City Cooks Up New Compost Recipes

  • A pile of food waste awaits processing at a Duluth, Minnesota composting site. A wide variety of materials arrive each day - anything from unused frozen dinners to sheet rock to bird droppings from a nearby zoo. Photo by Stephanie Hemphill.

Lots of people have a compost pile in the backyard. They throw their grass clippings and kitchen scraps in a pile and let it sit. Eventually it turns into rich black stuff that can be spread on the garden. Many cities around the Great Lakes collect residents’ yard waste and turn it into compost on a bigger scale. In Duluth, Minnesota, they’ve taken it a step further. An industrial-sized compost operation uses some surprising ingredients. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:

Transcript

Lots of people have a compost pile in the back yard. They throw their grass clippings and
kitchen scraps in a pile and let it sit. Eventually it turns into rich black stuff that can be spread
on the garden. Many cities around the Great Lakes collect residents’ yard waste and turn it into
compost on a bigger scale. In Duluth Minnesota, they’ve taken it a step further. An industrial-
sized compost operation uses some surprising ingredients. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Stephanie Hemphill reports:

There’s a steady stream of cars and pickups as people drop off leaves and branches. They’re
piling up their yard waste at the compost site of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District in
Duluth, Minnesota. The Sanitary District takes care of the trash for Duluth and nearby towns.

At the back, four rows of future compost are cooking in the sun. They’re about 6 feet tall and
half a block long. They were mixed by a master chef of compost, Charlie Hitchcock. He’s about
to cook up a new batch. Today’s mix starts with biodegradable bags of kitchen scraps from
several restaurants.

“It’s a small load today, but it’s food waste and there’s animal hair that’s thrown in from some of
the pet grooming places. A lot of protein and nitrogen in that, I guess.”

Hitchcock consults a laptop computer to create his recipe. He plugs in the weight of the food
waste. The computer program tells him the right proportions of wood chips and leaves to mix in.
It’s aiming for the ideal combination of carbon and nitrogen. Most loads are about half wood
chips.

“Because it aerates it pretty good. And then I just keep punching a number in on the leaves until
I get between a 25-to-1 to a 35-to-1 on a C-N-N ratio, carbon to nitrogen.”

(tractor starts)

The key ingredient that’s loaded in Hitchcock’s mixture is different every day. That’s because the
sanitary district is always trying to divert stuff that would normally go to the landfill. Lately
they’ve been going after some of the garbage itself, not just yard waste. And sometimes that
garbage comes from some exotic places.

(bird sounds from zoo)

Dave Homstad takes care of the birds at the Lake Superior Zoo. He’s giving the parrots some
fresh water.

(parrot chit-chat)

He slides out the bottom of the cage and whisks sawdust and bird droppings into a black plastic
bag.

“The composting stuff goes into a black bag, so that we can keep them separate. And then
anything that can be composted goes in here and then eventually into a dumpster for that
purpose.”

The dumpster gets filled with uneaten food, animal bedding, like straw and sawdust, and animal
dung. At the composting site, the dumpster-load from the zoo might be mixed with scraps from a
coffee shop. A commercial fishing operation brings fish guts. Even sheetrock is ground up to
become compost. The latest addition is waste grain from the elevators on Duluth’s lakefront.

(train sound at elevator)

The Cargill elevator handles 50 million bushels of grain every year.

Roger Juhl manages the operation. He says there’s some spillage when railroad cars have to be
changed from one type of grain to another.

“So we have to clean them out and dump them onto the tracks, and then pick them up and put
them in the dumpster. And that’s where they’ll go to this recycling center.”

Juhl says he’ll probably save some money. He’ll still have to pay the hauler to take the grain
away, but he won’t have to pay for dumping it in the landfill. What’s even better, Juhl says he’ll
be doing something good for the environment.

“Hopefully it’ll be useful for something.”

It’s put to use, all right, in Charlie Hitchcock’s compost mixer.

(compost sound back up)

The mixer’s been turning for 15 or 20 minutes. Hitchcock peers into the barrel. The ingredients
look like chunky dirt, and smell like day-old garbage. He reaches in for a handful.

