Composting In rural Alaska

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

Gardeners, communities and commercial enterprises have proven that composting works in Alaska, especially given large quantities of fish waste and diminishing landfill capacity.

ALASKA is two and a half times larger than the largest state in the lower 48 states. Over half of the entire state’s population lives within the municipality of Anchorage. Many Alaskan villages can only be reached by boat or airplane and are the end receivers of all packaging brought into the communities. Cardboard is a bulky waste product that fills many landfills and dumps in rural Alaska. Waste elimination in many of these communities is by incineration.

These rural communities have power systems run by diesel generators. Homes are heated by fuel oil that costs between $7 to $11/gallon and the boats, cars, four-wheelers and snow machines used to get around the villages, and to and from other communities, are gasoline powered at $5 to $9/gallon. Many people in rural communities live subsistence lifestyles; several communities are defined as “persistent poverty” areas with individual incomes of less than $6,000/year.

Fishing-related enterprises are the third largest employer in Alaska behind oil and tourism. The wild salmon industry is the world’s only “sustainable” fishing sector as certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. Alaska harvests approximately 6 billion pounds of seafood; of that, nearly 3 billion pounds of waste are generated. Much of that is ground and dumped back into the waterways with many processors having to pay environmental compliance fees to the state.

A common misperception is that composting cannot happen in Alaska, as it is too cold. It is cold, but composting does work. The idea of using organic waste products as feedstocks for compost is still a new concept, but those who are successful composters have overcome many obstacles of climate and wildlife disturbances and prevail with great products.

HOME COMPOSTING

Home composting is found all around Alaska. Most composters are also gardeners and use the compost as a component of their homemade soil recipes for gardens and raised beds. Many native mineral soils are very low in organic matter. Adding compost increases water- and nutrient-holding capacity, pore space and drainage, as well as contributes a small amount of needed macro and micronutrients.

Innovation abounds among home composters, especially when it comes to the backyard bins. For example, a compost bin in Dillingham is made from bread trays from the grocery store. The palette-sized trays will not degrade and allow for side aeration. A gardener in an area with bears made a compost turner out of an old barrel by welding baffles on the inside to promote turning. The barrel sits on an upside-down fish tote cart. To turn it, a rope is tied around the barrel and it is rolled. The garbage bags hold ground, dried leaves ready for adding to the compost when the fish come.

SMALL, COMMUNITY-SCALE

The next category of composting activity is small projects operated more for waste reduction than as commercial enterprises with compost for sale. These projects include:

• A farmer in Kenny Lake successfully composts beef cattle manure and hay year-round as the feedstocks are never frozen and the compost pile is very large.

• A small, family-owned fish processor in Naknek composts fish waste and uses that material in its high-tunnel for vegetable production.

• The city of Bethel’s Community Garden is composting wood waste sawdust and wood chips with food wastes from the Yukon-Kuskokwim hospital. Input to the landfill has decreased. Finished compost is used in the Bethel Community Garden, which has a sandy-silt soil that needs the water and nutrient-holding characteristics the compost lends.

• Ketchikan needed a biosolids management option that did not include drying and dumping into the landfill. Composting the biosolids was successful and increased the life of the landfill.

• Gustavus Community Compost collects organic waste from homes and lodges in and around Glacier Bay National Park. Gustavus mixes the food waste with readily available wood chip waste. Landfill input is reduced, especially during the busy tourist season where the landfill used to get tremendous waste flow with the increased population. Gustavus sells the finished compost back to the community for very reasonable cost.

• Kodiak was dumping dried biosolids into its landfill, decreasing longevity of the landfill dramatically. A pilot tested composting of biosolids and wood chips, and produced good compost for use on ornamentals.

LARGER SCALE COMPOSTING

Larger-scale composting, where the operation relies on revenues from compost sales, are difficult to sustain in Alaska. Local sales of commercial compost may mean servicing a community of 3,000, because selling the product any further would require traveling great distances. Several facilities have been able to make it work; others have had to cease operations.

