Special Event Strategies: Recovering Compostables at Iowa Festivals

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

Summer festivals offer food, entertainment, cultural enrichment and learning to Iowa residents. They also bring an increase in landfilled material due to the convenience of single use products and the diverse assortment of specialty food items. Last year, three Iowa agencies, the Butler County Solid Waste Commission (BCSWC), Bluestem Solid Waste Agency in Cedar Rapids and the Clinton County Area Solid Waste Authority (CCASWA), took advantage of special events and launched waste reduction and diversion initiatives in each of their respective service areas.

Working in conjunction with the Butler County Agricultural and Horticultural Society (BCAHS), the BCSWC initiated a pilot project to compost food residuals, animal waste and compostable paper products produced on-site during the 144th annual Butler County Fair, held July 5-9. The goal was to gather baseline data to pursue partnerships with other celebrations throughout the county and to establish an annual diversion program with the BCAHS. The project was funded internally, with the exception of a donation from Waste Management, Inc.

BCSWC contracted Creative Composting Concepts in Robins, Iowa to oversee the project at a cost of $800, including rental of a mobile BW Organics in-vessel rotary digester. BCSWC received a permit waiver from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) for temporary use of the four-by-eight-foot drum as an educational exhibit. The vessel was loaded with 270 lbs of liquid hog manure and 130 lbs of corn stalks, then delivered to the fairgrounds two days prior to the event. The material was received at a temperature of 140°F. During the five-day fair, 600 lbs of compostables were loaded into the digester, filling the drum to its 1,000 lb capacity.

The drum was placed between two livestock barns so that their odors would mask any generated by the festival materials. The area also provided electrical outlets to power the chain-driven digester, which rotated at a rate of four revolutions per/hour. Source separated materials were collected daily by Creative Composting Concepts and BCSWC members. Compostables were taken to the drum in a wheelbarrow; plastic bottles were returned to the distributor.

Paper was put through an office shredder and mixed with water and animal waste before being placed in the drum. Moisture was kept at 50 percent. Food residuals generated by the 12,600 attendees represented less then one percent of the 600 lbs of festival compostables (paper products made up the rest). Temperatures began to drop below 90°F due to lack of nitrogen. Animal waste from the livestock barns and corn stalks from home economics exhibits were collected and integrated into the drum, bringing temperatures back up to the desired 110° to 140°F. The initial material and fair residuals were processed throughout the duration of the five-day event, plus an additional three days, before the compost was transported to Organic Matters in Robins, Iowa for 30 days of curing. Overall, there was a 75 percent reduction in organic materials. The compost was then further processed by vermicomposting. It will be combined with other finished material and marketed under the name Heavenly Humus.

Livestock was bedded heavily with wood chips to make cleanup easy for participating 4-H members. In addition to the portion processed in the in-vessel drum, approximately 36 tons of animal waste and bedding were picked up from the fairgrounds by a local composting facility, Westendorf Poultry Farms in Allison, Iowa. BCSWC also collected five cubic yards of OCC from behind vendor stands, and took them to the Butler County Transfer Station for processing.


On June 16, IDNR issued a permit amendment to Bluestem allowing it to compost source separated food residuals from special events. Bluestem is investigating possible food residuals diversion programs with local grocers, but in the meantime initiated the Good Clean Fun Project, a three-year partnership with Freedom Festival and Taste of Iowa, Rockin’ on the River. Several Good Clean Fun events took place between June 22 and September 4, attracting 300,000 people. The Freedom Festival received a three-year, $19,935 IDNR grant, while Bluestem provided matching funds and technical assistance.

Collected compostables totaled 5,480 lbs. In addition, 3,859 lbs of OCC from vendor stands were hauled to City Carton Company in Cedar Rapids for processing and 3,757 lbs of plastic beverage bottles were returned to the distributor. The goal of diverting 60 percent of landfilled material was surpassed by three percent.

Compostables from the summer events were collected in roll-off containers and taken to Bluestem’s 17-acre facility. The organics were weighed and added to existing trapezoidal windrows. The materials were turned weekly and monitored for aeration as well as moisture, which was targeted at a constant 60 percent. After active processing, the compost was placed in piles to cure for six to 12 months.

