Organics recovery expands in Wyoming`s tetons

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

THE TOWN of Jackson, Wyoming is located in a glacial valley, originally referred to as Jackson's Hole by the fur trappers and game hunters who came down out of the mountains to rendezvous and sell their goods for shipment to markets back east. Today, elk and bison spend winter on the National Elk Refuge, its fence line abutting the town of Jackson, where they are fed and protected until they return to the upland meadows of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, and the National Forests that surround Jackson.

In both winter and summer, millions of tourists are drawn to the breath-taking scenery of the Tetons for a wide range of outdoor recreational activities. Jackson hosts Snow King Resort, a ski area that rises from the edge of town. Ten miles to the northwest is Teton Village, a resort community that boasts the greatest vertical drop of all downhill ski areas in North America (4,139 feet). Located at the boundary of Grand Teton National Park, Teton Village features hotels, restaurants, golf courses, homes and condominiums, and is in the midst of a building boom. These ski resorts help sustain numerous hotels and 250 licensed eating establishments in Teton County.

As with many resort communities located in relatively remote regions, solid waste management and recycling for the Tetons is costly, complicated by long distances to disposal facilities and markets. It is also challenging to implement recycling programs where much of the population is comprised of seasonal residents and tourists visiting the national parks. Despite these challenges, Jackson has a successful volunteer recycling program, including organic waste management, which is now being expanded with a 12-month pilot food waste collection and composting program.

WASTE DISPOSAL AND RECYCLING

Jackson and Teton County followed the path of many mountain communities and utilized a canyon “just out of town” for their landfill. When the landfill closed in 1998, the county built a trash transfer station to haul approximately 30,000 tons/year of solid waste to a landfill in Sublette County, about 90 miles south of Jackson.

Jackson Community Recycling (JCR) is a materials recycling facility (MRF) just up the road from the transfer station. Residents and businesses bring their bottles, cans, paper, corrugated cardboard, household hazardous waste and electronics to the center. Heather Overholser, Director of JCR, recounts the history of the recycling program. “By the late 1980s, many people in the community were concerned because there was no recycling, so the Town and the County established JCR with a small shed and an all-volunteer staff. The recycling program quickly outgrew the facility and a director was hired. In 1995, the MRF opened in Adam's Canyon, with facility capital expenses covered by a $5/ton surcharge at the trash transfer station, essentially a recycling fee. In 1999, the household hazardous waste collection facility was added, a service that is offered twice a month from April to November. Electronic waste is collected year around.”

Additionally, there is a private curbside collection service for residents and businesses that utilizes the MRF as well. Through these programs, the county's landfill diversion rate reached 25 percent. “Then, once the county started composting yard waste and horse manure at the closed landfill in 2006, the diversion rate jumped to 32 percent, which is the current national average,” she explains.

COMPOSTING PROGRAM

Randy Williams, Executive Director of Teton Conservation District (TCD), a state natural resource agency, points to two primary issues that fostered development of the county's commercial composting operation: an excess of horse manure that was adversely impacting water quality, and wood waste that was being burned at the transfer station, which was detrimental to air quality. “When the county emphasized improved air quality, that put a stop to the burning of wood waste, so that material was ground and shipped to the Sublette County Landfill for disposal,” explains Williams. “The Teton Conservation District realized that this supposed 'waste' could be put to better use as a compost product, so I worked with the county to create an RFP for a countywide composting system for wood and manure. Following a public solicitation in 2004, Terra Firma Organics was chosen by the RFP committee to operate the county's composting program.”

The composting site is located on top of the closed landfill, adjacent to the transfer station. Terra Firma Organics processed 4,818 tons in fiscal year (FY) 2006 and 8,163 tons in FY 2007. Those materials include brush, yard trimmings, manure and clean construction wood dropped off by residents and businesses. Terra Firma also crushes concrete and glass at its site behind the transfer station (at the closed landfill). The county pays Terra Firma $45 for each ton processed, about the same as transfer costs, but takes what would have been a “waste” transportation cost and turns it into marketable products for reuse in the community.

