As housekeeping goes, trash is easy — you place it in a plastic bag and inside a plastic carton and a truck arrives and takes it away. But where those trucks end up is vital to the health of the Highlands, and to the planet. The hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage produced by residents each year that can’t be recycled (or can be, but isn’t) must be buried or burned, which contributes to global warming and air pollution. In the second part of our series, we examine composting as a method to reduce waste and what it would take for widespread implementation.
Recently, when my son was grumpily scraping what was left on his dinner plate into the compost bucket, my Buddhist wife told him not to think of it as throwing food away. She explained that the slice of tomato was returning to the cycle of death and rebirth by way of the bucket, so that it could come back to us next year as another tomato.
She meant it as a joke, but when I recounted the story to Matthew Hamm of McEnroe Organic Farm, he nodded his head. “There’s no statement truer than that,” he said.
The compost operation at McEnroe is located in Millerton on a hilltop with panoramic views. When Hamm makes a sweeping motion with his hands while explaining how Massachusetts and Connecticut tackle their trash problems, it’s not an idle gesture: Standing amid towering piles of what looks like garbage, you can see mountaintops in Massachusetts and rolling fields in Connecticut.
“It’s a dirty job,” Hamm says. “But people are starting to see the benefits.”
Lean in close to one of the enormous black piles around the farm and you’ll catch an earthy, slightly sour scent: Food scraps and decomposing plants are being slowly transformed into something greater than the sum of their parts. One of the first things that Hamm teaches new hires is that if the piles of rotting food smell like rotting food, something has gone wrong. “If you get the microbiomes right, it’s not rotting,” he explains.
Hamm did not dream of becoming a composter. He studied criminal justice in college and wanted to be a state trooper. But one summer he worked at the McEnroe Farm Market and a manager told him they needed help with the compost. Hamm thought a front-end loader would be more interesting than a cash register.
He had never given much thought to food waste but soon realized the scale of the problem and the role that large-scale composting could play in solving a host of entangled issues. “It’s food security, it’s food safety, it’s environmental sustainability,” he says. “You’re investing in the future.”
That was 18 years ago. Hamm abandoned his policing plans and instead became the compost bagger at McEnroe Organic Soils & Compost, working his way up to manager.
McEnroe is the only large-scale compost operation in Dutchess County, producing 8,000 cubic yards annually. Hamm says he would welcome competition. “If 10 more compost facilities showed up, we’d still have enough for our share,” he says.
Moving the needle
There is no silver bullet for fixing the climate crisis, but composting comes close.
When food scraps are sent to a landfill, they end up in what’s known as an anaerobic, or oxygen-free, environment. As microbes break down the waste, they produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
If that same food waste is composted, it doesn’t produce methane.
Composting still produces another greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, but it’s far less potent. When Beacon recently updated its greenhouse gas inventory, it measured methane emissions from the capped landfill by the Denning’s Point transfer station for the first time. Although it’s been closed for decades, the landfill remains by far the city’s largest source of greenhouse gases, producing more than a third of Beacon’s emissions.
The benefits of finished compost are familiar to gardeners and farmers who use it as a nutrient-rich fertilizer that increases water retention and minimizes erosion. Those same qualities make it invaluable in restoration projects, such as rebuilding stream banks and revitalizing grasslands.
“As we apply compost to grasslands, we get more plant growth, but we also get more carbon sticking around in the soil,” explains Sintana Vergara, an engineering professor at Cal Poly Humboldt who studies waste management. “And that’s good news from a climate-change perspective, because we’re pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, where we don’t want it, and into the soil, where we do.”
As detailed in the first part of this series, most of the solid waste produced in Putnam and Dutchess counties is sent to incinerators. But the high water content in food scraps reduces their efficiency while also releasing dioxin, a highly toxic pollutant that takes a long time to break down.
“There’s agreement across the industry that, if we’re going to move the needle significantly in terms of waste reduction, there are only a few areas that are going to have a serious impact,” says Lou Vetrone, a deputy commissioner at the Westchester County Department of Environmental Facilities. “One of them is food waste.”
Vetrone said that 25 municipalities in Westchester have drop-off food scrap recycling and two have curbside programs. County trucks pick up the scraps and bring them to a large-scale compost facility. The county also runs a compost garden to show school groups and municipalities who aren’t already on board how it works.
Westchester’s solid-waste management plan stands in stark contrast to those in the Highlands. Putnam’s plan expired in 2020 and there is no timeline for an update. In Dutchess, the City of Beacon in 2022 sent a letter to the county urging it to fund a study on whether composting could be expanded, including the creation of additional large-scale processing facilities. In its solid-waste management plan, released last year, the county says it hopes to complete such a study by 2033 and, according to Kerry Russell, deputy commissioner for solid-waste management, build on the success of local pilot programs in Beacon, Rhinebeck and Red Hook.
The lack of meaningful support at the county level has left the volunteers who created and operate drop-off food scrap programs feeling that their programs are succeeding against the odds. “We’re hoping to get some funding at some point,” says Karen Ertl of Garrison, who helped establish a food-scrap recycling program in Philipstown. “But we’re not holding our breath.”