Finished compost will be put through a three-eighths-inch screen and placed in 40 LB LDPE bags under one of Bluestem’s brand names: Big Blue Top Soil, Big Blue Humus, Big Blue Compost or Big Blue Potting Soil. The composting facility is the largest in Iowa, processing 100,000 tons/year. Bluestem believes that special event partnerships will bring volume up to 120,000 tons in 2001.


CCASWA has an MSW in-vessel digester permit issued by IDNR in January, 1997. Since operation began in April, 2000, the digester has achieved 33 percent volume reduction. The primary goal is to increase the life of the landfill. CCASWA’s education director, Laura Liegois, is confident that special event partnerships will make progress toward this.

The authority initiated a project to recover organics and plastic bottles at the 67th annual Clinton County Fair, held July 30-August 2. Expenses were shared between CCASWA and the Clinton County Agricultural Society 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA). A total of 4,560 lbs were collected at the event, which hosted 10,000 visitors.

Plastic beverage containers were gathered by fair personnel and returned to the distributor. Organics were collected in roll-off containers and hauled to CCASWA in rural Clinton, Iowa. After being weighed, they were unloaded on the tipping floor and integrated into the 50 tons of MSW received daily at the facility. Materials were processed through a 170-foot rotating drum. After five days, finished fines were screened through an 11-foot-diameter rotating double screen at the end of the drum. Stabilized rejects were landfilled and screened fines were used as alternative daily cover. (See article, “Processing MSW For Daily Cover,” in this issue.)

In addition, a local farmer collected and windrowed 47 tons of straw and animal waste from the cattle barns. Nine tons of mixed wood shavings and straw were land applied from the hog barns.


Although some of the means and goals of BCSWC, Bluestem and CCASWA differ, similarities exist in preparation and special event planning. All recycling initiatives were heavily publicized through several outlets, including press releases, flyers, and radio and television interviews. BCSWC and CCASWA both sponsored an exhibit booth at their fairs to educate the public on recycling and composting. Event volunteers aided all three agencies. Because of the multiple waste streams being collected by BCSWC and Bluestem, their volunteers, labeled “The Green Dream Team” and “Garbage Gurus,” respectively, manned collection stations and educated the public about using the appropriate containers and aided in sorting the different waste streams. Both sets of volunteers were given T-shirts for their efforts. (CCASWA’s waste streams were self-explanatory, on the other hand, and volunteers consisted primarily of 4-H members working in the vendor stand.) All agencies held training sessions to educate volunteers about organics recycling and outline project goals.

The three agencies strategically placed high-profile collection stations by vendor stands to collect organics and recyclables. BCSWC’s 50-gallon metal drums were recycled paint barrels donated by Butler County’s Secondary Road Department, with environmental murals painted on them by area students. The Good Clean Fun Project used 32-gallon containers purchased by Freedom Festival, Inc. through the IDNR grant and Bluestem funding. These containers were lent to Taste of Iowa, Rockin’ on the River for the duration of the weekend event. The CCASWA used 50-gallon plastic containers recycled from an area manufacturing company. All three agencies relied heavily on signs posted at collection points and around the surrounding event area.

Communication between event organizers and vendors was a necessity in organization. CCASWA had one vendor on site, a food stand operated by the Clinton County Agricultural Society 4-H and FFA, which purchased biodegradable food service products for use during the fair. Carnival vendors primarily used compostable paper products. BCSWC had a total of four on-site vendors. Three purchased compostable paper products as opposed to the noncompostables used in prior years. The IDNR grant and Bluestem matching funds were used to purchase compostable products for the 36 participating vendors in The Good Clean Fun Project. BCSWC and Bluestem used compostable trash bags donated by IDNR.

All three agencies anticipate continuation of special events projects. Data obtained in the 2000 pilot year will allow them to fine-tune their processes and share lessons of success and operational difficulties with other agencies that anticipate participation in special events projects within their own areas.

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