaves, grass clippings that are free of pesticides, and "newspaper is pretty good, if it's shredded," Massie said.

Also acceptable are shredded documents from the bank. "Every year they'll do a big shredding event."

If it's a glossy high-ink junk mailer, you don't want to put that in, Massie said. "You don't want anything that's going to leech into the food that you grow."

A commercial machine is much more heavy duty, and stirs in the right mix of microbes that breaks everything down more easily, Massie said. Not so with cold compost.

"Every pound of food waste composted is a pound of food waste we don't pay to have shipped down to the Roosevelt (Eastern Washington) landfill," said Massie, during a virtual Jan. 5 presentation to the parks and recreation board.

The larger composter would provide a supplement to create rich, fertile soil for gardeners in Wrangell to use for growing foods, as Wrangell's soil is naturally acidic and doesn't lend itself to farming.

Once production gets into swing, Massie envisions Wrangell-made compost "immune to fluctuating shipping costs" that could be sold in town.

In fiscal year 2021, Wrangell shipped out 1,578 tons of trash. That's less than 2020's 1,854 tons of trash shipped, but with rising freight and handling fees it cost over $18,000 more for the smaller volume, according to figures from the public works department, Massie said.

From 2014 onward, the trash shipped off the island each year has fluctuated between 1,500 tons to 1,800 tons, but the cost has risen from $190,258 in 2014 to $269,107 in 2021.

Of 80 Wrangell households surveyed to see what's in their trash, 33% is food waste, Massie said. The more that is recycled into soil, the less gets shipped out.

The plan this year is to restore electrical power to the concessions stand this spring, purchase, ship and install the composter, lay gravel and fence in the new garden site, make compost for the community garden and for sale, restore a garden bed "subscription system," run classes at the garden and enjoy the season, Massie said.


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