A question of scale
In 2022, New York State enacted the Food Donation and Food Scraps Recycling Act, which requires any institution that generates an average of at least 2 tons of food waste each week to donate any edibles and send the rest to be recycled if it is within 25 miles of a composting facility. The state Department of Environmental Conservation says that, as a result of the law, food-scrap recycling jumped more than 500 percent from 2021 to 2022.
Composting advocates hoped that the law would encourage the creation of more local composting facilities, but so far that hasn’t happened. Yvette Valdés Smith, a Democrat whose district in the county Legislature includes Ward 4 in Beacon, has been pushing for a Dutchess compost plan, only to find that many of her fellow legislators don’t understand how composting works. She says some told her that they don’t want to spend money on something that people can do in their backyards.
That’s true, but backyard composting has its limits. Not everyone has a backyard. And not everyone has the time or physical ability to maintain a compost pile, which breaks down food scraps at a much slower rate than larger, hotter piles and can’t be relied on to decompose meat or dairy. Larger facilities can accept just about anything. “I always tell people, ‘If you eat it, we can take it’,” says Ertl in Philipstown.
Dutchess legislators did include $200,000 in the 2024 budget for a grant program to assist municipalities in purchasing and installing “in-vessel aerobic composters,” enclosed devices that break down food scraps faster than an outdoor pile. But the grants can’t exceed 50 percent of the price, and Sergei Krasikov, the chair of Beacon’s Conservation Advisory Committee, says he’s not sure the program is as appealing to municipalities as the county might think.
“I doubt any municipality will — or should — jump at an opportunity to procure an in-vessel composting facility before doing a study and developing a plan,” he says. “How are food scraps getting picked up? Who pays for and provides containers for the households? Will there be a fee for residents? What happens to tons and tons of compost as it gets produced? What is the scalability of the system to increase operational capacity as participation grows?
“It seems to make more sense to offer municipalities grants to conduct studies and draw up operational plans before offering to help them buy composters.”
Beacon’s drop-off composting program has collected more than 110,000 pounds of food scraps since it began as a pilot program in 2022. Faye Leone, the city’s Climate Smart coordinator, says that although the program hasn’t been made official, it’s hard to imagine that Beacon residents would let it lapse.
“We can’t go back,” she says. “The willingness and the commitment are there, but we have only the bare bones of what a program could look like. We’re not even making a dent in our total emissions.”
Krasikov says the program is great “in terms of changing behavior. But to reduce Beacon’s emissions by 20 to 25 percent with this, we need curbside composting.”
Without more large-scale processing facilities, Krasikov doesn’t see how that could happen. “If each municipality has to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a composting facility, it’s just devastatingly expensive,” he says. “This is where economies of scale could kick in. If the county had a facility that could service a few towns, the price drops for everyone.”
Without county support, Beacon is left to figure out how to expand its program while also minimizing emissions. That led to a recent change: Instead of being shipped to Westchester, Beacon’s compost is now picked up by the Community Compost Co. of Ulster County. The firm already offers curbside composting to businesses and households in Beacon for a monthly fee, so picking up Beacon’s municipal output on the same weekly trip eliminates the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the truck that came from Westchester.
“We’re already there,” said Molly Lindsay of Community Compost. “Might as well fill up the truck.”
Community Compost is smaller than McEnroe Farms, as Lindsay explains while walking among the piles on a cold December day. A light snow made it easy to see which piles were ready: The snow was sticking to them. A pile in the process of breaking down has to maintain an internal temperature of between 131 and 160 degrees — hot enough to kill pathogens but not hot enough to kill microbes. On the piles that were still cooking, the snow turned to steam as soon as it landed.
Lindsay says Community Compost would like to see more small sites than centralized processing. “Spread that compost around and then the finished product can go back into the communities where it’s produced,” she says. Customers in its curbside program get two bags of compost delivered per year.
As hot as its piles get, the company doesn’t accept “compostable” bio-plastics such as plates and cups because they don’t break down fast enough. Vergara, the professor at Cal Poly Humboldt, has noticed the same thing at every composting facility she’s visited.
“Perhaps under lab conditions, these materials might degrade,” she says. “But under the timescales that we see in commercial composting facilities, these items just don’t break down. At the facilities that I have visited, they screen out bio-plastics and throw them away.”
Lindsay has been working for Community Compost for 10 years. In that time, mostly from speaking to people at farmers’ markets, she has noticed a shift in the way people think about food waste. “There wasn’t a lot of awareness when I started” of food waste and its role in global warming, she says. “But people are figuring out that compost is a way to resolve this.”
Customers have told her that, since composting, they’ve become more aware of food waste and started spending less on groceries. “When they have to separate it, they’re seeing how much food they’re throwing out,” she says. “They’re saying, ‘OK, I never used those three cucumbers, I don’t need to buy that many.’ And then they’re changing their shopping habits.”
New York’s solid-waste management plan says the state won’t be able to tackle its massive waste problem unless it moves to a “circular economy” in which nearly all materials are reused in some form. Walking amongst the steaming piles in Ulster County, I couldn’t help but think that there was no better visual representation of this sort of economy than compost. Somewhere, in one of these piles, the tomato my son threw out a few weeks ago was in the process of breaking down to return to us in the spring as a bag of compost for our garden, in which we will grow more tomatoes.
“Instead of dumping your food scraps in one bin, you’re putting them in a different bin,” says Lindsay. “It’s a lot easier than people think.”
Behind The Story
News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.