Pioneering N.Y. Firm Turns Food Waste Into Quality Compost

(L-R): Joe Collazo, general manager of Simplicity Equipment & Service; Eileen Banyra, president of Community Compost Company; and Don Cotrona, New York territory representative of Simplicity Equipment & Service. (CEG photo)

Thu January 26, 2023

Community Compost Company, located along Route 209 in Kerhonkson (Hudson Valley), between Ellenville and Kingston, N.Y., roughly 90 mi. north of New York City, was founded by Eileen Banyra to pioneer a change in the disposal and processing of food waste, climate change and soil health through regional composting.

The company embraces practices that advance the four P's — planet, people, place and profit — and is committed to producing a quality regenerative compost that supports the region's health, Banyra said.

The company collects food scraps that traditionally would have ended up in a landfill and produces a very high-quality compost. It will collect food waste and/or accept food waste from businesses and institutions, providing them an ecological option in disposing of food materials while educating the public on the importance of food waste reduction.

The company also partners with farms and compost facilities in the Hudson Valley to process food scraps into compost. Compost is an extremely valuable ingredient in restoring soil by building health and structure to improve its water retention and plant vitality.

In 2016, a sister company was founded — Hudson Soil Company — which is Community Compost Company's soil products division. Through this division, finished compost in bags and bulk is sold to garden centers, home gardeners and landscape companies.

The food waste that is recycled into compost comes from a large variety of sources, including excess product from farm stands, school cafeterias, grocery stores, restaurants, manufacturing facilities that produce food products, virtually anyone who finds themselves in a situation with food scraps or spoilage, Banyra said.

Community Compost Company offers collection services in Ulster County, N.Y., northern New Jersey, Hoboken, N.J., and Jersey City. Because of the biological diversity in the ingredients its compost is made from, the quality of its compost is excellent, the company said.

The product is brought to market in a number of different ways, including bulk, 1-cubic foot bags and 8-quart bags, which are available for purchase at Whole Foods and several local private retail stores and nurseries. It also sells a bagged product called "Plant Jolt," which is a mix of compost and worm castings, essentially worm castings (AKA worm manure) and sells worm castings in bags and bulk. Banyra and her staff have a continuous flow through vermicomposting system that contains hundreds of thousands of worms and these bins are specifically designed to harvest the excrement from the worms, which has proven to be an extraordinarily effective soil amendment. Their products are STA (Seal of Testing Assurance) by the US Composting Council & NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) approved for use by organic farmers and their bagged product is being sold to local homeowners who want to grow their own organic foods.

Growing organic food has become very popular in the metropolitan areas, and Community Compost Company takes pride in the idea that it is taking food waste from the metropolitan areas, processing it and returning it in the form of a soil amendment to the urban areas that it came from.

Banyra's entire life literally prepared her for her role at Community Compost Company — as a child she had an organic garden; in college she studied environmental science; she also took a city planning class. This education integrated some of her environmental interests with an urban-built environment. After college she spent 35 years as a city planner in the New Jersey area and did some development work in private consulting.

Through her experience with municipal government, she became very familiar with how much costly waste was involved in the disposal of food products, and this ultimately led to her vision to start Community Compost Company.

"It was really pretty straightforward for me," she said. "It costs money to put food in a landfill; it takes up space unnecessarily. That food can be composted, the trick is doing it efficiently and profitably. I also wanted to do something that is proactive for climate change, which putting carbon back into the soil is part of a climate mitigation strategy."

When asked if food recycling was mandatory in the area around her facility Banyra stated, "Not yet, but it's coming.

"Vermont is actually mandating residential food recycling. Parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have all put some level of mandatory recycling in place for commercial operations that produce large volumes of food waste. But it's done a little differently in each state. Here in New York, the amount of composting that a facility is required to do is tied to their proximity to a composting facility. In other words, if you are within a reasonable distance of a composting facility, you're expected to use it.

"Facilities like supermarkets, schools, colleges and those types of operations are mandated to recycle if they are within a reasonable proximity to the composting facility. Municipalities are being offered subsidies to start operating compost facilities. But it is a lot of work and in some cases, they are instead working with private parties such as us to get composting started in their area."

Community Compost Company is located on a relatively small site of approximately 1-1/2 acre. By most standards for the industry, this would be considered a tiny site and it requires that they make good use of every inch of it.

