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Local

DeKalb residents recycle food waste to compost for pilot program

Waste Management driver Mark Nicklaus of Monroe Center heads back to his truck after collecting organic waste from a trash bin Thursday in DeKalb.
Waste Management driver Mark Nicklaus of Monroe Center heads back to his truck after collecting organic waste from a trash bin Thursday in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Residents in the organic waste pilot program can feel a little less guilty about throwing away their food. Instead of taking up space in the DeKalb County landfill, it’s being converted into compost.

The organic waste pilot program began in May and will run until Waste Management’s yard waste collection ends in November. The 87 participating DeKalb homes are allowed to toss food waste – including meat, dairy, vegetables and grains – into the same collection bins as landscaping waste, such as grass clippings and tree branches.

Michelle Gibson, solid waste specialist with the DeKalb County Health Department, said collecting food scraps was a goal from the DeKalb County Board’s Zero Waste Task Force that was created in an effort to reduce waste going to the landfill.

In May 2014, the County Board voted for the landfill to begin accepting an additional 500 tons of trash a day on top of its previous rate of about 300 tons a day, to help fund the construction of a new DeKalb County Jail.

Three years later, on May 17, the board voted to approve an increase of 200,000 additional tons of nonhazardous special waste a year to be dumped at the landfill, bringing the total amount Waste Management can dump to 700,000 tons a year.

Officials said the additional waste would be limited to a particular type, including uncontaminated soil from special construction projects or sludge from sewage treatment plants, which they said would actually compact the landfill and extend its life.

The health department is paying for the extra labor and equipment needed for the pilot program, which adds up to about $5 a household, Gibson said.

Gibson said the initial goal was to include 500 homes, but it was scaled down to a limit of 100, so the program could be closely monitored, and to keep costs down.

“There was a lot of interest from people outside of the designated neighborhood that was chosen, but we actually had to turn people away, because in order to do the program successfully, we needed to keep it to a smaller area,” Gibson said.

Participating homes are between the boundaries of Dresser Road, First Street, Hillcrest Drive and Normal Road with the addition of Eden’s Gardens.

Lisa Disbrow, Waste Management’s area senior manager for government and public affairs, said the area was selected because it has a high percentage of participation in recycling.

Yard waste already is collected separately from other garbage and used for composting, as it was banned from landfills in 1990, Disbrow said.

“I think it’s an economical way to offer the [food waste collection] program to the residents,” Disbrow said. “We already have the yard waste containers, and then they can just put the food waste in as well.”

Gibson said depending on the pilot program’s success, the health department wants to eventually expand the organic waste collection to the entire city of DeKalb.

That success will depend on the level of participation and level of contamination – plastic, food packaging and other waste – in the compost material.

Participating residents are also welcome to receive free 1 square yard of compost, Gibson said.

David Geier, Waste Management operations manager, said the rest of the compost is sold to landscapers and farmers, and the profits will go toward Waste Management’s operating costs.

After the organic waste is collected from homes, it is brought back to the landfill, tossed into a large grinder and placed into piles called windrows to decompose.

“It’s not an overnight thing,” Geier said. “It actually takes almost all summer, from the time we grind it, to the time we put it in windrow, and we turn it, we monitor it, then we screen it out. It’s a long process.”

Once the organic material is placed into windrows, it has to be monitored and periodically turned to maintain proper temperature, oxygen and moisture levels. When it is ready to become compost, the soil-like material is moved through a screener to remove contaminants such as bits of plastic, Geier said.

“It’s a very good product; that’s why we worry about contamination,” he said.

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