There is something about rot and decay – the organic kind, not the political – that I can’t resist.
It’s not just the “circle of life” celebration of microbes turning yesterday’s lunch into tomorrow’s topsoil. It’s also the satisfaction of keeping stuff out of the landfills that nobody wants to build anymore, plus the opportunity to contemplate some practical organic chemistry. No wonder I’m a fan.
More people in New Hampshire will have a chance to become fans now that the state has instituted new regulations. The rules, which went into effect a month ago, are an update of existing rules that have been in the works for a half-dozen years as New Hampshire, always an environmental laggard, tries to catch up with neighboring states in dealing with food waste.
Those changes from the state Department of Environmental Services concern the operation of pretty much any compost facility bigger than the piles that are rotting away next to my barn, including New Hampshire’s 11 licensed commercial food-composting operations.
“I think there is pent-up demand for it. I get phone calls every couple of weeks: What would I need to do if I want to start a composting facility?” said Michael Nork, a supervisor in the state’s Solid Waste Management Bureau.
Meat and dairy
The biggest change in the rules is that meat and dairy products can now be composted along with plants and grains at what are known as permit-by-notification sites. This not only increases the amount of food waste that can be composted, it takes away the hassle of separating post-meal scraps, which makes it almost impossible for restaurants to participate.
“If you can’t scrape a plate after people have eaten, it’s going to go in the garbage,” said James Meinecke, co-owner of Lewis Farm in Concord. “Separating it … just isn’t an option for them.”
Lewis Farm has long composted the city’s leaves and yard waste and in the past has sometimes taken food waste for composting. Meinecke said he appreciates the changes in the state’s regulations but wishes they had gone farther.
“My hope is that we would be able to compost by right, without regulation and all that paperwork,” he said. He pointed to leaf composting, which is not covered by the state’s composting regulations. That gives him the option to set up the huge piles of waste in the orientation he wants and to turn them as he sees fit.
Meinecke said he didn’t think he would start taking food waste again, although he and his wife, Rebecca McWilliams, are considering it. “With diesel being what it is, the cost of the machines, even just moving the piles – the economics just aren’t there yet,” he said.
Everybody’s doing it
New Hampshire’s move comes as most states are encouraging food composting with Vermont leading the way through Act 148, which has mandated composting for virtually everybody. Places in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine are experimenting with curbside composting pickup.
The benefits of composting are obvious, starting with a reduction in the volume of material sent to landfills. The longer it takes to fill up those places, the better, since they’re expensive to operate and build.
There’s a climate-change benefit, as well. Landfills are so compressed that little oxygen makes it to decomposing food. Through the miracles of chemistry, this anerobic process produces methane, a brutal greenhouse gas. In a well-aerated compost pile, by contrast, decomposition produces carbon dioxide, which is also a greenhouse gas but a much less potent one.
Finally, unlike a landfill, composting produces an incredibly useful product: Dirt. Replacing lost topsoil is something that humanity needs to do and besides, few things are quite as satisfying as spreading soil that you’ve created from my own kitchen garbage.
The new rules make a number of changes. create exemptions from some regulations for community composting, such as might take place at a community garden, and also for food waste drop-off sites. The latter could lower costs for a company that wants to do commercial composting of household food scraps.
“They don’t want to go to every single household. This allows them to create a distributed network of drop-off sites,” said Michael Nork, a supervisor in the state’s Solid Waste Management Bureau. “We’re trying to have rules that contemplate composting at different scales.”
The regulations also reduce some siting requirements for commercial composting facilities, which right now have to meet the same criteria as a landfill – and we know how easy it is to set one of those up.
Temperature is key
Composting piles aren’t perfect, of course. They can draw bugs and critters and, worst of all, smell.
“The No. 1 problem that most composting facilities have is producing odors. It not only attracts animals but makes your neighbors mad,” said Michael Nork, a supervisor in the state’s Solid Waste Management Bureau. “That’s why the question of best management practices … is one of the things tried to bake into the new rules.”
“Bake into” is an appropriate metaphor since the key to composting, like making bread, is keeping the right temperature for the right amount of time.
“It needs to be in the thermophilic range, above 115-120 degrees. That’s the most efficient breakdown, things happen faster, you can break down things that are harder to break down like egg shells, avocado peels, even bones,” he said. “The best thing to do is to monitor temperatures. That gives the best indication whether the process is working or not.”
(Alas, even the right temperature won’t break down those blankety-blank plastic stickers put on supermarket fruits, which are the bane of composters everywhere. But that’s another story.)
Whether the new rules will make a big difference remains to be seen, of course. Nork is hopeful.
“It’s a significant improvement over the old rules, although there’s always room for improvement going forward,” he said. “We’re hoping that the changes we made to the rules will help encourage more composting infrastructure in the state, that folks will come to us with proposals and applications to do just that.”
If you’re feeling the itch for some large-scale food composting, contact Nork at (603) 271-2906 or firstname.lastname@example.org.