Community compost project looks to expand

Jun 8, 2021

A chicken decorates a compost bucket at a "solutions supper" event hosted by Cook Inletkeeper at the Diamond M Ranch on Monday, June 7, 2021 in Kenai, Alaska.
Credit Elizabeth Earl / KDLL

The chickens and turkeys at Diamond M Ranch eat pretty well—especially if you consider the volume. Since last year, the birds have taken care of thousands of pounds of compost from households around the central peninsula.

A group of volunteers coordinated through Cook Inletkeeper has been collecting the compost in white buckets and trucking it over to the ranch for about a year. Tim Johnson is one of the volunteers who’s been feeding the birds twice a week.

"We separate the food scraps from the compostable material," he siad. "Most people put their stuff in brown paper bags, and put that in buckets. So when you dump the buckets, there’s no solid waste inside the bucket, and you just take the paper bag and shake it out, and throw that into a corner, and the chickens will scratch that up."

The birds have gotten to the point where they recognize him. He says there’s very little they won’t eat from the compost bins—and over time, they’ve even waddled over and started pecking at the bins before he’s able to get it out of the buckets. In addition to feed, Diamond M Ranch owner Blair Martin has used the compost to heat their coops. Johnson said it was enough to keep it pretty toasty for the birds.

"During the wintertime they’re all in there, so it gets a little crowded, but it’s warm," he said. "Blair (Martin) uses the compost to heat the place."

Two years ago, the group got together for a discussion series based on the book “Drawdown” by Paul Hawken, focused on climate change reversal. Of the projects the group debated taking on, community composting won. In the summer, the compost can be treated outside and turned to fertilizer for a local peony farm, and in the winter it’s primarily fed to the birds.

This year, the group was able to get about 90 people regularly participating and diverted about 24,000 pounds of waste from Central Peninsula Landfill. That was one of the primary goals—the landfill has finite space, and the food waste can be used for other purposes outside filling up the cells there. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 30 percent of what we throw away could be composted. The landfill is expensive to build and operate—about $7 million every year. Reducing the amount of material going into can lengthen the life of landfill space as well as reducing the amount of methane gas produced from decomposing waste.

Central Peninsula Landfill does have a pile labeled “compost” near the brush pile, but it isn’t really for food waste or other household wastes. Landfill manager Dan Kort said it’s been around a long time, but it’s primarily for grass cuttings and leaves. The borough solid waste department burns the brush pile each year, but it can’t contain grass when they burn it—that produces too much smoke. So they use the grass cuttings and leaves within the landfill facilities, spreading it on the hillsides to help with revegetation. But he said it isn’t treated or sold to the public as fertilizer.

Composting in Alaska has its own challenges, including keeping the pile temperature high enough to make the waste break down. Other challenges are education—not everyone has participated in composting before and may not be familiar with what can be composted. Generally, compost includes home food and organic waste like eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, teabags, house plants, and bits of fruits and vegetables.

One of the things it doesn’t include is plastic bags—it should be in paper bags. Johnson says the composters prefer it in the paper bags, even if it’s soggy; it helps the paper bags break down. That’s what the buckets are for. In the pile, the paper bags will break down in a few days.

This year, the group aims to double its participation by getting at least 200 people involved in composting. It doesn’t necessarily have to be going to the chickens or the compost pile, as long as it’s happening, they say—the main goal is just to keep it out of the landfill.

Anyone who wants to participate can drop by the Cook Inletkeeper office on the Kenai Spur Highway in Soldotna to pick up a bucket. On June 15, the group will be at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank’s Tuesday farmer’s market to talk about composting methods, and will host an outdoor “composting 101” program at the Soldotna Library on June 24 at 6 p.m. More information is also available at inletkeeper.org/compost or at Kenai Change's website on community composting.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabethearl@gmail.com.