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Here’s a ‘dirty’ secret about the benefits of composting in Michigan

May 28, 2023May 28, 2023

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June 01, 2023

Today’s MI Environment story is based on one from the Recycling Raccoons.

Former high school science teacher, current online educator and avid gardener/composter Emily Piper recently moved from Phoenix to Bay City to be closer to her parents.

Emily Piper of Bay City, left, discusses details of Iris Waste Diversion Specialists' food scrap collection pilot program for residents in Bay City and Saginaw with Iris CEO Sarah Archer and her husband, Darrell Reed.

Piper unabashedly professes she is “wildly passionate” in her dedication to improving the environment and reducing, recovering, and recycling wasted food while diverting those materials from landfills to prevent climate change.

“I grew up in the 1990s when everything was love the earth and conservation,” laughs Piper, who works as a content manager for Cambium Learning Group.

So, she was eager to discover whether she could find the same top-quality composting and recycling convenience in Michigan she’d found while living in major metropolises around the U.S.

Turns out, Piper had nothing to worry about.

She learned about a new pilot food scrap collection program open to residents of Bay City and Saginaw created by Sarah Archer, the CEO of Iris Waste Diversion Specialists, Inc., with support from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

“I want to live in a sustainable way and reduce my impact on the environment,” Piper said.

“Composting conserves resources. I have big dreams and a small back yard that my dogs pretty much own, but I eventually plan to build a green house where I’ll grow vegetables, lettuce, and other greens, all with compost that I’ll receive from Iris.”

How It Works

It’s easy and fast for Bay City and Saginaw residents to enroll in Iris’s food scrap collection program.

Residential subscribers in Bay City and Saginaw can sign up for subscription service at www.iriswds.com or by calling 855-2GO-ZERO (855-246-9376) or emailing [email protected]. Your personal information will remain confidential and will never be shared, Archer pledges. The monthly fee is $20.

Iris provides subscribers with two containers for managing food scraps. A kitchen pail is designed for countertop use when preparing food. When it’s full, the contents of the kitchen pail are emptied into a 5-gallon bucket, which is used to store food scraps between collection days.

The 5-gallon bucket is set out near the doorstep or garage for the Iris team to collect every week. Subscribers are responsible for maintaining the buckets’ cleanliness, but Iris also offers a swap-out service where they bring clean buckets for an extra $8 a month.

The scraps are delivered to 5Heart Earthworm Farm in Birch Run where Archer’s husband, Darrell Reed, processes the materials into worm castings, or worm manure. The worm castings are a natural alternative to fertilizer that improves soil health and boosts plant growth.

Darrell Reed inspects one of the worm bins used by 5Heart Earthworm Farm that contain castings, essentially worm poop, a nutrient-rich, chemical-free supplement that improves soil health.

“Keeping food waste out of landfills is the #1 action we can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our impact on climate change. Our goal is to fill in the gap for people who can't compost outdoors but want to keep their food scraps out of the landfill. Our service provides them with an option to sustainably manage their food scraps," Archer said.

Iris also offers a commercial food scrap collection service in Genesee, Bay, and Saginaw counties, where they currently travel onsite to retrieve food scraps from progressive businesses inside the Flint Farmers Market (Willow’s Garden Juice Bar, Penny’s Café, and Flint Food Works), as well as the Flint Crepe Company, The Grafted Root in Grand Blanc, the House of Fortune, Hidden Harvest, and East Side Soup Kitchen in Saginaw, and The DoubleTree by Hilton Bay City Riverfront.

“We’ve tried to make this experience simple, affordable and hassle-free,” Archer said. “We’re thrilled by the outpouring of support and sign-ups we’re getting from folks for both our residential and commercial food scrap collection services and the difference we’re making together.”

Food for Thought

There are many ways for Michiganders to compost that are applicable beyond the Iris service footprint.

By visiting EGLE’s Home Composting Guide, Michiganders can quickly become do-it-yourselfers and learn how to compost in their own backyard. They can also contact local municipal offices to find if there is a community garden nearby that takes food scraps and organic materials.

Types of food scraps that are ideal for home composting include raw fruits and vegetables, coffee grounds and filters, tea leaves and natural tea bags, banana peels, eggshells, and outdated leftovers — all with produce stickers, rubber bands and twist ties, which are nonrecyclable, removed. Meat, dairy, fats, oils, and grease, as well as salty foods, are not recommended for home composting systems.

The idea of starting a compost pile at home or the workplace can be a little intimidating to newcomers, Archer concedes. That’s why the compost advocacy experts at Iris are so valuable.

“The most common mistakes we see are non-compostable materials like plastic bags and plastic knives and forks getting mixed in with the food scraps,” Archer said. “We publish a monthly e-newsletter to our subscribers to let them know how much is being kept from the landfill and remind them of what can and can’t be put in their bucket. This really helps to educate them and keeps mistakes to a minimum.”

‘It’s Cool to Compost’

Before 2022, residential food scrap diversion programs were non-existent in the largely rural Great Lakes Bay Region.

EGLE announced a $194,000 grant to Iris Waste Diversion Specialists in early 2022 to help expand its food scrap collection infrastructure and processing capabilities while establishing the residential pickup service in partnership with the cities of Saginaw and Bay City and with approval from the Mid Michigan Waste Authority Board.

“This project is a labor of love – we’re really excited to expand our services and composting in the Great Lakes Bay region,” Archer said. “Our vision is to help people learn it’s cool to compost.”

Established in 2004, Archer’s company has achieved national certification as a Women’s Business Enterprise and as a woman-owned small business through the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, the nation’s largest third-party certifier of businesses owned and operated by women in the U.S.

The Iris grant is part of EGLE’s strategy to promote composting and to prevent food waste such as kitchen scraps, leftovers, and other organic materials from going into Michigan landfills.

Michigan saw a total of 52 million cubic yards of solid waste enter the 67 landfills across the state in 2022, according to the annual solid waste report EGLE released in January. Food waste represents roughly 30% of that total — about 15.5 million cubic yards — that could find a better use like composting.

Composting produces what gardeners call “black gold,” a nutrient-rich soil supplement that holds moisture and helps gardens grow. The activity is especially good for the environment. Unlike landfills that can release methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, composting breaks down organic material without sending methane into the atmosphere.

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How It WorksFood for Thought‘It’s Cool to Compost’