Project aims to produce fertilizer from wastes

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Courtesy of FEECO International, Inc.

With the highest cattle density in northeastern Wisconsin and urban sprawl sprawling, Brown County has accelerated its investigation into how to handle growing amounts of dairy manure and industrial wastes spread on a diminishing land base.

Applying waste on limited crop acreage has led to groundwater contamination issues and pollution problems of lower Green Bay.

The solution lies in a value-added pelleted fertilizer, county officials said Jan. 30 at the quarterly meeting of the Glacierland Resource Conservation and Development Council.

Brown County Executive Tom Hintz said commercial development of the project that's in the feasibility stage could add to the county's $3 billion dairy industry that provides jobs for 10 percent of the county's workforce.

'I truly believe in this project,' Hintz said.

The Brown County Waste Transformation Project will work to deal with the issue of managing livestock and industrial wastes, which has been a challenge for many years. The issue grew in the past few years when more and more contaminated wells were reported.

Brown County has 90,000 dairy animal units, which ideally would require 225,000 acres of cropland for manure disposal. In 2007, Brown County assessors said the county has 170,000 crop acres to handle manure.

The county Land Conservation Department identified 26 companies that apply waste to Brown County land. That list includes vegetable and dairy processors, septic service companies, municipal wastewater treatment facilities and meatpacking plants.

When the county LCD staff began casting for answers to their challenge, they found two companies in the Green Bay area that had technologies that could convert organic waste streams from municipal, industrial or agricultural sources to pelletized pathogen-free fertilizer.

The companies are FEECO and ENCAP.

'I think we have the opportunity to make this into a green industry,' said Bill Hafs, county conservationist.

If the idea flourishes, he said, it would have implications in other counties that face growing pressures from the ability to handle manure and maintain water quality.

'A lot of our factories are bringing their waste to your counties,' Hafs said.

One meat processor in Green Bay takes waste materials to a landfill near Hilbert in Calumet County, council members were told.

The project has raised $250,000 to carry out the study in transforming agricultural and industrial wastes into a value-added product.

Brad Holtz of the LCD said studies show the fertilizer is useful in applying nutrients to the land and in erosion control.

John Katers, a UW-Green Bay environmental engineer, described how the product will prove to be useful.

'We are taking landfill products that historically had zero value and are turning it into a product that has demand in the marketplace,' Katers said.

While the project is in the study stage, he said, additional investigations would address how to efficiently handle dairy manure to transport components to a central location.

One area of study looks at separating dairy manure that would leave producers with a liquid high in nitrogen and low in phosphorous. The study also will evaluate the feasibility of a mobile separator that would go from farm to farm, Katers said.

The study also will examine how to bring dairy waste material to a central location with an anaerobic manure digester on site.

In that way, Katers said, green technology from the digester could produce the energy to produce a green fertilizer because the biggest cost in fertilizer production in the plant is the heat for the dryer.

He said the appeal of the process that turns waste into pellets of fertilizer is attractive to industrial and commercial sources that now pay tipping fees to unload their wastes and are also held to environmental liability standards.

Both of those issues would disappear with the emergence of the technology on a commercial scale, Katers said.

While no location has been selected for a production plant, nor have the logistics been ironed out as to who would own or operate such a plant, Katers expects a plant will be operating in Brown County in a few years.

It's an idea that's likely to be accepted in other locations, he said, because it's a technology that reduces phosphorous loss and sediment and landowners gain the fertilizer benefits.

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