- Grove City, Pennsylvania

Local News

June 13, 2014

Digging for good dirt

MERCER COUNTY — A state grant is paying for two men to dig through garbage Dumpsters in Mercer, Lawrence, Beaver and Fayette counties.

Until the end of June, Pennsylvania Resources Council's regional composting program manager, Nick Shorr, and waste diversion specialist, Ross Hirschfeld, will be digging into Dumpsters of some of the biggest generators of waste - schools, hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores and restaurants - to find usable compost.

From the excavations, a report will be made of their findings to, hopefully, create an affordable program to haul such waste to farms permitted by the state Department of Environmental Protection to receive off-site compost - which, in turn, will divert it from landfills and generate healthier soils for growing crops.

One million tons of compostable waste is dumped into landfills annually in southwestern Pennsylvania, stated Shorr, who has developed the PRC innovative composting program over the past five years.

"Always more than 50 percent of the weight is compostable; many times more like 85 percent," said Shorr, digging through garbage behind Grove City High School on Wednesday.

Shorr and Hirschfeld are driving up from PRC's office in Pittsburgh on a $20,000 recycling technical assistant grant from the DEP for the excavations. PRC is the oldest state environmental organization in the country, founded in 1939, Shorr said.

Six municipalities have supported the composting study, he noted.

Wednesday's sifting also occurred at Grove City Middle School and Save-a-Lot in Sharon; however, the men have received permission from eight schools, two supermarkets, a nursing home and several hospitals to dig through their garbage for usable compost, Shorr said.

The two-man team began excavations last week, and would like to find more sites in the four-county area to collect compost from Dumpsters to build the data, Shorr said. The region is where most of the farms are located.

"We hope to get a grant from the USDA to get a truck for a farmer," Shorr added, to create a full-time job receiving compostable waste from five top waste generators and haul it to permitted farms.

Currently, seven farms have been recruited by the PRC to receive the special DEP permit to take compost from waste generators. In the past year, farms have received about 4,000 tons of compost taken Wal-Mart and Sam's Clubs Dumpsters and from municipal leaf/yard curbside waste, Shorr said.

"Our goal is to have three to six farms that are near each other to receive materials from as many food businesses, schools and institutions as we can enroll," Shorr stated. "We'd like the routes to be dense enough so there's a constant supply and the farmers can back each other up and share equipment."

That would involve building relationships with waste generators and to take their compostable waste "as cheaply as possible," Shorr noted. "Because there's so many landfills, it's very cheap to throw garbage away."

The data collected from the initiative will be used to attract program participants, he said.

"It will be like a business plan for the farmers and waste generators. We will be able to offer them a draft service agreement and pricing - how much it would cost to pick up how much material and deliver it for composting," Shorr said.

Penn State researchers will also be studying the use of the program's compost to enrich soil in fields used to grow vegetables and field crops as well as for reclamation of mined land.

Depleted soil makes for sick crops and composting provides three key benefits, Shorr said, including a structural one: "It drains better when it's wet and holds on to the wet better when it's dry," he said. "Second, it balances the pH and gives macro and micro nutrients to the soil. Third, it increases microbial life for checks in diseases."

Ross saw the composting initiative as "a positive opportunity to build the soil," he said, as well as a great educational opportunity for schools to show their students "not just about where your food comes from but where it ends up. "

"This is really a frontier, a reopening of a frontier. It's a second-chance for farmland," Shorr stated. "You don't have to eat granola to get this. This is very old (wisdom for farming)."

Local schools, restaurants and institutions can call Nick Shorr at 412-606-7596 to get involved in the composting study. The Herald contributed to this story.

Published May 31, 2014, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.

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