Dane Buk, founder and owner of Terra Firma Organics, explains that his company's five-year contract with Teton County allows investment in the right equipment and an incentive to manufacture good quality wood and soil products. “In the past, the county did not adequately control contamination of the wood so its markets were shut off,” says Buk. “Now that Terra Firma has responsibility for marketing the organics we process, as well as revenue, we maintain the product quality required for our markets, and we continue to expand markets for wood and compost.” Buk hopes that adding food residuals to the composting operation will improve the quantity and quality of his products. “We need more moisture and nitrogen for our compost process and the county will divert heavy, wet food from its trash,” he says. The county believes the quantity of pre and postconsumer food waste in its MSW stream is higher than EPA's national estimate of about 12 percent food waste in the MSW stream, since Teton County has a very large number of eating establishments and grocery sales.

Jeff Hermansky, County Engineer, was recently hired to lead Teton County's involvement in developing an Integrated Solid Waste Plan that was recently required by the state. “The State of Wyoming mandated that all publicly-owned landfills and transfer stations participate in the planning process,” explains Hermansky. “This is a legislated mandate funded by the State. Teton County is participating with Lincoln, Sublette and Uinta Counties. The final submittal to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality will be on June 30, 2009. Teton County would like to move food out of the waste stream entirely. The goal is for the maximum amount of waste to be diverted from the waste stream. They intend to look at the real costs of recycling, composting and landfilling.”

Wayne Neal, who manages the landfill closure and transfer station projects, is working with Teton County to set the stage for developing a permanent composting facility at the closed landfill. “It is the old cowboy way of burying and burning that must be pushed aside,” says Neal. “The county engineers would like to get food waste diversion into their operating permit for the long term at the transfer station. There is great potential in getting participation from the hospital, schools and the senior center, resulting in tremendous savings for Teton County residents and adding to recycling rates.” Working with funding from TCD, the county is preparing a plan that includes a permanent site at the closed landfill for operating an in-vessel composting system, as well as a retail yard for marketing of soil and wood products.

In January 2007, Williams and Buk visited several wood recycling facilities in New England, as well as the town of Wellesley, Massachusetts's recycling operation. After their visits they were convinced that a permanent organic materials recycling and composting facility should be constructed at the closed landfill, and that commercial food waste should be added to the materials handled at the composting site.

The visit was partly inspired by the 2006 BioCycle West Coast Conference in Portland, Oregon. “We learned about technologies for food waste management and sound examples of how other communities were composting,” recalls Williams, who attended the conference with Buk. “We also made contact with several composting experts, which led us to a consultant and a grant. That grant was the piece that allowed food waste collection to become a reality in 2008.”

Jackson's Mayor Mark Barron was the first mayor in Wyoming to sign the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in November 2006. One of the 12 goals of the Agreement is to increase recycling rates in participating communities. In a letter of support for funding of the pilot food waste composting project, Mayor Barron wrote: “The project will identify the costs and savings to businesses, as well as for the County, and will hopefully set the stage for a permanent voluntary food waste recycling and composting program in Teton County.”

Adding further political support to the project is the April 2007 “10 by 10” joint resolution of the Jackson Town Council and the Teton County Board of Commissioners to “reduce electricity and fossil fuel consumption by 10 percent each by 2010.” One component of the resolution calls for “great emphasis on recycling and reducing purchasing whenever possible.”

ONE PERCENT FOR THE TETONS

Just as the county was looking for potential sources of funding to assist with startup of commercial food waste composting, a new program of the Wyoming-based Charture Institute called “1% for the Tetons,” was launched. The program's business members donate one percent of their gross revenues, which in turn grants monies to projects focusing on the region's long-term sustainability.

According to Jonathan Schechter, Executive Director of the Charture Institute, the mission of the program “is to fund efforts that help sustain the Teton area's extraordinary natural resources and related essential qualities. Our program is modeled on Patagonia Clothing's '1% for the Planet' initiative, created by Patagonia founder (and part-time Jackson resident) Yvonne Chouinard's frustration with corporations that benefit from the environment while giving little to nothing in return,” he explains. “In the Tetons, everything we do, our culture, economy and way of life, all flows from the natural environment. We take a lot from it and this is a way to give back, to sustain the qualities that attracted us all here.”

