Dan Hust | Democrat
OFFICIALS FROM SULLIVAN County got a close-up look earlier this month at the innovative machinery and methods that enable Delaware County to compost up to 70 percent of its waste.
Trash composting in county's future?
By Dan Hust
WALTON While Sullivan County continues to struggle to find more innovative ways to handle trash, Delaware County has joined a tiny but growing rank of communities worldwide implementing a state-of-the-art composting system.
It inspired Legislator David Sager to pay a visit earlier this year. He returned so impressed that he put together another visit for half a dozen other county officials.
“I had gone in the beginning of October,” recalled Sager. “... I was in awe. It seems to me to be cutting-edge.”
So earlier this month, Legislator Alan Sorensen, County Manager David Fanslau, Division of Public Works Commissioner Bob Meyer, Solid Waste Director John Kehlenbeck, Recycling Coordinator Bill Cutler and employees of the county’s budget, planning and DPW divisions boarded a county bus for the hour-long trip north. Sullivan County First Refuse and Recycling owner Shirley Felder-Morton and a staff member joined the group at the site.
Located east of Walton off NYS Route 10, Delaware County’s landfill complex sits within yards of the west branch of the Delaware River, smack in the middle of New York City’s drinking water supply.
Save for construction and demolition debris and larger items such as furniture, all household garbage in Delaware County comes to the composting facility first, where a team of 11 county DPW workers turn most of it into a saleable commodity.
In fact, according to Plant Manager Andy Zuk, fully 70 percent of the waste stream is composted, saving not so much weight but volume in the next-door county landfill.
“This landfill would have been closed and full very shortly,” Zuk observed. “We’ve extended its life 25 years just by doing this.”
The three-story, three-acre building plainly clothed in white, rustproof steel gives no hint of this extraordinary fact. But inside, the whir of specially manufactured machinery offers loud testament to the unique capabilities of this 24/7 operation.
First, there’s the 5-ton-capacity grapple on an overhead crane, precisely maneuvered via joystick to separate items too large for the system. Whatever makes it through that process finds its way inside an incredible 180-foot-long rotating drum, 14 feet in diameter. A thermometer swings into view every minute, showing the trash now mixed with sludge trucked there by local municipalities heating up to about 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s called a bioreactor, and it digests its contents over a three-day period, eventually disgorging them onto a conveyor belt.
A series of machines continue to separate bits of non-compostable waste like tin foil. As for the rest, small pieces (under 1.5 inches) are sorted for composting, larger pieces for landfilling.
The ever-present odor within the building is at its strongest here, but save for some eye-watering moments with the scent of ammonia, the smell is akin to what’s found inside the standard dairy farm. Air exchangers with biofilters keep the odor from traveling off-site, easily confirmed just by walking away from the facility.
Inside a room seemingly the length of a Wal-Mart Supercenter (though actually smaller), the trash is now recognizable only as a soft, wet soil an observation reinforced by a gigantic, million-dollar rototiller that travels the length of lane after lane of compost, plowing through the upper inches to aid the process.
The soil is eventually moved to an even larger room housing piles upon piles of compost, some covered in steam, some covered in mushrooms, as the material ripens over the course of two months.
When it’s ready, trucks pull in to the building to load up on compost perfect for landscaping and the like and if they didn’t add sludge to the process, it’d be state-approved for gardening, too.
“It’s beautiful compost, really,” Zuk said, noting the county charges $15 to purchase a yard of it. “They mix it with topsoil, and they get really good results.”
Open for the past four years, the facility has yet to meet its capacity of 35,000 tons/year, with room for about 25 percent more waste at any given time. But it’s already worked so well that Zuk said the county is considering mining usable material out of the full cells in the landfill.
The remarkable news kept flowing during the recent tour, with Zuk confirming that no tipping fees are charged for household waste, costs being covered by a dedicated one percent of the 4 percent sales tax rate. Construction and demolition debris, on the other hand, will cost a hauler $70 a ton. And yes, the landfill accepts no out-of-county trash.
But there is a downside several, in fact. For one, it costs a heck of a lot of money to build such a facility.
“The final cost was $23 million,” said Zuk, adding that expenses were brought down by using county staff to build infrastructure wherever Canadian developer Conporec’s expertise wasn’t needed. Yet even with a $2 million state grant, the county’s overall outlay exceeded $18 million.
And getting there took more than a decade, with environmental reviews, public comment periods, state and city approvals and three years of construction.
Annual operating costs now hover around $80,000 a year, minimally offset by lackluster sales of compost.
“The economy wasn’t too kind to us this year,” Zuk noted of the impacts of the nation’s financial malaise.
So with these facts in hand, county officials boarded the bus back for home.
“We would probably have to double the size,” mused Fanslau. “We took in 60,000 tons last year.”
The county manager said staff will be researching the matter further, especially with a growing discussion of whether or not to expand the landfill (the state has yet to approve a permit, though the county continues to pursue it).
He admitted it could lead to a large savings over time, though an increased property tax or user fee part of his just-introduced waste districting proposal might be needed to fund construction.
“It’s an intriguing operation,” he acknowledged. “… It’s another layer of alternatives we ought to explore.”
Sorensen, who campaigned his way to the Legislature on a platform of eventually shutting down the landfill (which sits in his district), was thrilled, particularly with the 70 percent of composted waste.
“Coupled with aggressive recycling … it could decrease the amount to be landfilled,” he envisioned. “I’m very impressed with this.”
DPW officials were more measured in their responses.
“I thought it was very interesting,” noted Meyer, pointing out that the facility also takes whey from a nearby Kraft processing plant.
“I think you have to have a thorough understanding of what Delaware County’s needs were,” added Kehlenbeck.
Felder-Morton, the only private hauler in attendance, agreed that what works for one municipality isn’t a sure bet for another. Still, she was glad to be invited along.
“It definitely wasn’t a waste,” she said (pun unintended). “… It’s about making things work and life-sustainable.”
Cutler, who oversees the county’s recycling efforts, found himself intrigued, but cautiously so.
“Composting offers a solution to a portion of our waste stream,” he explained. “... There are some good ideas we can look at.”
He saw an advantage in removing the need for people to sort their own trash, as Delaware County’s facility does it for them. On the other hand, it’s a hugely expensive proposition to build such a complex.
“It takes a lot of technology and space to implement a facility like that,” he observed.
Still, he felt it should be seriously discussed, as dealing with trash is “going to take a balanced approach.”
Sager hopes the county follows through on that commitment.
“Part of organizing a tour was to wake people up and say, ‘Hey, this can be done right,’” said Sager. “... We have to start being responsible with our waste.”
“We have to look long-term,” he urged. “Can we afford not to pursue something like this?”
The county’s Solid Waste Task Force was due to discuss the matter, said Fanslau, this week as part of an investigation into how to create revenue from the increasingly expensive and controversial Sullivan County Landfill.