by Brian P.J. Cronin
Photo: David Akirtava
Quick question, no Googling: Where does your trash go? After the trucks, after the recyclables are pulled out, after it leaves the transfer station in your town, where exactly does it end up?
If you don’t know, don’t feel too bad. You’re not alone.
“People don’t want to think about garbage,” said Sarah Womer of Zero to Go in Beacon, an education-based waste-management company. “Not me. I’ll talk about garbage all day long.”
The answer, at least in Dutchess County, is that it either ends up in a waste-to-energy facility in Poughkeepsie, or it’s trucked four hours’ north to a landfill outside Seneca Falls. Both come at considerable expense and environmental impact, and the landfill is estimated to reach its capacity in less than ten years. After that, how much farther away will your trash have to travel? People may not want to think about that, but municipalities have to. Good thing for them that Womer knows how they can make a significant dent in the amount of material that they’re sending to landfills and incinerators while enriching local farmland as well.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 40 percent of all trash is actually compostable: organic matter such as food scraps can be broken down and turned into nutrient-rich compost. Farmers have been composting on their own since the beginning of time, and if you’re a gardener there’s a good chance you’re tending to your own heap of carrot peels, egg shells and straw in your backyard in order to revitalize your topsoil. But if you don’t farm or garden, you’re probably just throwing your food waste in the trash. Womer would like to help you change that.
A year ago, Womer rolled out a curbside food-waste collection program in Beacon for residents and businesses. It works just like regular curbside recycling and trash pickups, but instead of being picked up by mammoth trucks, the food waste is picked up by either Womer or one of her Zero to Go team members…on a bike. After all, if one of the goals of composting is to reduce one’s environmental footprint, why add to it by pumping out more greenhouse gasses in a truck?
These aren’t just any bikes. They’re electric-assisted cargo bikes, custom made by cycling mastermind Jon Miles of Peoples Bicycle in Beacon. Womer refers to them as “the best bikes in the country, possibly the world.” After watching one of her team members effortlessly haul a thousand pounds uphill on one of them, it’s hard not to agree.
Once all the compost is gathered, it’s picked up by the compost-management company Empire Zero, who swing by Beacon every week on their way from the Hannaford in New- burgh to the Hannaford in Wappingers before finally ending up at a composting facility in Kingston run by Ulster County. Empire Zero contracting to pick up food waste from Hannaford wasn’t just a lucky break for Zero to Go; it’s the whole reason that Womer finally went ahead with the composting project. For years she and her team have been working on such projects as waste management for festivals and electronics-recycling programs. But when Empire Zero told her that they’d be passing by Beacon anyway, she realized that she could get Beacon’s food waste up to Kingston without having to make separate trips and pumping out additional emissions.
Even if Beacon’s food waste is essentially hitchhiking to Kingston, it’s still a long road to travel. Womer’s currently finalizing a plan to create a composting facility on the outskirts of Beacon. That’ll be enough to take care of the city of Beacon if they decide to make curbside composting mandatory as they currently do with recycling—and Womer says it’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when.” “In the next five years, there’s going to be laws coming down that require us not to mix food waste in with our trash,” she predicted. The financial and environmental costs of not composting are simply becoming too great for towns to ignore.
“I want the city of Beacon, and every city, to have a plan in place,” she said. And for that to happen, every town is going to need to have a Sarah Womer. Which, laws of physics being what they are, is kind of impossible. On the other hand, she is very fast on that bike.