Local composting technology firm helps national parks cut waste | Crain's Seattle

Local composting technology firm helps national parks cut waste

Staff at Molokai's Kalaupapa National Historical Park mix compost in an Earth Tub. | Photo courtesy of Kalaupapa National Historical Park. 

As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial, a Bainbridge Island company expects to play a key role in a new zero-landfill initiative to divert mountains of waste into usable compost in three of the country’s most iconic national parks.

“Already the federal initiative is translating into business opportunities for us,” said Green Mountain Technologies President and Chief Engineer Michael Bryan-Brown. The composting technology company is piloting one of its smaller systems called an Earth Cube in Denali National Park to process up to 50 pounds a day of food waste and other biodegradables.

Last year, Subaru, recognized for having the first U.S. automotive assembly plant designated as zero landfill, partnered with the National Parks Conservation Association to test zero-landfill practices in Denali, Yosemite and Grand Teton national parks, where more than 7 million visitors generated some 16.6 million pounds of waste in 2013.

The partners’ ultimate goal is to significantly reduce waste going into landfills from all national parks. According to NPS, more than 100 million pounds of waste were generated in national parks in 2013, with most of it coming from the 280-million-plus annual visitors. That’s not counting the amount of trash created through park concessioners, which is considerably higher.

Diversion efforts in Denali

In Denali, the Earth Cube has been in place since July 2 and is being used by about 60 park staff in seasonal housing, May through September,” said Dawn Adams, the park’s zero-landfill project coordinator. “The residents are pretty happy to be composting locally.”

The park is looking at other sites for additional Earth Cubes, including a K-12 school in Denali Bureau, where it would be used year-round, she said, adding that the park’s concessioner is looking at installing a more industrial-sized composting system by Green Mountain Technologies.

In 2015, Denali National Park diverted 15 percent of its waste from entering landfills. “Our goal by the end of 2017, is to double that,” Adams said.

Since 1992, GMT has worked with organizations to reduce their environmental footprint, save money and produce quality compost. The company has installations on four continents (and a few tropical islands to boot) that range in size and processing capability depending on the customer’s needs, whether it’s a neighboring farm or one of the largest cities in the U.S. that wants to turn organic waste into compost.

And Green Mountain is no stranger to working with the NPS, with systems in use at about 10 national parks. This week, Bryan-Brown is working to fine-tune one such system at Kalaupapa National Historical Park, located on a remote peninsula on the island of Molokai. Currently managed by NPS and the Hawaii State Department of Health, the park includes two historic Hansen's disease (leprosy) colonies at Kalaupapa and Kalawao, where a few patients still reside.

Earth Tubs

Kalaupapa has three GMT Earth Tubs, the first of which was installed in 2007, said Pa‘oneakai Lee-Namakaeha, the park’s solid waste management supervisor. Just one of the fully-enclosed vessels, which is 68 inches high and 90 inches in diameter, can process about 100 pounds of biodegradables a day. An internal auger mixes the material when the cover is manually rotated. Automatic aeration removes odors, and a temperature control system quickens the composting process. One unit costs about $10,000, and discounts are offered for purchasing multiple tub systems.

“So in total, we’re composting up to 300 pounds a day,” Lee-Namakaeha said. “After 21 days, the compost is ready to be removed, and then we let it sit on a dry bed for about a month.” A sample from the mix is sent out to ensure it contains no harmful bacteria or toxic metals before the mature compost is handed over for use by the Native Hawaiian Plant Nursery in Kalaupapa.

An elegant solution

The tubs are an effective, aesthetically pleasing solution, said Lee-Namakaeha. “We had tried sending trash up the hill with mules – one bale on each side of a mule – but that took three hours.” And an incinerator, she added, was too expensive, as was flying out the waste on a cargo plane. Recyclables are barged out once a year, and currently, her team is looking into a new technology to safely dispose of hazardous and universal waste.

The one issue Lee-Namakaehu has had with the Earth Tub is that it’s vulnerable to operator error if the staff does not fully understand the materials that can go into the tub and in what order. “And we’ve had a lot of staff turnover.”

Retraining is what Bryan-Brown is there to do. “You have to get people to separate the food waste from the rest of the garbage so you get a clean feedstock going in. That’s been one of the biggest challenges.”

So what can go in? “Anything that comes from a tree or vegetable plant,” he said. “We can even process a certain degree of meat and dairy products.”

Despite the occasional hiccup, composting on a major scale makes sense for so many of the national parks because, like Kalaupapa, they are so very remote, Bryan-Brown said. Access is often via air and the cost of flying out a whole lot of rubbish adds up fast.

October 11, 2016 - 4:19pm