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Dan Hust | Democrat

COUNTY LEGISLATOR KATHY LaBuda points at a thermometer measuring the carefully controlled temperature inside one of the composting piles at Vassar Park in Poughkeepsie.

County mulls composting the 'Green'way

By Dan Hust
POUGHKEEPSIE — March 21, 2008 — County legislators agree Shabazz Jackson’s composting operations are innovative, but they’re not sure they’re ready to sign on the dotted line.
Legislators David Sager and Alan Sorensen, accompanied by members of SPECS (Special Protection of the Environment of the County of Sullivan, which opposes the county landfill’s expansion), paid a visit to Jackson’s facilities late last year.
Legislator Kathy LaBuda, Recycling Coordinator Bill Cutler and Recycling Advisory Committee member Craig Reimer made their own trip last week.
While Sager and Sorensen’s impressions were decidedly positive, LaBuda and Cutler’s were mixed – though both groups agree recycling needs to be stepped up in Sullivan County.
County Manager David Fanslau and County Treasurer Ira Cohen have been invited by SPECS to tour the facility on April 23; any decisions will be put off until after that trip.
Jackson is proposing to build a demonstration project in Monticello to show how his company, Greenway Environmental Services, can take food waste and turn it into an environmentally safe, marketable product for landscaping use.
During the two recent tours (plus one with Monticello Village Manager Ray Nargizian), he took officials first to the City of Beacon’s Sanitation Department, where Jackson pioneered a composting setup during his two decades in the city’s employ.
Roughly 70 percent of the entire waste stream is recovered, with only 30 percent being incinerated, he said, and it’s operated by just two people.
Eighty percent of the cost of equipment to process the waste is paid with state and federal grants, he added, and the composting reduces the volume of trash by a 30-to-1 ratio.
“This is designed to handle a population of 50,000,” he explained while residents pulled up to a scale and dumped household trash or yard waste in separate areas. “It utilizes existing infrastructure… and is completely adjustable.”
Next door, Jackson pointed out, is DIA, the renowned art museum in Beacon, discreetly divided from the facility by a row of trees and shrubs.
But the main destination of the tours – Vassar Park in Poughkeepsie – is surrounded by million-dollar homes and is, in fact, a series of meadows open to the public.
Deep in one corner is Greenway’s eight-acre compost operation, a converted landfill that is leased from Vassar College, which owns more than 500 acres of what used to be the college’s student-run farm.
Seven years ago, Greenway cleaned up the yard-waste landfill “on our own nickel,” said Jackson, and began creating a site to rapidly decompose organic trash and turn it into materials attractive to landscapers and gardeners.
Piles of composting material sit 15 feet tall, full of food waste from Vassar and nearby Marist College – a ton delivered every day – all of which is transported to the facility by the two institutions themselves.
Students from the involved colleges work with Jackson and Greenway Vice President Josephine Papagni to monitor the composting process.
“With food waste, you really have to stay on top of it,” points out Papagni.
To quickly and efficiently move the waste through a five-stage process – and to kill harmful bacteria – students ensure the piles are at the proper internal temperature (between 100 and 130 degrees, depending on the stage).
The entire process takes 4-6 months and is so effective that Jackson and Papagni are considering adding bio-gas production.
Though during last week’s visit there was a noticeable odor of decaying food and wood chips, it was limited to within the four acres of active composting, as was the minute amount of trash (i.e., fragments of lettuce, melon, etc.) scattered about.
“There’s never been an odor complaint,” Papagni proudly asserted.
The crows, however, knew what was contained within the early-stage piles, though even they fit in with the largely natural surroundings.
Abutted by a park with athletic fields and walking trails, the composting site featured one small, solar-powered trailer and a trio of distinct wetlands.
Built on top of an impermeable layer of asphalt, the 36-foot-wide wetlands serve as a natural filtration mechanism, purifying stormwater tainted by the composting system.
“We invested in this to demonstrate our profound understanding of natural systems,” Jackson explained.
The tours ended with lunch at Marist’s cafeteria, where students and staff eat freshly prepared food without using disposable utensils, plastic packaging or otherwise non-recyclable materials.
Even the trash bags are compostable, though Cutler did not notice any in evidence at Greenway’s facility.
Stating that Vassar’s recycling rate has jumped from eight to 70 percent, Jackson said the real secret to getting the composting process to work is creating a system whereby people are encouraged to intelligently handle their waste.
“It doesn’t matter what the individual does – it’s what the group does,” he said.
He calls it Community-Based Social Training, and he wants to bring it to Monticello through a demonstration project to be located at the village’s Sanitation Department.
Roughly 10 percent of Monticello’s population – including the schools – would be involved, but beyond that, Jackson said a study needs to be done to confirm the who, what and where.
And there’s the potential rub: the Village of Monticello, which Jackson said has agreed to provide in-kind services to Greenway, wants the county to pay for what Jackson estimates will be an $8,500 study – not to determine feasibility, of which Jackson is already convinced, but to nail down the specifics of implementing the project.
Jackson told county officials that, as a result, they’ll get a blueprint to duplicate the program in other parts of Sullivan, but he’s of the mind that the study must be done before the legally required bidding process – calling into question how involved Greenway can really be in the study if it will ultimately be one of the bidders.
So what do local leaders think?
“I saw a good composting operation,” remarked Cutler, who oversees a small-scale leaf composting system at the county landfill. “But I think we have to study it a lot more.”
For example, he said, to reproduce Jackson’s efforts on a countywide scale would take possibly 50 times more space than the eight acres Greenway currently uses – and the landfill has just two acres devoted to composting now.
Sager and Sorensen, who said landfill officials have released inaccurate, unreliable figures in the past, doubted Cutler’s assessment, worrying that the county’s push to expand the landfill will result in decreased recycling efforts.
“I’d like to see more staff resources in recycling,” remarked Sorensen – and actual enforcement of those who break the recycling rules, which have been on the books since 1992.
“I’d like to see it happen,” agreed Sager, “but I’m not necessarily married to Shabazz’s proposal.”
Sager is particularly interested in a closed composting system – which, unlike Greenway’s operation, would transform waste inside a concrete housing.
“First the county has to make the decision: is this something we want to explore?” pointed out Sorensen. “I think it is.”
Though LaBuda, who chairs the Legislature’s Public Works Committee, agreed it should be pursued, she felt the county needed to assess how much equipment and personnel such a project would require, and fellow Legislator Ron Hiatt thought it should be moved to a place far from neighbors and their sensitive eyes and noses.
The matter is expected to be discussed further this Thursday at a recessed Public Works Committee meeting.

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