The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Local News

May 30, 2014

One man’s trash can turn farmers’ soil into a treasure

MERCER COUNTY — Food past its fitness date should have a better use than as garbage in a landfill. It could be fertilizer and soil conditioner.

Local farmers can close the circle by making compost from local food waste to feed new crops of corn, grain, hay or vegetables.

A composting program manager with Pennsylvania Resources Council wants to show directors of local schools and hospitals and managers of groceries, restaurants and other food waste generators how they might be able to cut their disposal costs in a partnership that diverts waste from landfills to farmers eager to put garbage to a better use.

Nick Shorr, program manager, was in downtown Sharon on Wednesday showing the staff at Save-A-Lot that almost 90 percent of the grocery store’s waste could be recycled into compost.

That included outdated eggs and meat, melons and other fruits with soft spots, bagged salad and cabbages not good enough to offer for sale to customers.

Shorr and an assistant weighed them, item by item, to show store personnel how much unsalable food could be directed into the composting network if the owners decided later to sign on.

Shorr and waste diversion specialist Ross Hirschfeld conducted the same kind of waste audit at two cafeterias in Grove City Area School District. They had earlier met or conducted demonstrations for administrators in New Castle and Pittsburgh area school districts.

They’re gathering data through the audits paid for by a grant from the Department of Environmental Protection. Shorr wants to be a source of information for other farmers and businesses in southwestern Pennsylvania that might want to consider joining the network.

The resources council hopes regional companies – Giant Eagle, Eat’n Park restaurants and Sheetz – will see recycling opportunities for themselves in the program.

Wilmington Township beef producer Chuck Moose was the first Mercer County farmer to join the network that Shorr said has lots of room to grow.

Over the past year, Moose and other farmers received and composted nearly 4,000 tons of food waste from Wal-Mart and Sam’s Clubs and leaf and yard waste from municipal curbside collections in the Shenango Valley.

“In our region, there’s a million tons of waste dumped into landfills every year that could be composted,” Shorr said. “The goal is to have clusters of three to six farms that are near each other to receive materials from as many food businesses, schools and institutions as we can enroll. 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.”

At the other end of the program, Penn State researchers are 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.

The council knows it will take facts, figures and measurable results to attract program participants. That information will flow after data collection is finished.

“It will be like a business plan for the farmers and waste generators,” Shorr said. “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.”

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