Sitka Tribal Enterprises: The Japanese coho salmon roe industry harvests only the roe sacks from mature female coho salmon. The rest of the fish is discarded as waste. In 1998, the USEPA funded Sitka Tribal Enterprises a Jobs Through Recycling grant. This grant was used to develop an aerated static pile composting facility processing fish waste (whole fish from coho roe industry as well as black cod and red snapper heads and viscera) and wood chips from the local timber industry (see “Windrow Design For High Rainfall Conditions,” December 2003). The process was successful in that all materials, including the fish bones, were composted to yield a quality final product. However, because the timber industry is no longer viable in the region and the wood waste used as the carbon feedstock and bulking agent material was limited, Sitka Tribal Enterprises had to shut down the project.

Homer: A composter in Homer uses fish waste from processors and individuals and mixes it with peat. He has peat-harvesting permits with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Compost is sold to local gardeners by the bucket-load. Bears are a problem in that area of Homer, but this composter uses a solar-powered electric fence and two lines of “hot” wire to keep the bears out. Solar-powered electric fences are a better option for rural Alaska communities as electricity is very expensive and available in very limited area around the community.

Kenai: Snug Harbor Seafoods, a fish processor in Kenai, decided to reduce its overhead by composting its fish waste with waste wood to make compost instead of paying environmental compliance costs. The fish waste was being ground, hauled and dumped back into Cook Inlet. Hauling from the processor to the boat was expensive enough, but the addition of fines made disposal of the daily fish waste very expensive. The processor purchased composting equipment and now sells this product to the community by the bucket-load. Snug Harbor chips beetle-kill spruce trees and mixes them with the fish waste (heads, frames, viscera) in a seven-to-one ratio, turns the pile a couple of times, lets it cure, and screens the final material for sale.

Petersburg and Kake: Petersburg Indian Association and Kake Tribal Corporation both started composting enterprises, using the abundance of fish waste from processors and wood product waste from the timber industry found in their communities. Marketable commercial compost was produced, but cost of transportation to markets in Anchorage and the lower 48 states is too high and local demand is too low for either of these ventures to succeed.

COMPOSTING RESEARCH

Fish waste is a common by-product of fish processing whether in commercial facilities or in fish camps during subsistence harvests. The challenge to composters in Alaska is inadequate sources of carbon. The Seward Peninsula and further north do not have trees and recommending a compost recipe with wood chips or sawdust as the carbon source would be unfeasible. Collecting yard clippings is a great source of carbon, but not many rural Alaskans mow, yet alone even have a yard. Peat is a great carbon source and helps keep the odor manageable in the fish compost pile, but is not found all around Alaska. There is a universal carbon source in Alaska, however, and it is found in every landfill and dump around the state — cardboard.

Research is ongoing at the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer on using local carbon sources and fish waste for compost. Three compost vessels were made by drilling holes into 33-gallon trashcans as these are found in communities throughout Alaska and could be easily modified to use as a compost tumbler. The research monitors in-vessel temperature change during composting for three different fish waste composts using hay, cardboard and peat moss as carbon sources.


The fish and hay compost blend remained aerobic. It was watered, turned twice and sampled weekly. The recipe was three parts hay to one part whole pollock waste (whole heads, frames, and viscera) by weight. As the first test in this project, the fish and hay composting went well and resulted in a good compost product.

Next was the fish and cardboard recipe, which did not turn out like the fish/hay compost at all. The cardboard had to be chipped into pieces the size of a quarter. The recipe was 1.75:1 chipped cardboard to ground pollock waste (heads, frames, and viscera) by weight. Once the mixture was watered, the cardboard collapsed, creating an oatmeal-like mixture that did not allow any oxygen to get to the center of the vessels. The compost became anaerobic within the first 12 hours and was added to the Experiment Farm’s compost pile. This research is on hold to work out the acquisition of a bulking agent that will work in the composting process but is a waste product that could be found in any community in Alaska.

FUTURE OF COMPOSTING IN ALASKA

There is tremendous interest in composting around the state. A general composting class was taught in Dillingham for 20 students from all over Southwest Alaska. A two-hour lecture on fish composting was held at a meeting for the Central (Kenai) Peninsula Garden Club and was attended by 35 participants. Informal composting talks have been held in all five major regions of the state as well as radio interviews and call-in shows. The interest is high.

Entrepreneurs are looking for ways to convert organic wastes into high-demand products for sale within Alaska and into the lower 48. Reducing the amount of compostable material being piled into the overcrowded landfills and dumps is becoming a necessity regardless of the size of the community. The demand for continued compost research is high.

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