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N.H. Composters Say Rule Change Could Stir Growth In Business

Sam Evans-Brown

Compost has long been the domain of farmers and gardeners, not city-folk, but with both Vermont and Massachusetts pushing ahead with bans on throwing away food waste, curb-side pickup of compost is set to become more commonplace.

Banning food-scraps from land-fills hasn’t come been high on the legislative agenda in New Hampshire, but with a few tweaks, towns could begin to turn to compost for another reason: to save money.

In Seacoast towns, there are compost buckets emblazoned with the orange Mr. Fox logos in front of around 500 door-steps. Over 100 businesses sport the company’s sticker on their shop windows, declaring themselves customers of Mr. Fox, which recently rebranded itself from being called Ecomovement.

“I do like it yeah, it’s very convenient,” says Crystal Paradis who lives about a quarter of a mile from downtown Portsmouth. She is one of Mr. Fox’s residential customers and pays $12 a month for Mr. Fox to take her food scraps every two weeks.

“I makes me feel like I’m saving a lot of waste land…” she says, laughing as she struggles to come up with the words. “Trash heap land?” A moment later she comes up with it, landfill.

The EPA estimates that at 21 percent, food scraps make up the biggest chunk of what’s being dumped in the average land-fill. Instead, Mr. Fox picks up Paradis’ bin, and the compost gets trucked to Eliot, Maine where over the course of six months it’s turned to soil. Some of that is donated to school gardens, each customer can get a bag or two per year, and ultimately the plan is to sell what’s left over.

Mr. Fox’s chief executive composter – whose actually named Rian Bedard – finished the facility in Maine last year. He wanted it to be in New Hampshire, but for one he couldn’t find a good plot of land, and also “the tough part in New Hampshire is you can’t do meat and dairy in your compost,” he says.

That regulation, imposed by the Department of Environmental Services might sound like a small thing, but it’s a big stumbling block for small scale composting businesses.

An Industry in its Infancy

“So yeah, this is our start,” explains Paul Vera, indicating a pair of tiny wind-rows of compost, each with a footprint no more than three feet wide by five feet long. Each pile is covered with either plastic or a kind of agricultural mesh, to keep animals from getting into it.

Almost a year ago Vera, his sister and brother-in-law, started taking food scraps for residents and businesses around Concord.

“Yeah it’s actually more like a natural kind of smell than anything,” says Vera as he puts a pitchfork into the pile and turns it, a sign that the compost has not gone anaerobic.

His heaps, which you can find in Bow, are only about 3 feet by five feet each. Like the New Hampshire composting industry in general, the business is in its infancy.

Credit http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/2012_msw_fs.pdf / epa.gov
Food waste is the largest portion of what goes in the typical landfill according to EPA studies. New Hampshire has never studied what make's up its waste - for one, land-filling yard trimmings is banned in the Granite State - but other neighboring states have a similar composition.

“We have about twelve residents… ish, and right now only four restaurants that we’re picking up at,” explains Nicole Vera, whose full time job is as owner of a “recycled fashion” second-hand clothing shop.

For composting as a business to work they need big customers, so they can pick up a lot of waste per trip with the truck. “I think it’s just going to take larger quantities. Big food-wasters: schools, hospitals,” explains Nicole Vera.  

But signing up those big customers is really hard if they have to to pick meat and cheese off the plate, instead of just scraping the whole mess into a 5 gallon bucket, which is why composters are pushing state regulators to get that rule changed.

And the state is open to the idea.

“This is a very simple thing,” says Doug Kemp, “It’s very doable, other states do do it.”

Kemp says there is a permit that any business already could get that would allow them to compost meat and dairy, but it’s part of a more complex regulatory regime and generally requires hiring a consultant. In an industry with as little capital available as composting, most operators have opted for a vastly cheaper “permit by notification”.

Kemp says the state will be reaching out to stake-holders this fall as it re-works the rules for the permit by notification, and he expects many of those stakeholders will push for new meat and dairy rules.

Initially the fear was that meat in the compost piles would cause odors and attract animals, which could lead to spreading pathogens. But businesses say that operations around the country have shown that composting those materials can be done safely, and all around New Hampshire, it’s already a reality.

The Shifting Landscape of Commercial Decomposition

Just to the West, Vermont is phasing in a ban on throwing away food waste starting this July and ending in 2020. Massachusetts is requiring businesses to compost their waste starting in October. Many composters are hoping New Hampshire will go the same route, just as the state did in 1993 when it banned throwing yard-waste in landfills.

But even just a small rule tweak like lifting the meat and dairy restriction could be a boon to New Hampshire tax-payers.

Any food waste that’s sent to a composter instead of a landfill is weight the town doesn’t have to pay to have hauled to a landfill. Mike Durfor with the recycling business group the Northeast Resource Recovery Association says you can do composting for as little as $55 dollars a ton.

“The estimated average for disposing of just trash is about $90 a ton in the state,” says Durfor, “The other good news is that material your composting is then going to be reused.”

Towns that decide to compost on their own can sell bagged or bulk compost to make a little extra on top of that. That could spur taxpayers to push their towns to collect compost, and some towns could opt to pay a local hauler instead of trying to deal with the food scraps themselves. That, of course, would be good news for outfits like Mr. Fox and Capital Composting.