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Eastern Iowa cities eye food composting to help save landfill space

Cedar Rapids encourages more types of composting; Iowa City considers adding food composting collection

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Eastern Iowa communities are putting more focus on food composting as a way to divert waste from ever-expanding landfills.

In Cedar Rapids, which has had a compost collection program for years, the city recently published educational videos and included information with utility bills to help unscramble confusion and encourage more types of composting.

“Which bin, is probably our No. 1 question,” said Sara Baughman, a spokeswoman for the city’s solid waste division. “People wonder, ‘Where should I put this?’ or ‘How do I dispose of that?’ ”

Items such as napkins, baked goods, even dryer lint and cat hair can be tossed in with fruit and vegetable scraps and grass clippings and twigs from the yard, they say. In the last fiscal year, Cedar Rapids solid waste customers diverted 13,169 tons of compost in the form of food and yard waste, compared to 20,314 tons of garbage sent to the landfill.

In Iowa City, the City Council at a meeting Tuesday is considering the first of three readings for an ordinance change that would give residents their first chance to separate food waste for composting and have it picked up at the curb.

“The biggest reason, I’d say, is it is the No. 1 item that goes into the Iowa City Landfill, and landfills across the state,” said Jen Jordan, Iowa City recycling coordinator.

Under the program, residents would add food, napkins and other items in with yard waste, which is collected at curbside in personal bins up to 35 gallons with a prepaid collection sticker. The city is exploring a special bin compatible with automated collection trucks, similar to those used in Cedar Rapids,

Jordan estimates of the 17,000 tons of food waste dumped in the landfill, 500 to 1,000 tons can be diverted initially. The program is also designed to emphasize reducing food waste through education on consuming leftovers and better meal planning, she said.

Cedar Rapids residents place their food and yard compost material in 95-gallon green bins called “Yardy” carts and wheel it to the curb on their regular collection day.

“You can do paper plates, paper towels and napkins as long as they don’t have animal fats or oils,” said Lisa Schumacher, 42, who lives in the northeast quadrant. “The napkin you use for dinner, you can put in there. Oftentimes we only put out our garbage every other week, because it is such a small amount.”

Schumacher, or her husband, simply run the food scraps outside to the cart every time they cook.

Others, such as Barb Knockel, 63, also from the northeast quadrant, keep a container in the kitchen with a charcoal filter to diffuse the smell, and dump it in the Yardy a few times a week. Such products cost $20 to $30.

“My family jokes and calls me Mother Earth,” Knockel said. “They don’t really have composting where they live, so when they visit they throw things in the garbage. I take it back out, and say you need to do this.”

The Cedar Rapids program does not accept animal products or most dairy products with compost because of the smell and potential for attracting animals to the landfill, which is in an urban setting. The Iowa City Landfill, which is in a rural location, does plan to accept animal and dairy products.

While Cedar Rapids is pushing for more residential participation, Joe Horaney, a spokesman for the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency, said the biggest increase in diverted food waste comes as more large commercial customers, such as Hy-Vee, have gotten on board.

In fiscal year 2016, the landfill took in 2,803 tons of just food waste, up from 805 tons in fiscal year 2015, according to data from the agency. This measurement is based on haulers specifically collecting and disposing food waste. Additional food waste would also be diverted as part of residential customer collections, but because it’s mixed with yard waste, it’s difficult to pin down volumes, Horaney said.

Composting is a best practice environmentally speaking, but it also makes business sense, Horaney said. Customers pay $38 a ton to dump in the landfill, while compost costs $22 a ton to dump, he said. That is going to increase to $24 a ton on July 1, 2017.

The compost is run through a grinder and divvied into 42 windrows up to 8 feet tall, 18 feet wide and 60 feet long, covering 28 acres at the landfill site on A Street SW. The material sits in the windrows for three months and is watered and jostled with a large machine called a scarab to help with decomposition. The large volume of organic material naturally produces heat, which breaks down and composts the waste.

“If you put your hand in the middle you’d get burned,” Horaney said.

The material then cools in large mounds, further breaking down over 12 to 18 months, before getting sifted through a screener to pull out any large chunks,

It’s then made available to the public.

The end product is an almost black organic material certified under U.S. Composting Council guidelines that is good for tilling in with the garden or for plantings, Horaney said. Residents can take up to 1 ton of compost per visit for free, while commercial customers can buy in bulk at $22 per ton, he said.

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