While the Martha's Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District committee negotiates costs, facility capacity and logistics with the Rhode Island-based Waste Options company to build a composting facility on the Island, many Islanders seek answers to more basic questions.
How can household trash and sewage become something useful for Island crops? Do we know the long-term effects of the compost material on vegetation? Are other communities moving toward solid waste composting?
The composting of household trash is by no means new to America's solid waste scene. The 1950s brought the first plants - which faded soon after sanitary landfills became the more popular means of handling municipal waste. Solid waste composting exploded on the scene in the 1980s, when rumors of the government shutting down landfills pushed municipalities to explore alternatives.
As of 1990, the United States hosted 10 solid waste composting facilities, and 79 more communities were planning to establish one. But the growth spurt stopped abruptly in 1994, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a flow control law that ensured composting facilities a certain amount of solid waste. In addition, many facilities folded through the years because of an inability to control odor. Today, only 16 communities across the United States compost their solid waste - two of them in the state of Massachusetts. Waste Options designed and manages both facilities, located in Nantucket and Marlborough.
Current bottom line figures make landfills and incineration plants appealing to most communities. But landfills are reaching capacity by the day, and increasingly strict emission standards challenge incineration facilities such as ones operated by SEMASS, the Vineyard district's municipal waste handler.
"There are practically no more landfills, and the few that still exist are getting expensive," said Sumner Martinson, composting program manager for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
Regardless of fluctuating landfill and incineration costs, Martha's Vineyard inevitably faces unique transportation costs and pressure to reduce the Steamship Authority's traffic burden. These factors make the concept of composting and reselling the Island's 14,000 annual tons of waste even more appealing.
Some Islanders fear the Vineyard may be jumping on the composting bandwagon before understanding potential long-term drawbacks.
The federal government does not have specific criteria for contaminant levels in solid waste compost, and the state is currently developing additional criteria to test chemical contaminants in solid waste compost.
Because solid waste composting facilities use septic sludge as a major component in their compost, Massachusetts and the federal government have been using criteria originally developed for contaminant levels in septage compost by which to judge the final product of solid waste compost. The state's standards for sludge, developed in 1983, are more stringent than national criteria.
After awarding the composting facility in Marlborough with a type 1 permit for land application of sludge and septage in September of 2000, the DEP's southeast regional office is now developing new parameters to test the suitability of mixed solid waste compost. They are applying these new standards to the Nantucket facility - which is currently undergoing a six-month testing process. The Nantucket plant cannot remove the product from its facility until it wins a state permit.
"We've learned a lot since then," said Dave Ellis, DEP southeast regional office solid waste section chief, explaining that these new parameters test levels of chemical components which may be specific to solid waste and not sludge.
"We're still working through the kinks. What do you compare it to? There's no threshold for comparison right now," Mr. Ellis said. He said his office has yet to see the first batch of test results.
John Walker, federal Environmental Protection Agency senior physical scientist, said compost generated from a mixture of solid waste and sludge could have more extraneous materials such as glass and plastic than do biosolids (sludge) compost.
"You might not want to use it for potting, but you could apply it to lawns and orchards," Mr. Walker said.
With the resurgence of solid waste composting facilities in the last 15 years, many question how extensive data might be concerning the long-term effects of such metals and other contaminants when applied to vegetation.
Mr. Martinson explained that Massachusetts based its sludge permitting criteria on previously established federal guidelines.
"The EPA's 503 guidelines are based on a 15-to-20-year risk analysis. That's about as good an answer as you can get," Mr. Martinson said.
Mr. Martinson added that Islanders have been using Milorganite and other brand fertilizers for decades.
"Milorganite is beyond the contaminant limits we require in the state. It's more environmentally damaging to put a [brand-name fertilizer] on the ground than compost," Mr. Martinson explained.
With more communities adopting widespread recycling programs - which rid many inorganic materials like metals, glass and plastic before the composting process - the federal Environmental Protection Agency has seen low levels of metals in the final product. Between 80 and 90 per cent of composting facilities (including the some 300 sludge-only facilities) meet low federal and state contaminant level requirements, Mr. Walker said.
The best way to reduce levels of extraneous materials and contaminants is through extensive recycling efforts.
"In the ideal world, the [trash] would be completely source separated. It's not as much of an issue as it used to be. Folks are more familiar with recycling," Mr. Martinson said.
Educating citizens on how to sort and separate household trash is a major challenge for communities with solid waste composting facilities. With the Vineyard's transient seasonal population contributing up to two-thirds of the summer trash, recycling education promises to be especially difficult.
Nantucket board of health inspector Richard Ray said Nantucket combats the change in its seasonal trash by making recycling easy and efficient.
"It's become a way of life over here. Going to the dump is a social event," Mr. Ray said.
As landfills and incineration plants continue to lose their appeal and affordability, composting may become a way of life for more and more communities.
"Whatever environmental tradeoffs, it's still better than landfilling and incineration. You still end up with a beneficial product. Instead of a big mound, you have something you can use," Mr. Martinson said.