A 13-cu.-yd. truck makes daily routes picking up food waste across the area locally and to north Jersey. The food scraps are mixed with some other biodegradable ingredients like wood chips, leaves and manure. These ingredients are thoroughly blended together in the proper recipe and then the piles are pushed from side to side at least once a week, creating what is referred to as an aerated static pile.

The piles are in a long straight row called a windrow and have perforated plastic pipes running beneath them, forcing air through to keep it aerobic. The air pipes run through the windrow, each with a bedding of the wood chips around it, which gives the air from the pipes an opportunity to be released and circulate into the organic matter. Considering the materials that are being handled in the composting facility one would expect a rather ripe odor. Surprisingly that is not the case. The ingredients that are added to the pile are quickly covered by more mature product called a biofilter.

When the truck comes in and drops its load of food waste on a concrete pad any contaminants that are not compostable have to be removed. The food waste is then mixed with wood chips and manure and then wheel loaders are used to distribute those materials into the windrows.

Once the product is mature, Community Compost Company has its own bagging operation. All compost is bagged on site before it is sent out for retail sale. Bags can be larger 1-cu. ft. bags, which typically weigh 25 to 30 lbs. depending on moisture content. They also have 8-quart bags that are typically sold into urban markets like New York City.

The company also handles even smaller bags for some of its specialty items like worm castings, which can retail for as much as $20 a bag. With the limited size of its operation, Community Compost Company currently is producing approximately 3,000 cu. yds. of compost a year. The product ends up in the hands of some farmers, some urbanites with small organic gardens, as well as some specialized research farms. The customers are paying a premium price with the anticipation of a higher yield, a healthier yield, and a yield that is easier on the environment.

Community Compost Company owns a Ford F450 truck that is used primarily for deliveries. One of the key factors in purchasing over the road equipment has been the size of the equipment itself in keeping it under the CDL requirements, so that essentially any of Banyra's employees with a driver's license can operate the equipment without requiring a CDL license.

Community Compost Company is a WBE (Women Business Enterprise), and the majority of the employees are women. Food waste is very heavy, so liftgates have been added to the trucks to avoid unnecessary strain on the employees.

Another key piece of equipment for the composing facility is its trommel screen, which is essential to the mixing of the final product. Because of the size and scope of the business as they were getting started, the machine for this aspect of their operation was typically rented.

Community Compost Company would stockpile material and rent a trommel as needed, which worked for a period of time. But when its volume increased and COVID's impact on the supply chain made the availability of a rented trommel screen extremely difficult, the company began to consider the purchase of a trommel screen.

"With us renting a screening plant three or four times a year, we had to stockpile product and as was mentioned earlier, with the size of our yard, space for stockpiling comes at a premium. So, another immediate benefit that drove us to the decision to purchase a trommel screen besides the lack of availability for rentals was the fact that we could no longer spare the stockpiling space in our yard," Banyra said.

When asked what process she went through in making her buying decision she replied, "Initially we had to justify the economics. We were spending about $2,000 to $3,000 every time we rented the screening plant and we would need to rent it 3 to 4 times a year, so our rental cost was between $12,000 and up to $15,000 a year. But those cost factors really became irrelevant once you factored in that without purchasing we could not locate a machine to rent due to supply chain issues. The other frustrating thing about the rental process was paying to rent the machine and then due to weather conditions not being able to use it. You're shelling out all of that money and not making any products."

The machine that best fit the need of Community Compost Company was a trommel screen manufactured by Komptech, specifically its Primus model, which was sold to them by Simplicity Equipment and Service in Westfield, Mass.

"As we started the search process, I started inquiring among other people in our type of business what they recommended. The Komptech was recommended to me by another user. I then contacted Komptech's U.S. headquarters in Colorado, and they referred me to Simplicity Equipment & Service in Westfield, Mass., who is their dealer for our area. Don Cotrona with Simplicity Equipment came and took care of our needs. We ultimately bought the Primus model machine and we are very fortunate that we did. The biggest reason being is that the screening plant that we were renting broke down some time ago and still has not been available for rental.

"In preparing to make the purchase, I had attended various demonstrations, trade shows and events to gain as much familiarity with the machines and their process as possible. But, to be honest, really one of the most deciding factors in this purchase was that in the end when Don with Simplicity Equipment came to visit, he actually had a machine available.

