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26,000 Tons: Inside The Effort To Establish Region-wide Composting In Northern Michigan

Published in the Traverse City Ticker on July 29, 2023. Read it here.  

Written by: Craig Manning

In any given year, Grand Traverse County produces about 19,000 tons of organic yard and food waste, Across the 10-county northwest Lower Michigan region, that number skyrockets to 75,000 tons.

Those figures are at the heart of an initiative by SEEDS Ecology & Education Centers and a cohort of collaborators to divert large amounts of organics from the waste stream so they aren’t ending up in landfills. With the State of Michigan pushing a similar agenda – and with a series of grants and pilot projects supporting SEEDS in its work – it could be only a matter of time before northern Michigan has a full-fledged composting system. But what would that system look like, how long would it take to build, and why does this all even matter? The Ticker sat down with SEEDS Executive Director Sarna Salzman to get the lay of the la9

First, the why: While conversations about combating climate change and reducing greenhouse gases often focus on carbon dioxide emissions, emissions of methane are actually “more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide,” per the EPA. One of the primary sources of methane, meanwhile, is landfills, which emit the gas over time as organic wastes – including food scraps, paper, and wood – rot and decompose.

Composting is one potential solution. In addition to keeping organic waste out of landfills, the EPA reports that composting “lowers greenhouse gases by improving carbon sequestration in the soil and by preventing methane emissions through aerobic decomposition, as methane-producing microbes are not active in the presence of oxygen.”

According to Salzman, Michigan as a state has increased its focus in recent years on slimming down the waste stream, organic materials included. In 2021, the state legislature updated Part 115, also known the Michigan Solid Waste Law, setting a goal of diverting 45 percent of total solid waste away from landfills. To comply with that update, Salzman says Michigan counties will soon be required “to update their waste stream materials management plans” – a process that could begin in earnest as early as next year. SEEDS and its partners “want to make sure that every county in our region has access to the most accurate information” about their waste streams, as well as “a variety of ways to make sure that the organics part of the waste stream is fully addressed in that plan update,” she explains.

Last year, a market development grant from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) allowed SEEDS to engage the services of Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) and compile a comprehensive report on waste streams and diversion opportunities in the 10-county region. According to the report, the 10 counties collectively produce just under 75,000 tons of organic waste annually – including 22,000 tons of commercial food waste, 18,500 tons of residential food waste, and 34,000 tons of yard waste. The vast majority of that waste is currently going to landfills, with RRS estimating that just 7,750 tons (or 10.3 percent) is being diverted.

RRS provided “estimated potential diversion” numbers for each of the 10 counties. Based on those numbers, there is opportunity for the region to divert about 26,000 tons of its organic food and yard waste (or 34.7 percent) from landfills – nearly three and a half times what it is currently diverting. Those estimates include channels for the reuse, recovery, and recycling of materials, but the vast majority of potential diversion opportunities would be realized through “centralized composting”: RRS estimates that the 10-county region could compost 19,000 tons of food and yard waste each year.

"Our market analysis said that the City of Traverse City, as well as Petoskey and Cadillac, could have a really industrial-scale, aerated static pile operation going [for composting] and have it be revenue positive."

-- Executive Director, Sarna Salzman

Now, SEEDS has convened an “Organic Waste Diversion Cohort” – including a “core advisory body” of leaders from Grand Traverse, Emmet, and Manistee counties – to work on getting the assessment data into the right hands. County-specific teams of entrepreneurs, environmentalists, business owners, government officials, and concerned citizens are working on the matter as well, albeit less formally. The goal, Salzman says, is to influence the process as local counties start revamping their solid waste management plans. “What we really want is enabling language [in these plans] for the public and private sectors to do the implementation work of capturing organic waste that is currently going to landfills, and putting it into higher better uses,” she explains.

Composting is only one piece of that puzzle. Salzman points to Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan as a great example of an entity that is already diverting organic waste by “preventing the waste in the first place.”

But compost programs represent the biggest potential for keeping organic waste out of landfills, which raises a big question: What would those programs actually look like in northern Michigan? The answer remains to be seen, but is something Salzman expects will come into focus over the next year or so as local counties begin revising their waste management plans. While some cities in Michigan have curbside composting programs – Ann Arbor is a robust example – Saltzman says northern Michigan’s mix of bigger population centers and more sprawling rural areas means there likely isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for centralized composting in the region.

“Our market analysis said that the City of Traverse City, as well as Petoskey and Cadillac, could have a really industrial-scale, aerated static pile operation going [for composting] and have it be revenue positive,” Salzman explains. “That’s because there’s a density of population in those areas, which means that thinking about having a curbside composting service is not a crazy notion. But in the middle of Leelanau County, for instance, where homes are more spread out, curbside service is kind of a tall order, and maybe not pragmatic at all. So, what we need, really, are a dozen different solutions for the different types of situations that we find ourselves in in rural Michigan.”

A two-year pilot program for composting in the City of Traverse City is already underway, thanks to a $255,396 grant from the USDA. A rollout of composting services and infrastructure for the wider region, though, will likely be a process of trial and error to figure out which solutions work best in each county.

“And that’s where it’s kind of hard for people to grasp what this all might look like,” Salzman concludes. “The common question is, ‘Where’s the composter going to be?’ And the answer is, ‘Well, we’re probably going to need more than one, and they’re going to be different shapes and sizes.’ I think we just need to take a step back and really think about what’s pragmatic here. That means answering questions like: Who is the hauler going to be [to collect the organic waste]? Who’s going to sort it? Who is going to be the processor to turn that waste safely into a soil again through composting? And then what is the distribution mechanism to get that soil back onto the land? And those answers are going to be different county by county.”