By Maxim Tamarov
Talks between the Department of Public Works and Black Earth Composting (BEC) have stalled, as what seemed like a win-win deal for Winthrop has proven to be more complicated.
A presentation by the Zero Waste Committee at a Town Council meeting in May outlined a plan for the yard waste pile which the town currently spends an average of $60,000 a year to haul away. BEC, according to the committee, was willing to manage the site, add residents’ food waste into the mix, and haul away the product at no cost to the town. The DPW has since noted that there may not be enough space at the location for both its and BEC’s operations.
“You can only bring enough food waste in if there’s enough area,” Conor Miller, founder and CEO of BEC, said. The land available to BEC became increasingly smaller in discussions with the DPW, he added. In the end, “The area was too small to cover the fixed costs.”
BEC’s business strategy revolves around collecting compostable material, converting it into more compost than the town’s residents can use, and then selling off the excess as high-quality soil. For residents, the drop-off at the facility of their yard and food waste would be free, as would the eventual end product, the compost itself.
BEC currently offers weekly pick-up from homeowners of their compostable materials for $200 per year, though that price would be halved if BEC were to be allowed to compost in Winthrop.
“They were the company who offered the most benefits and reduced the costs the most for the town,” said Zero Waste Committee member Charles Southworth. He added that Bootstrap Compost, Inc. and City Compost were also considered.
The need for the alternative disposal of compostable material is urgent. Compostable material makes up about 25 percent of landfill waste in Massachusetts. The state is rapidly running out of landfill capacity and composting is one solution.
Composting also is a tool for fighting climate change. According to Ann McGovern, the consumer waste reduction coordinator at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), aerobic decomposition converts the carbon in organic compostable material into humus, which “locks the carbon up in the soil” for years. By contrast, the anaerobic decomposition that occurs in a landfill converts the carbon into methane — a significant greenhouse gas. Methane is capable of trapping more heat and on a per weight basis has 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.
BEC was founded in 2011 and has operated a site in Manchester-by-the-Sea for about two years. Manchester was the proving ground for the company, according to Miller. The concept that a town’s excess compost could be collected for free and then sold for a profit worked, and since then, Miller and his colleagues have been searching for a second site in the Greater Boston area.
“You have to have a very suitable site without immediate neighbors and Winthrop had that,” Miller said. “That’s why we were interested … A lot of towns don’t have a site that will work.”
Winthrop’s own composting operation was abandoned approximately four years ago, when the town converted the plot exclusively to a yard waste and storm debris facility. Its hours of operations have been the same for two decades. On Fridays, the site is open from 9 a.m. to noon and 3 to 6 p.m, and on Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m. The site is closed for the winter.
Any expansion of the present operation would have a financial impact on the town’s budget because the site needs to be manned when open to the public.
However, according to Southworth, having the operation run by BEC would likely mean expanded drop-off hours year-round. The town would have to pay less for the waste removal, since a lot of the waste tonnage would be composted. It also would qualify the town for grants.
But it’s not that simple.
“The area would first need to be surveyed to see what is actually available after all environmental set-backs are established,” DPW Director Steven Calla wrote in an email to the Sun-Transcript.
Although the DEP permit allows for both the debris stockpiling and compost collection on the plot, there are other factors at play.
Environmental compliance relative to the buffer zone adjacent to the Belle Isle salt marsh has to be continuously met, according to Calla. In addition, the trucking of compostable waste over Winthrop’s roads and through a school zone and cemetery grounds needs to be discussed “at a higher level.”
And the DPW requires at least one acre to perform departmental obligations, such as collecting residential yard waste; collecting storm debris; stockpiling grass clippings, tree prunings and tree stumps; stockpiling seaweed and beach debris; and stockpiling unsuitable soils from the nearby cemetery’s interments.
The facility takes in approximately 3,000 to 5,000 cubic yards of material annually, according to Calla, while the annual demand for compost is 500 cubic yards.
“Everything from nature will eventually break down,” Calla said. “The real issue is the amount of time it takes to compost everything.”
There is, however, a significant difference in the time it takes compostable material like food scraps and yard waste to decompose in a compost pile as opposed to a landfill. According to McGovern, materials that can decompose in a compost pile in six months to a year can take several years, even decades, to decompose in a landfill.
Meeting these obligations may still result in enough land for BEC, according to Calla, because the total acreage after set-backs is unknown. But the town presently has no plans to incur the costs of the necessary survey, which can range from $5,000 to $10,000. That cost would need to be covered by the potential user.
In their presentation, the Zero Waste Committee outlined other projects that the BEC could help with as well.
One such project involved the BEC teaching students how and why to compost at Winthrop schools. Another involved BEC collecting compostable waste from private residences.
BEC currently picks up compost from the Hilton at Logan Airport and from Project Oscar in East Boston, so Winthrop is not far off the route. It would take about 30 people for BEC to find it financially beneficial to collect compost from Winthrop households, according to Miller.
So far, BEC has 15 people registered. Yet Miller is optimistic.
“We’re going to start composting in town eventually,” he said.
Maxim Tamarov is a freelance reporter covering coronavirus and environmental issues for the Winthrop Sun Transcript. Send comments or story ideas to [email protected]