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Reducing greenhouse gas with a rotating tube

This rotating drum composter at North Country School has produced more than 80,000 pounds of unsorted food waste in 20 months. (Provided photo — North Country School)

SARANAC LAKE — A village resident is looking to establishing a food waste co-op here in the village. All Bill Domenico said he needs is space.

“What I’m thinking about doing is food waste recycling,” Domenico said. “The set-up is really very simple.”

Under Domenico’s current business plan for the Saranac Lake Compost Co-op, a resident would first buy into the co-op and receive a container to store food waste. Once one fills it with scraps, one would bring the container to the co-op site and exchange it for a clean container.

For buying into the co-op, residents would have access to the compost created in an amount yet to be determined, Domenico said. As it stands he’s thinking it would be based on need.

“Right now the biggest hurdle is finding a location,” Domenico said. “Being in the village is my biggest goal. … Half an acre would be good; a full acre would be great.”

Once he has a location, Domenico said he could be up and running within a year — because the operation doesn’t require much buildout. He said he’d likely go with prefabricated sheds for the empty and full food waste containers and a larger structure for the composter, something like 25 to 30 feet by 40 feet.

The rotating drum unit he intends to have fabricated for the co-op was designed in the Adirondacks, at North Country School in Lake Placid. Director of Facilities and Sustainability John Culpepper, contractor Greg LeClaire and others worked to create the open-source composter.

This style of composter — a big tube that turns over the material inside — has been around for a while, but they’re cost prohibitive for most people. These machines are on the market for anywhere between $40,000 to $140,000.

“My goal was to lower the cost of entry for organizations that wanted to compost their own food waste,” Culpepper said.

With a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the Adirondack North Country Association, Culpepper bought the materials, at $15,000, for the unit. It’s designed entirely from off-the-shelf components. Much of the materials necessary can be bought from a highway supply outlet.

It’s designed to be 4 feet in diameter and 20 feet long, with the drum itself made from a polyethylene highway culvert, turned by a motor. When full, the composter weighs more than 3,000 pounds.

Culpepper said the school used the other half of the grant money, another $15,000, to have LeClaire build the composter. But, that may not be necessary depending on who’s interested in building one. Since posting the design online, Culpepper said gotten interest from organizations from Hawaii to Alaska.

“We’re designing, we believe, a design that the entire world can use,” Culpepper said. “Nothing about this unit is too complicated. An individual with basic machine shop skills can build this.”

In 20 months of use, North Country School has processed 80,000 of unsorted food waste. And while there are a lot of places that compost, Culpepper said, they usually only do the easy stuff. The leafy greens, all the vegetables and fruits and predigested material. This composter is designed to process everything — even the hard stuff such as meat scraps, eggshells and bones.

While the school doesn’t process bio-solids, or human waste, the temperatures inside the composter, at 110 to 150 degrees, are rated for it.

“Everything comes out in this actual beautiful compost,” Culpepper said.

The school’s compost was tested by Penn State University and Culpepper said it’s been rated as high quality as anything sold in home and garden stores.

This quality of compost is something Domineco said he’d like to capitalize on. Once established, he’d like to bag the compost and get it into local garden and home supply stores.

But what comes first is finding out if village residents like the idea.

“This is a new thing. I have to test the market, I have to build the market, and I have to prove the market,” Domenico said.

He said it could be that residents don’t take to the drop-off model, and the business might more resemble a traditional garbage business: Domenico said he could be driving to pick up food waste from residents.

“My gut tells me this is a really nice fit for Saranac Lake,” Domenico said. “The community might adopt this early.”

Vermont has already taken steps to ban food waste from landfills in passing 2012’s Universal Recycling Law, which will ban food waste from solid waste streams in households and businesses in July 2020.

According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, landfilled organic waste makes up 15 percent of U.S. methane emissions — a greenhouse gas that over a 100-year time scale is 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide, according to a 2013 report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

From the same report, on a 20-year time scale, methane is 86 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, according to the IPCC.

“When you landfill food waste, those wastes rot in the ground and produce methane gas,” Culpepper said. “Bad for the Earth … but dumb, because food waste has inherent value if composted.”

New York’s larger producers of food waste — cafeterias at colleges and hospitals, supermarkets and restaurants — create more than 250,000 metric tons of the stuff, according to the DEC. If this commercial waste were diverted from our solid waste streams, 120,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent gases would be stopped from entering the atmosphere, according to the DEC.

Domenico said he would be open to accepting food waste from larger producers around the area.

New York could see food waste changes soon. The DEC offers grants for food waste recycling, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pushed for requiring large producers of foodwaste to divert it from landfills.

Domenico is holding an interest meeting for the co-op on March 5 from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Saranac Lake Free Library’s Cantwell Room. If you’re interested in the Saranac Lake Compost Co-op, Domenico can be reached at saranaclakecompostcoop@gmail.com. The open-source design for the North Country School’s composter is available at https://www.northcountryschool.org/farm-garden/sustainability/composting

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