“I do the squeeze test on it. If you get it packed tight without moisture coming from it, it’s within
the 50% range, which is good.”

Hitchcock is learning how to turn an amazing variety of stuff into compost. Some days he gets a
load of spoiled vegetables from a grocery store. Other times it’ll be outdated frozen dinners.

“When I get a lot of wet pasta, I use some sheetrock and mostly grindings. That’s shredded up
tree branches and limbs that we have. I don’t put leaves in it because the pasta’s so wet, it gets
real gumbo-y.”

After six months in a pile, the compost is ready for customers, like Suzanna Didier.

“I mean, I’m glad they’ve figured out a way for us to decrease the amount of garbage that goes
into the stream, into the waste stream, because obviously that needs to be slowed down a bit. So,
it’s great.”

It’s an expensive operation that doesn’t pay for itself. Officials hope to recoup half their costs by
selling compost. As they get more raw materials, it’ll become more cost effective. Someday,
they hope everyone in Duluth will send their kitchen waste for composting.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.

Activist Family Sets Stage for Global Warming

Scientists predict global warming could have a devastating impact on the earth and its inhabitants. But a traveling theater troupe has managed to find something funny about climate change. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman reports, the group “Human Nature” hopes to spread a message as well:

Transcript

Scientists predict global warming could have a devastating
impact on the earth and its inhabitants. But a traveling theater
troupe has managed to find something funny about climate
change. As The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman
reports, the group “Human Nature” hopes to spread a message as
well:


Joyful Simpson’s middle name is Raven. So perhaps it’s only
fitting that she plays a raven in the play, “What’s Funny About
Climate Change?”


“I suppose the raven in mythology is known as a trickster or a
shape shifter. So she’s come in human form to both tease and
cajole and plead with the audience for their understanding and
their awareness.”


(sound of play: “You came, you actually came! I said that if we made a show about global warming sound like
it actually might be funny, that the humans would come. And
here you are…suckers!!”) (laughs)


(fade under)


“What’s Funny About Climate Change” is a three-person
comedy review. The three members are the Simpson family.
They call their theater group “Human Nature”. Their goal is to
raise awareness about the problems caused by global warming.


Jane Lapiner is Joyful’s mother. She says their group uses
theater as a political tool.


“With comedy and theater in general, people can be more
receptive to important ideas, as opposed to a meeting or a
conference.”


That’s why the Simpsons founded the Human Nature theater
group more than 20 years ago. Global warming’s not the only
thing they’ve written about. They’ve performed plays about the
timber industry, wolves, and Pacific salmon.


David Simpson writes most of the material. He says he tries to
inform people and make them laugh.


“I have to say this is an intelligent show…It’s a sophisticated
show, the humor is sophisticated. People are going to learn
something about climate change, they’re gonna laugh, and
they’re gonna think.”


(sound of play, actors singing)


Joyful Simpson says she was fairly involved with her parents’
theater group growing up. But when she left for college, she
started to pursue other ways to communicate her concerns about
the environment. Her journey eventually led her back to her
parents’ theater group.


The current tour is the first time she’s worked with her parents in
about seven years. She says her years away from her family
might have prepared her for her role in “What’s Funny About
Climate Change.”


“I’m not educated about it from a scientific perspective and
actually I think that I embody some of the societal doubt of
whether or not it is a real thing and I’m trying to break out of
that because I think that’s deeply ingrained.”


Joyful is young. She’s in her mid-20’s. And she says it’s crucial
that young people understand environmental issues.


“I have a lot of people in the older generation that I look up to
who are very active in the environmental and the political world
and I see some of that energy in my generation but we are
lacking in that field. And so I’m pushing myself to feel inspired
to take the torch and also trying to push others to understand our
responsibility.”


(more sound of play: Joyful Simpson: “Did you actually think
there was something funny about climate change? It’s the
biggest disaster in the history of the entire civilization and it
really is happening…”)


(fade under)


The Simpson family will be performing on college campuses
across the nation this spring.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris Lehman.