April 22, 2009
From food scraps and paper to fertilizer
Local business, Costco pair up to transform green waste
The Desert Sun
It's an unlikely partnership — an environmental scientist from that bastion of tree-huggers, UC Berkeley, and a big-box discount giant.
But in the Coachella Valley, Thomas Azwell and Costco have forged a partnership — with the help of several million worms on a worm farm at the Salton Sea — turning green waste from Costco's Palm Desert and La Quinta stores into high-grade organic fertilizer.
In other words, it's an Earth Day story with real earth.
Paper, cardboard, food scraps — anything that was alive at one time, Azwell said — are collected at the stores and then sent to California Bio-Mass, a composting facility in Thermal.
The next stop is Salton Sea Farms, also in Thermal, where about 100,000 pounds of red wiggler earthworms chomp through the compost, refining and enriching it with beneficial microbes and bacteria.
“They stabilize the organisms,” said John Beerman, a partner at the farm and Cal Bio-Mass. “It's beneficial bacteria that help plants convert nutrients in soil, make them available.”
The resulting fertilizer, called Vermigrow, is now sold at 27 Costcos in California and is being used at organic farms.
“It worked well,” said Bill Jessup, an organic citrus farmer in Thermal who has used Vermigrow on his 25 acres of oranges, grapefruit and tangerines, in addition to organic compost.
“We had more fruit; our output increased,” Jessup said.
This model of sustainable business — environmentally and financially green — is all the more significant because of the valley's and Costco's more conservative profiles, Azwell said.
“It's really easy to do things (in Northern California),” Azwell said. “The best model for these programs is to do them in the Coachella Valley, where people don't expect it.”
“If a low-cost operation like Costco can do it, then everyone can figure it out,” said Chris Marmon, regional bakery manager for the chain who worked with Azwell on the project.
“We live and die on half a penny,” Marmon said. “We've developed the process where it works out in a good (way) for us as a big-box operation.”
Azwell didn't choose the Coachella Valley and Costco as his green business laboratory at random.
After a varied career working on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, he landed at Indio High School, teaching environmental science to low-performing kids.
“It was profound for me to talk about rainforests — it's all doom and gloom — and we move on to the next chapter,” Azwell recalled. “There was no substance. I started building gardens. If you can get them involved in horticulture, they can learn real skills.”
His work in Indio eventually led to his decision to return to school for a Ph.D. at Berkeley.
The Costco project grew out of his valley connections with Beerman and Marmon, an old friend from his undergrad days at the University of Redlands.
With the success of the pilot programs in La Quinta and Palm Desert, green waste recycling will launch at Costco stores in El Centro, Fontana and San Bernardino, Marmon said.
“The sales product (Vermigrow) is doing really well, especially when we tell the story to members,” he said.
The Costco project also comes at a pivotal point for green or organic waste recycling in California — and the Coachella Valley.
Cities are already under a state mandate to divert 50 percent of their trash from California's landfills, and the statewide average is now 58 percent, said Charlene Graham, spokeswoman for the Integrated Waste Management Board.
But, the state Legislature could soon up the ante with a new law requiring a 75 percent diversion rate by 2020. Green waste will be key to hitting that target, Graham said.
“Organic waste makes up 15million tons of the waste stream,” she said. “If we can divert that waste into other uses, specifically compost, it's one of our goals.”
At Costco, one of the main challenges was training the employees to separate organic waste from cans, bottles and other recyclables, Marmon said.
“That's the toughest part,” he said. “We would look at our location almost as waste streams, plural — bathroom, break room, produce. Each one of those waste streams we attacked individually, one at a time, so we didn't overwhelm ourselves.”
Graham said, “Projects like this are incredible. It's a movement within our state, where people are trying to figure out — what can I do with this waste material? How can I make a profit from this stuff?”
At the worm farm
John Beerman is standing on a heap of compost at the Salton Sea Farms — the worm ranch he owns with Steve Lee in Thermal — enthusiastically digging up a handful of moist, dark material loaded with small red worms.
“This is dead fish, manure, green waste-food waste,” Beerman says. “Whiff it. It's almost no odor. Once the worms get in, they deodorize it.”
Eating compost and turning it into rich organic fertilizer is the life mission for eisenia fetida, the red wiggler earth worms at the 5-acre farm. Measuring 1 to 3 inches long, the worms can eat up to their own weight in green waste every day — a pound of worms eat a pound of compost — and Beerman estimated the current “herd” at the Salton Sea weighs in at about 100,000 pounds.
Red wigglers are hermaphrodites, containing male and female sex organs. To reproduce, worms exchange sperm, which is mixed with their eggs to form a “cocoon.”
The cocoons can hatch 10 or more new worms, out of which typically only a few survive. But with new worms becoming sexually mature in eight to 10 weeks, a pound of red wrigglers can become two pounds in about three to four months.
And they can live and keep reproducing for up to four years.
They are also considered good fish bait because they survive under water longer than other worms, continuing to move and attract fish.Riverside County Waste Management will present a free workshop on backyard composting at 10 a.m. Saturday at the San Nicholas Gardens, on the corner of San Nicholas and San Pablo avenues in Palm Desert.
Attendees will learn how to recycle organic resources, fruit and vegetable waste and tree trimmings into sweet-smelling soil conditioner.
Info: 346-0611 Ext. 331
A carbon-free farm?The labels on the oranges, grapefruit and tangerines from B&J Ranch in Thermal cqalready say “organic.” But in the future, they could also say “carbon-free.”B&J owner Bill Jessup cqfertilizes his trees with organic compost from California Bio-Mass, a company that processes green waste from Coachella Valley cities and businesses. “It seems to be much better than using composted manure,” Jessup said Tuesday, picking up a handful of the rich-looking compost from the base of one of his trees. “The balance is better.”He is also working with Nate McKeever of McKeever Energy and Electric in Thermal, cq both on plans to make the 25-acre ranch a model project, with a solar installation to cover 100 percent of the operation's energy use. “More and more, people are interested in where their food is coming from, completing the whole cycle of food,” McKeever said.The project is in its early stages, but even with solar, Jessup's operation may not be completely carbon free. When he started out 30 years ago, the only profitable market for organic fruit was in San Francisco, and he continues to ship his crop north. The new farmers markets in the valley are great, he said, but not cost-effective for him.“Citrus has not been the best thing in the Southland; it's very competitive,” he said.