By Rob Montana
Food scrap recycling is nothing new in Tompkins County.
With the Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management extolling its virtues, not to mention business dedicated to dealing with the stuff and Cornell Cooperative Extension educating residents, that the practice is well understood by many in the county should come as no surprise.
The county has continued to seek proactive solutions for waste reduction, and has expanded its compost operations with more recent additions to its food scraps drop spots. The three new locations recently added are at Cass Park, the Tompkins County Highway Department and the Trumansburg Department of Public Works. The rest of the locations and hours of operation can be found on the list accompanying this article.
“We have 11 residential drop spots where folks can bring food scraps and soiled paper, like paper towel and napkins, at no charge,” said Barbara Eckstrom, director of Recycling and Materials Management for Tompkins County. “We also provide free tool kits, which are very nice and convenient.
“They include a kitchen caddy for the counter top for food scraps, and biodegradable bags that make it easier to handle the food scraps,” she added. “And we give everybody a 6-gallon transport container to bring material to the drop spots.”
There is no charge for the tool kit, Eckstrom said, and people can ask for them at the Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management office in Ithaca or at one of the drop spots.
“All we ask in return is to add their contact information to our listserv, so we can communicate new information,” she said. “The motto for our program is ‘Clean, convenient and comfortable.’ The caddies keep it neat and clean in the kitchen, the bags make it easier and the transport containers make it convenient. The whole experience should be pretty easy.”
That ease also relates to where people can take their food scraps, if they’re not composting at home.
“Our main goal is to make these drop spots convenient to where people live,” Eckstrom said. “As we looked at the map, there are places where there are some gaps, so we tried to pick locations that filled those gaps.”
There had been some free curbside collection of food scraps taking place on West Hill and in Trumansburg, but that service was stopped last year.
“It turned out to be effective, but it was very expensive,” Eckstrom said. “We replaced those with the Cass Park and Trumansburg locations, and now those are available to anybody in the county as well.
“The Bostwick Road highway location, we have a gap over there when it comes to Enfield, Newfield and the Town of Ithaca,” she added. “We’re trying to look at areas where we can have a better presence.”
Eckstrom said curbside collection could return at some point, but the cost would have to be borne by the customers and handled by the municipal and/or private garbage haulers that serve county residents. The drop spot plan seems to be working, she said, and growing.
“We’ve had thousands, probably close to 4,000 people pick up tool kits,” Eckstrom said. “That’s certainly going to grow. It’s a less expensive program, and we are planning for some new spots this year as well – we’re hoping for three new locations.”
Currently, she said, the county is looking at places that don’t have drop spots yet, such as in Groton, Danby and Caroline. Filling gaps, as well as interest from people in specific municipalities, help determine where new drop spots are located. Type of drop also plays a role.
“Some are a stationary location, where we provide a shed so we can store the totes and also signage,” Eckstrom said. “We’ve also rolled out a really cool mobile unit – a truck that has a cargo trailer with our logo on it – that can go places. We plan to do more of that.”
If people are interested in having a drop spot location in their area, they should contact Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management.
“We’re always exploring new possibilities and if we’re going to a place where they want us, it works better, provided that logistically it works well,” Eckstrom said. “Right now, all the locations are supervised and I don’t think we’re at a point where we would do anything different than that.”
Where Does It Go?
Bobby Seymour is the compost operations and marketing manager for Cayuga Compost, which has been working with the Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management for more than 10 years to divert food scraps from going into the landfill. Through partnerships with the county, businesses and residents, Cayuga Compost has diverted and processed more than 23,000 tons of food scraps since 2006, turning that into premium compost.
And the business continues to grow, expanding its operations in several ways.
“In 2014, we applied for and received an expansion permit from DEC to double the intake of food scraps at our commercial compost facility, for up to 5000 tons per year,” Seymour said. “As part of this expansion Cayuga Compost installed a new computerized weighing scales, a Wind Row Turner (which is a large piece of equipment that is dedicated and used for turning the large wind rows of compost). Also, Cayuga Compost has installed a new 13,000-square-foot curing and storage building for our finished compost, as well as many other improvements for the process, curing, storage and marketing of our premium compost products.”
Cayuga Compost has its product available in bulk, as well as bagged for sale in the retail market, such as at stores, farm stands and nurseries. They sell their product throughout Tompkins County, as well as in the surrounding ones.
Seymour said there are a number of benefits that come from people using the drop spots.
“Food Scrap Drop Spots are a convenient and effective opportunity for Tompkins residents to recycle their food scraps,” he said, “saving them money while allowing these food scraps to be processed into an all natural, nutrient rich soil amendment; preventing these food scraps from going to the landfill.”
While, Seymour noted, limited transportation could make it difficult for some to use the drop spots, the positives outweigh that negative.
“As new locations are opened this will allow for greater accessibility,” he said. “In my opinion, the drop spot program is a win-win, for our residents and for our local ecosystems.”
Cornell Cooperative Extension has its own Compost Education Program, led by Program Manager Adam Michaelides, that offers informational sessions and workshops for people on how to compost.
“We specialize in teaching people how to compost in their own home or property,” Michaelides said. “We do this by offering free or low cost public classes on various ways to compost, which can suite different lifestyles and living situations.
“For example, last night we offered a public class up at Eco Village on how to compost in an air-tight bucket using a mixture of microorganisms in a Bokashi mixture,” he added. “More conventionally, we teach simple outdoor composting practices at the annual Compost Fair in the spring, and at our free public class series over the summer.”
For Michaelides, there are plenty of reasons for people to compost.
“To reduce waste, to cycle the nutrients in organic materials like food scraps and use the finished product to replenish soils,” he said when asked the question. “For healthy gardens, and yards. To save money on disposal. To keep organic materials out of landfills where they can generate methane, a potent green-house gas. For fun, and for health.”
The benefits of composting, Michaelides said, can be felt by the earth and by people.
“For the soil, adding compost provides nutrients including micronutrients, improves soil structure in sandy or clay soils, adds beneficial soil life and helps to retain moisture in the soil like a sponge,” he said. “For humans, adding compost contributes to healthier soil, which contributes to healthier food.”
While composting can be simple, there are challenges.
“Not doing it properly,” said Michaelides when asked about challenges facing people who compost. “For outdoor composting, not knowing that it is essential to add two or three times the amount (volume) of ‘browns’ as food scraps. Browns are dry, brittle materials like dead leaves, straw, wood chips/shavings, shredded paper, etc.
“There are ways to compost that are simple and quick,” he added. “A challenge may be not knowing these techniques. Come to our class.”
And there are plenty of misconceptions about composting.
“It stinks. It attracts animals. It’s unsanitary,” said Michaelides when asked about that. “These do not have to be the case. Proper composting can be absolutely trouble-free.”
With a focus from the county’s solid waste and recycling officials, businesses focused on it and a multitude of educational opportunities, it’s clear composting is important to many people in the region.
“I believe a much higher percentage of the population in Tompkins County compost as compared to about anywhere else in New York,” said Michaelides. “Many thanks for the long-standing support from Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management.”
“Tompkins County residents are pro active and are enthusiastic about participating in activities that are healthy and sustainable for our community,” added Seymour of his perception of the way people in the county compost. “While awareness of the benefits and participation in the composting program has steadily increased; there is always the opportunity and room for improvement.”
“It’s one of those things that started small and has been growing,” Eckstrom said. “Now, with the expansion in terms of collection, the sky’s the limit. We have established practices that work well, and other communities are following what we’re doing.”
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For more information, visit www.RecycleTompkins.org.