Penn Yan municipal customers get free compost

John Christensen The Chronicle-Express
Leigh Sackett loads some of the free compost into his pickup truck.

Few water and sewer customers think about the ultimate fate of all the things that go down our drains, but we do think about the bills we have to pay for the convenience and security of a municipal wastewater system. Now customers can have the satisfaction of getting something back for the money they “flush away.”

This spring, the Penn Yan municipal wastewater treatment plant began distributing free compost to all Penn Yan municipal utility customers as part of a plan to upgrade the plant’s capacity to handle increased solid waste from the sewer system as well as the 25,000 to 50,000 gallons per month brought in by private septic haulers. The compost is created in a new system for handling the sewer sludge left behind at the end of wastewater reclamation.

Plant Manager Bengt Sward explains that now equipped with an efficient press, the sludge is more effectively de-watered at the plant. This drier product is then mixed with woodchips brought in by the village and county crews, and placed in long piles atop a vent pipe to “cook.” The beneficial bacteria in the aerobic digestion raises the temperature to over 130 degrees for 5 days, killing off any dangerous pathogens in the sludge. The temperature is checked and logged twice daily, and the compost tested for pathogens at the end. 

The mixture is then put through a mechanical sifter to separate the larger woodchips—which can then be reused in the process—from the finer compost that is again piled to continue to break down over another 50 days. At the end of the process is a safe and exceptionally fertile compost that bears no remaining odor of its origins, smelling only of rich earth. While it is safe, customers are asked not to place the compost in vegetable gardens as part of an industry-wide policy.

Municipal Utility Board Member Lee Sackett was loading his pickup with some of the compost, intending to use it as mulch for his flower beds and trees. “There’s no off odor at all,” says Sackett. “I’m delighted. It would be a shame to throw away such a valuable resource.”

In the past, the sludge had to be hauled away to landfills, which grew increasingly more expensive, currently costing 8 cents per gallon plus the cost of trucking. Sward says that if the composting capacity can be expanded, it will save approximately $50,000 per year in those costs alone, independent of the benefits to the environment. “There is also security to do this for ourselves. There have been times in the past when there was nowhere to dispose of the sludge.”

Customers who want to pick up compost may do so at the plant on Elmwood Ave. (off Himrod Road) Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to noon and Thursdays from 1 to 3 p.m. Customers must load the compost for themselves and should be prepared with shovels and containers or bags. Currently, there is a limit of two cubic yards, but Sackett hopes the MUB will expand that amount in the future.  Sward says that getting the compost distributed more widely will increase the plant’s solid waste handling ability, thereby increasing the savings, reducing landfill waste, and providing Penn Yan’s residents with a valuable resource for their flower gardens at no cost.