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County hopes ‘digester’ turns scraps into bucks


GREENPORT—This is a quiz:

•How much organic waste does the country generate each year?

80 million tons; or, 400 pounds of food per person per year

•How much food does the average American waste every day?

Two-thirds of a pound per person per day; the amount has doubled since 1970

•How much of what we send to the landfill is food scraps (much of it edible food)?

20 percent

•Why would it a be a good idea to divert food from landfills?

When decaying in a landfill, food emits methane, a major contributor to climate change

•How much does it cost annually to dispose of food scraps in transport and fees?

$1.3 billion, because of the bulk of what must be transported

•Can we do anything to better use these scraps and relieve the volume of food in the landfill?

Yes. Read on

On Friday, April 21, the county introduced the community to its new Ecorich Elite II Digester/Composter, just installed at the Greenport Transfer Station, for the processing of food scraps.

Presentations by Jolene Race, director of the Columbia County Solid Waste Department, Wendy Madsen, deputy director, and Manish Desai, president of Ecorich, explained the workings of the digester.

Over the course of three days, 3,000 pounds (1,000/day) of food scraps will be loaded into the digester via an automatic loader that lifts the materials in 200-pound bins up to the top of the machine to be poured in and then composted.

The digester is aerobic, meaning that organic materials are then broken down in a controlled process with oxygen in an enclosed, electrically-heated vessel. When the heat inside the vessel hits 170 Fahrenheit degrees, it automatically shuts down, and then automatically resumes at 150 degrees.

The cycle runs for 24 hours. The material is reduced by 85-90%, meaning that 3,000 pounds of scraps shrinks to 300-450 pounds of compost. It is then further dried for 21 days after which the county will make the resulting product available to the public to use as an organic fertilizer (or, amendment) to enrich garden soils, at a mix of 4-5 parts soil to 1 part compost.

Although the food scraps—that will be collected weekly from the local transfer stations—emit quite the smell, the end-product is odorless, as is the composting process. The process also does not emit methane, a greenhouse gas, whereas food rotting in a landfill will. And, no pests are attracted to the digester or its end-product.

The spiffy green digester cost the county $78,000, most of which cost is expected to be offset by a state Department of Environment Conservation grant. As Ms. Race said, the County Department of Public Works “was incredibly forward-thinking and supportive of this environmentally important initiative,” one that will also save the county money in transporting food waste in the long run.

Ecorich LLC, the manufacturer of the digester, offers an array of composters sized for everything from home to school to business to transfer station use. Ecorich has installed about 40 digesters in the U.S. in its five years of operations here, including the very lean pandemic period, and has some 400+ installations worldwide, including in Europe and India (where the machines are manufactured).

The system is run off a simple touch screen. Ron Neal, its operator, says it could not be easier.

While the installation is not a case of “garbage in, garbage out,” there is a list of what is and what is not acceptable waste for the digester. The efficiency of the process depends on the care with which the public sorts what is destined for composting.

Acceptable items include fruits and vegetables, but not stickers, bands or ties; meat and poultry, bones included; fish and shellfish, shells included; dairy products, egg shells included; bread, pasta, grains, rice, chips and snacks; beans, nuts and seeds; leftovers and spoiled food; coffee grounds and tea bags with staples removed.

Not acceptable are: bags, whether plastic or biodegradable; packaging; rubber bands or twist ties; pet waste, diapers, feminine products; baby wipes; foil, paper towels, tissues, napkins; compostable products not on the acceptable list; and non-food items, including plastic, metal, glass or kitchenware.

Ms. Madsen urges all users to take care with what they deposit in the scraps receptacles, as success and a quality compost product will depend on good sorting.

Local transfer stations will have receptacles for food scraps, that will be picked up weekly and taken to Greenport for processing.

The controls on the digester are as simple as those on a microwave.

* Sources for the Quiz: digestion; Hope Jahren, “The Story of More;” Natural Resources Defense Council, “Wasted;”

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