Brown is the New Green

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Residential yard waste is now a sought-after resource: that’s right, your yard’s leftover leaves and other plant materials collected by the ECUA’s Sanitation Department are being used in combination with biosolids to create a safe, nutrient-dense and environmentally-friendly soil amendment the ECUA is calling “bloom.”

In case you aren’t familiar with “biosolids,” they are the byproduct of the biological, chemical and mechanical treatment of wastewater. Since many associate human waste with the term wastewater, a common misconception is that “biosolids” refer to human fecal matter.

However, what is closer to truth is that biosolids are bacterial cells grown to treat wastewater. While in the wastewater, these bacteria consume nutrients and organic matter that are beneficial to compost, so when they are separated from the treated water they take all the nutrients with them.

The Emerald Coast bloom, a product that is available for residential and commercial use, contains the “big three” nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. While bloom is also rich in essential micronutrients like calcium, magnesium, zinc and sulfate, it maintains very low levels of unwanted heavy metals like cadmium, lead and mercury.

To better understand composting, it is a biological process in which macro- and micro-organisms decompose organic matter (like dead leaves and plants) into an organic soil-like substance called compost. In fact, for those who were wondering if compost smells as bad as the materials that go into it, you might be happy to know the finished product has an earthy scent similar to dirt and mulch.

There are a range of techniques and technologies involved in the process of composting, ranging from a simple compost pile in your backyard to a large-scale commercial operation.

Commercially speaking, there are three common ways to compost: turned windrow, aerated static pile, and in-vessel. Turned windrow is an elongated compost pile, or windrow, which is turned frequently to provide oxygen, distribute moisture and ensure the adequate decomposition of all materials. An aerated static pile is not turned, but air is still forced through the pile, usually with fans or blowers, in order to distribute oxygen throughout the pile. Thirdly, in-vessel compositing involves a large container, or other enclosure, in which the compost is mixed and oxygen is provided.

To create the Emerald Coast bloom, the ECUA uses a process called modified static aerobic pile (MSAP), which is a hybrid of turned windrow and aerated static pile techniques. Like the turned windrow, material is placed in a windrow, but what differs in the MSAP process is the placement of an inoculant, containing beneficial bacteria and fungus, which is placed on top of the mixed material. On the surface of the inoculant, a capping layer of ground yard waste is added to serve as a blanket to both insulate the compost and reduce unpleasant odors.

As the inoculant grows underneath the capping layer, it pulls oxygen into the windrow much like in an aerated static pile, which allows all material to decompose properly. The pile is turned twice within 45 days, as opposed to the much more frequent turning within the turned windrow technique. This procedure saves money and continues to keep odors at a minimum, since there is no constant turning giving the odors a chance to escape.

So, how does yard waste come into the mix? In order to properly compost biosolids, which are high in nitrogen, they must be combined with a material high in carbon. Luckily, yard waste is just the answer: it is an excellent source high in carbon, which the ECUA grinds into mulch before mixing it with the biosolids prior to composting.

Biosolids and yard waste are mixed in an approximately 3-to-1 ratio for optimal moisture, porosity, carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, and temperature. This blend has proven to be ideal for the compost process, as it helps to decompose both materials (yard waste and biosolids) rapidly.

By composting biosolids and yard waste, ECUA keeps both out of the landfill—where it benefits no one.

“The ECUA is utilizing yard trash and biosolids to create an environmentally beneficial compost,” said Randall Rudd, ECUA deputy executive director. “This eliminates the need to landfill yard trash and biosolids, and provides a valuable compost resource to residents and businesses in the ECUA service area.”

By opting for a bio-compost alternative, you’re helping to protect our wildlife and environment, which includes our water supply. By utilizing Emerald Coast bloom for your landscaping and gardening projects, you eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers, which in turn protects our waters from contamination by storm-water runoffs that carry these harmful chemicals from residential lawns to nearby bodies of water.

Compost provides many benefits for making soil better, such as improving nutrient retention capacity, moisture retention and water utilization, as well as improving overall soil structure, balancing and stabilizing pH, providing beneficial micro-organisms, reducing plant diseases, and binding or degrading contaminants.

Furthermore, the biosolids compost is a safe alternative to fertilizer because it is free of harmful bacteria and micro-organisms. During the composting process, the biosolids are “cooked” at up to 150 degrees, effectively eliminating bad bacteria and pathogens.

Emerald Coast bloom is currently sold to agricultural farms, landscape contractors, nurseries, golf course managers and more. This is because it can be used for a range of commercial purposes, including but not limited to turf establishment, roadside plantings, erosion control, as well as land reclamation, restoration and remediation.

Yet, bloom may be used anywhere nutrients and organic matter can be used, including for residential purposes, such as maintaining and planting flower and garden beds, new or established trees and lawns, as well as soil for container plants.

Now that you’ve gotten your compost, if you’re curious about how to use it you should know that there are specific instructions for application included with your package of Emerald Coast bloom. Essentially, compost should be mixed with soil, or another planting medium, when planting for beds, containers, or any new plants. Compost can even be applied over existing plants.

In August 2014, the FDEP issued ECUA a permit to construct and operate a Biosolids Composting Facility at the ECUA’s Central Water Reclamation Facility (CWRF). The idea was to use biosolids sludge produced by the CWRF in combination with yard trash collected by the Sanitation Department, allowing yard trash previously disposed of in landfill to be recycled through composting.

This also allowed the CWRF to reduce the cost of natural gas, used to dry the biosolids sludge. The final product of compost is being sold to help offset the cost of the composting program.

Construction on the ECUA’s Biosolids Composting Facility (BCF) began in April 2015 and by late October the facility was at a stage that allowed the first windrows to be formed using yard trash and biosolids sludge from the CWRF.

The first batch of finished compost was produced in December 2015, but the BCF celebrated its official opening in spring 2016.

Today, the 20-acre BCF composts about 400 tons of biosolids (half of the ECUA’s biosolids) and 500 tons of yard waste per week. Together, that totals at approximately 15,000 of finished compost produced annually by the BCF, but plans are already underway to double its capacity.

Before you put your yard waste out on the curb, remember you can help along the compositing process by joining the “Brown is the New Green, Leaf the Plastic Behind” initiative. All you have to do is choose to bag dead leaves and other organic yard waste in brown, paper bags instead of plastic ones, since paper will break down naturally in the composting process. You can also skip the bags and simply empty your leaves in a trash can for pickup.

To applaud the ECUA’s composting efforts in our community, the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) announced the ECUA’s Biosolids Composting Facility as the winner of the 2016 SWANA Golf Excellence Award in the composting category.

SWANA’s Excellence Awards program recognizes only the most outstanding solid waste programs and facilities that advance the practice of environmentally and economically sound solid waste management, for those who show great commitment to utilizing effective technologies and processes in system design and operations, advancing worker and community healthy and safety, and implementing successful public education and outreach programs.

These programs must demonstrate that they are fiscally and environmentally responsible through their compliance with all applicable federal, state and local regulations, as well.

Emerald Coast bloom, also known as the “Most in Bio-Compost,” is certified under the US Composting Council’s Seal of Testing Assurance program. This means the product is tested regularly to make sure it achieves Class AA quality and state standards that require it meet the following properties: high organic matter, macro and micronutrient, and ideal moisture contents, as well as balanced pH and soluble salts, low heavy metals. These tests also guarantee the compost remains free from pathogens and that it stays both stable and mature.

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