Getting Down and Dirty with Compost, Recycling, and Reduction



A Climate Action Fair panel explores opportunities for circular solutions.

The Climate Action Fair at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Hall offered a treasure trove of resources related to sustainability, conservation, and environmental initiatives on-Island. The event, hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission Climate Education Committee, packed the Ag Hall parking lot from end to end. Folks from businesses and local environmental organizations filled the Ag Hall barn with information tables. It was an impressive turnout. 

Among several other performances and presentations, the tent behind the Ag Hall barn held a lively and informative conversation between experts in the field of waste and the Vineyard community as part of a panel hosted by Bluedot Living

Woody Filley, who collaborated with other locals to conceptualize and institute the first composting program on-Island in 1981, was the first to speak. Filley began by saying that waste is often used as a misnomer — that what we call waste really depends on what we choose to throw away. “On the organic side of things, what we call food waste can turn into beautiful compost that regenerates our soil,” Filley said. Filley explained that, when he first began working on composting and running the recycling program, every town had its own landfill, and nobody was thinking about a regional approach to waste.

Under a Vineyard Vision Fellowship grant, Filley and a number of others started to regionally collect recyclables, which eventually stemmed into a regional waste district. “We finally realized landfilling isn’t a great job, and we need to start changing the way we do things,” Filley said. And now, as waste streams are starting to be dissected and their impacts considered, Filley said state and local powers are working to determine what materials can be used right here at home, and what still needs to be shipped away.

According to Filley, we ship about 36,000 to 38,000 tons of waste off Martha’s Vineyard each year. About 14,000 tons of that is made up of construction and demolition waste — the byproducts of new homes that are built and old homes that are razed. He added that the Island is shipping in compost from the mainland, when we could be composting all our food waste and distributing it to those who need it. “Right now, we are bringing tractor trailer load after tractor trailer load of compost from off-Island that is used for landscapers, farms; we don’t know where this is coming from, we don’t know who is making it,” Filley said. “We produce about 6,500 tons of food waste a year, that’s about 220 tractor trailer loads that go off each year.”

With that amount of scraps being sent away, Filley said we could produce around 8,000 cubic yards of compost each year to put back into the ground, creating the circular system necessary for sustainable waste management. By making our own compost on the Vineyard, we will have our own checks and balances for what goes into that compost — “so there isn’t this big question mark around where we are getting our compost, and how clean it is,” Filley said. 

Ben Robinson, Martha’s Vineyard Commissioner and Tisbury planning board member, said connecting waste to some of the larger-scale issues of climate change is essential to bolster public awareness. “The materials and energy we use end up as waste in some form, whether it’s polluting our atmosphere with CO2, or polluting our bodies and our environment with plastics,” Robinson said. Because of this fact, the first step any of us can take to making an individual difference is to reduce the amount of stuff we use. The second step toward forming a circular waste system is to commoditize some of the waste products we create here. “Let’s make our waste useful to us — and there are a number of ways to do that,” Robinson explained.

In order to know what waste commodities we as an Island have, Robinson said folks need to understand what materials are worth recycling, and what should be eliminated from use entirely (plastics). “The glass, the metal, the cardboard, those things are really easy to recycle, and we can turn them into commodities; but there needs to be public education so that people know how to treat these materials so they are uncontaminated and can be processed properly and remanufactured,” Robinson said. 

When Islanders bring their trash to the dump, it’s either going to a landfill off-Island, or to the SEMASS incineration facility in Rochester. And that trash truck you see on the boat that stinks to high heaven — it smells like that because 40 percent of the waste it’s carrying is food waste. Robinson’s vision for the future is a community that composts all of its food waste, and instead of having just one composting facility on Martha’s Vineyard, there would be one facility for each Island town. 

Robinson highlighted one significant waste challenge that across the board seems to be glaring — compostable containers. Island Eats, which had an information table at the climate action fair, is piloting a program where disposable and compostable (single use) containers offered by restaurants are replaced with stainless steel reusable containers.  Robinson said that businesses are seldom using plastic containers here anymore, and although they may be a better option, those brown compostable containers you see everywhere aren’t a solution to the problem. “These so-called compostable containers are not able to be composted in your backyard, and so many of them get thrown in the trash anyway,” Robinson said. Because the compostable containers are so expensive for businesses, implementing reusable containers would be a big economic incentive, as well as an environmental one. 

For Robinson, efforts taken at the individual level can be just as effective as a top-down approach. Creating a culture of personal responsibility in the home is a good place to start, he said. “Kids need to be taught this stuff so that it’s natural to them. What do we throw in the trash, and what do we put in the compost? Your old thing in the closet can be somebody’s new thing, and we probably have enough stuff in our closets to not buy anything new for another couple years,” Robinson said. “Maybe even a decade, if we are honest with ourselves.” While it’s difficult to change the baked-in practices and mindsets of adults, Robinson said, kids are easy to teach, and it’s our responsibility to provide that knowledge. “Those kids are going to be the ones who will be implementing these solutions, or living with the consequences of having not,” Robinson said. 

Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli, who stood on the board of directors of the US Composting Council and cofounded a company called Waste Administration and Tracking Software, said there are incredible initiatives happening right now to create circular economies and reduce waste — it’s all about the infrastructure. “These products have evolved much more rapidly than our infrastructure’s capacity to recover the value in those products,” Danberg-Ficarelli explained. She acknowledged the fact that waste streams can be confusing, especially something like a single stream process that we use on the Island. “There are more than 9,000 municipal recycling programs in our country, that’s why it’s so confusing. It’s not the individual’s fault that these processes are so inconsistent.”

For this reason, Danberg-Ficarelli is advocating for a thorough analysis of our waste stream. In time, she would like to see a seamless circular solution to the Vineyard’s waste problem, where waste products are turned into valued commodities, and folks are encouraged to reduce and reuse as much as possible. Danberg-Ficarelli stressed that the local economy would benefit greatly from a development like this. “Circular solutions produce more, and more consistent job opportunities than landfilling or incineration,” she explained. “More people need to be engaged in those roles of education, collection, separation, processing, cleaning, remanufacturing, redistribution. This presents an excellent model for sustainable economic growth.”

Going forward, Danberg-Ficarelli asked that Islanders pay attention to environmentally-conscious efforts that are already happening: mend that old shirt instead of throwing it away, get (and give) clothes secondhand, and compost food scraps instead of chucking them in the garbage. “A big challenge is access and awareness — a lot of people might not even know that they can compost their food scraps on the Island. We need to build a new culture of materials and waste literacy.”

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Lucas Thors
Lucas Thors
Lucas Thors is an associate editor for Bluedot Living and program director for the Bluedot Institute. He lives on Martha's Vineyard with his English springer spaniel, Arlo, and enjoys writing about environmental initiatives in his community.
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