Eastern Iowa composters hit pay dirt

New urban development rule could increase compost demand

Steve Gravelle
Published: January 14 2013 | 5:30 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:01 am in
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A new federal rule to reduce erosion and runoff from urban development could boost demand for compost as the 2013 construction, landscaping and gardening seasons begin.

“This last couple months we were getting approached by entities and contractors, specific in Johnson County, to supply compost,” said Ryan Miller, Marion’s public service director. “We were a bit surprised.”

The new Environmental Protection Agency standard, adopted four years ago to take effect this year, requires builders to preserve or restore topsoil at construction sites. Developers may mix compost with soil to meet the rule, which requires four inches of topsoil at sites where that amount or more was present before construction.

The rule comes at a good time for Marion’s yard waste-to-compost operation, set to grow on part of a 49-acre site just acquired by the city.

“We’re hoping to really expand our operations,” said Miller, who’s asked the city council to change an ordinance barring the city from competing with private suppliers.

Amy Johannsen, engineering inspector for the City of Coralville, contacted Miller about supplying Johnson County builders with compost.

“We’re probably going to have a little bit of compost shortage,” Johannsen said. “We’re just trying to make sure we have enough to get us through our city projects.”

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources will enforce the EPA’s rule in the state. Joe Griffin, DNR stormwater permit coordinator, said most contractors should find compliance fairly straightforward.

It’s an open question whether the new rule will mean a big change for builders, said Allen Witt, principal at Hall & Hall Engineering in Cedar Rapids.

“I think the jury’s out right now,” said Witt. “They’re going to work with the EPA and the DNR to make this happen.”

“Traditionally they strip the site, they stockpile the topsoil” and restore it after construction, Witt said. “Some (builders) say it’s not going to be that big a deal. There is some resistance, (arguing) it’s going to add cost to projects and it’s not gong to improve the situation.”

Tons of material

Marion’s current compost operation generates 2,000 to 3,000 tons a year. Miller said the site typically carries a surplus of about 1,000 tons at the end of the year. The site will continue to provide compost free to Marion residents

The Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency ran out of compost for the first time last year, distributing 20,955 tons generated from 31,183 tons yard waste collected in the year ending last June 30, agency spokesman Joe Horaney said.

The Cedar Rapids/Linn County agency will continue to offer compost free to county residents - up to two cubic yards per visit. Nonresidents are charged $8 per cubic yard, the same rate Marion charges for screened compost. Marion also offers unscreened compost at $4 per ton for nonresidents.

A cubic yard of compost can weigh 1,100 to 1,900 pounds depending  on its moisture content, Horaney said.

Johnson County's only publicly-run compost producer, the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center, has sold out 4,000 to 6,000 tons of compost each of the past three years, said Jennifer Jordan, the city's recycling coordinator. The county charges county residents $10 a ton.

"We are doing our best to make as much as we can, but it really comes down to Mother Nature," said Jordan. She said it takes six to eight months for organic waste to become compost.

To speed the process, Jordan hopes to get more food waste diverted from the general waste stream to composting. She said a recent DNR study found food waste from restaurants and groceries composed 15 percent of the total.

Jordan will meet Tuesday with grocery and restaurant operators to discuss separating food waste. The meeting is set for 4 p.m. at the Bluebird Diner, 330 E. Market St. in Iowa City.

"It’s hard in general to find good local compost," said Chuck Porto, retail manager at Iowa City Landscaping and Garden Center. "I’s been difficult for awhile. The landfill stream is always in high demand."

Dale Peterson, owner of Ever-Green Landscape Nursery in Cedar Rapids doesn't expect supply problems.

"We have enough in stock that I couldn’t even imagine we’d run out," said Peterson, who buys from a commercial supplier. "We have a mountain of it."

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