"I was impressed with the overall design of the Komptech Primus. Everything pops open, its accessible, the setup is very easy, and Simplicity Equipment & Service was right there through the process to train us with everything that we would need to know. They gave us a lot of support before and after the sale. Although I really can't say what kind of mechanical and parts service Simplicity Equipment offers after the sale because, fortunately, up to this point, the machine has operated trouble free. It was reassuring to know that the machine was manufactured and engineered in Austria. Frankly, you just don't hear about poorly engineered and manufactured Austrian equipment.

"Once we started using the Komptech Primus, I was very impressed with the quality of product that it was making. The trommel drum itself has a spiral design which scrubs the material more effectively than the trommel we were renting. The product we are producing is 100 percent better than what was coming out of the previous screening plant. The reason, I believe, is that the material is spending more ride time within the trommel screen itself and thus produces a better product. We had been receiving some complaints previously about the consistency and sizing of our product and occasional contaminated material. This screener has eliminated the vast majority of those issues"

As trommel screens go, the Primus is a mid-sized machine constructed on a tandem axle trailer with a 4-yard hopper. The hopper walls are constructed at a steep angle to prevent bridging.

The trommel itself has 172-ft. of effective screening area and can be equipped with a grizzly or wind sifter option. The Primus is powered by a 51 hp Perkins Diesel engine and the machine is constructed of heavy-duty components, manually folding discharge belts and a fuel-efficient hydraulic drive which helps enhance the price to performance ratio.

The primary purpose of the trommel screener is to sift out larger materials, creating a finer product, give a final mix to the composted material and most importantly, aerate it and break up any clumps so that the customer is receiving as consistent a material as possible.

"The materials that are processed through the Primus trommel have been aging for four to six months. The materials are fed into the hopper and gradually moved into the trommel area of the screening plant.

"Not only does the plant break down clumps and aerate the material, but it also removes oversized pieces of material such as larger pieces of wood and separates them to another pile as they would not be a desirable element in the sellable mulch product.

"The mulch itself is screened to 1/2-inch minus. The oversized materials are reused as a biofilter in the compost pile. The biofilter keeps gases and odors trapped inside the compost and it also adds biology to the mix because it's already been composting for six months. The biofilter is a key element in keeping the odors down. Given enough time the oversized wood materials break down and become a part of the usable mulch."

By its nature compost is not screened in huge volumes, particularly during rainy periods, which is the type of conditions that Community Compost Company dealt with for most of 2022. Rain will soak in and absorb into the compost for eight to ten inches of the surface, which creates a very heavy, sticky product that is much more difficult to screen. Under those conditions, the Primus screens about 20 cubic yards per hour. In more ideal, drier conditions, it processes up to 65 cubic yards per hour.

Either way, according to Banyra, the production is significantly greater than what they were experiencing with the rental machine.

When asked if conditions ever dictate that moisture be added to the pile, Banyra responded "Yes, moisture is a necessary ingredient to the composting process and if conditions are dry enough we are equipped to add moisture if need be."

Looking down the road at what the future may bring to her company, Banyra first focuses on the scale of the operation.

"We are small. By my standards very small, and somewhere down the road we need to scale this upwards. But we are also diversifying products that can come out of here including liquid extracts.. We take compost and vermicompost; we extract it in an aerated water process, so now we are literally selling the liquid biology to farmers.

"The worms castings production is still relatively small, but there is a growing cannabis market for high-quality soils, and the worm castings is highly sought after for that market. Part of the challenge is developing the market for high-quality compost products but it's coming. There is a big advantage to the grower in receiving compost that is created locally because they know what's in it. Products that come from other parts of the country, and at times, other parts of the world, have different biology and can contain contaminants that can have devastating effects."

Down the road Banyra sees her operation growing to additional sites to meet demand. With the production that she is receiving with the Komptech Primus she sees the screening plant easily being transportable to multiple sites and meeting the screening demands of more than one facility.

The Komptech Primus was certainly a significant investment but according to Banyra, "All things considered I don't know where we would be if we had not made this purchase. We may not have been able to make any product at all. This has been a lifesaver, and we have been very pleased working with Simplicity Equipment & Service. Don spent a lot of time with us in the setup process. He made sure our people understood all the fundamentals of operation and the maintenance process."

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This story also appears on Construction Equipment Guide.