When the grant application for the pilot food waste collection and composting program came in from TCD and Terra Firma, “it fit all of the pieces,” adds Schechter. “It closed the loop on waste, it was innovative and it had many clearly positive attributes. The food waste pilot ties into other related efforts in the community, creating synergies because none can succeed on their own.”

The $33,000 grant from the Charture Institute will cover the costs for six food waste generators to separate organics from their trash for 12 months, the purchase of food waste collection containers, installation of a lift gate on the collection truck, consulting services for the design of the collection program, tracking program costs and implementing procedures for incorporating food waste into the composting site. In addition to that grant, the budget includes $20,000 from TCD and $17,500 of in-kind work from Terra Firma Organics, for a total of $71,000. The Western Wyoming Resource Conservation and Development agency is working with TCD to administer the project.

TERRA FIRMA ORGANICS

Terra Firma Organics started as a landscaping company in 1999, and has also been involved with stream and wetland construction for trout habitat improvement. Three years after he started the company, owner Dane Buk opened a plant nursery in Nevada to grow trees and shrubs for the company's customers. (The climate in Nevada is more conducive to running a plant nursery.) “As far as soil organic matter content, Nevada and Wyoming are very similar with only an average of 0.5 percent organics in the soils,” explains Buk. “It was then that I started looking into how important organic content is to plant growth. So we started making organic soils to give our customers the best outcome in their landscapes.”

Buk realized that if Terra Firma were selected by Teton County to manage the composting operation, it would have a good supply of organic soils. “The original projections were for 4,000 tons of material produced in one year, but it was actually double at 8,000 tons,” recalls Buk. “So we have had to develop markets for more compost and wood than we anticipated, and each year so far we have sold all of the material we make.” This is Terra Firma's third year of wood processing and second year of composting.

Terra Firma will collect the food waste from the six participating businesses, probably on a daily basis. The cost of extra collection and tipping fees of $50/ton will be covered by the grant for Terra Firma to process the food waste. Terra Firma is cautiously optimistic that contaminants can be kept out of the material. Buk explains that the small amount of food waste collected in the pilot will be blended with a portion of the 10,000 cubic yards of composting material currently on-site, as long as the material is clean.

The pilot food waste program started in December 2007, once funding was in place. Collection is scheduled to start for the six participating companies (four restaurants, a supermarket and a private school) in early February 2008 (see sidebar).

“We will track the amount of food waste generated by each participant, and total costs,” says Buk. “Since our employees will be collecting the material, we will be able to inspect the containers and, if they contain too many contaminants, we will leave it with the trash. We will provide regular feedback to the customers, and are also providing written training programs and signage customized for each business.”

Buk is looking at systems for enclosed, year around composting for larger quantities of organic waste, due to cold winters and concerns about attracting bears. “It will take time to establish boundaries of what will work, and it will be a costly upgrade,” he says. “What needs to occur is a commitment from the county to create a waste management strategy over the next 10 years, because the financial investment is so large for Terra Firma that a payback has to be guaranteed through long-term contracts. If Teton County is not on board, you can be certain that organics diversion will not progress, but so far the county has been very supportive of the program.”

Terra Firma also has started working in the national forests to recover dead timber from beetle kill areas. “The technology for energy produced by wood cellulose will come around in the next 5 to 10 years,” says Buk. “We would like to start collecting nonmerchantable timber to process into biomass, and recently purchased a key piece of equipment, a Morbark 4600XL grinder on tracks. We use it for processing clean construction wood and brush into power plant fuel, as well as grinding wood for composting. We can walk the grinder with its remote control to the pile we want to grind. It can also be moved to other locations for contract grinding, something we are doing more of in the National Forests.” Terra Firma also will be taking the new grinder into neighboring Teton County, Idaho, where it operates the County's new transfer station and recycling drop-off facility. “We have just started separating clean wood at our operation in Idaho, and will be making the same products there,” explains Buk.

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