West Yellowstone Composting Facility Manager John Burns knows garbage.
More importantly, Burns knows how to turn municipal solid waste into compost that can be used as a soil additive.
Compost supplies enriched nutrients, through a balanced combination of varying organic materials, to help nourish soil each new growing season.
The heaping piles of nutrient-laden compost, that helps the soil grow strong, is made less than five miles outside of West Yellowstone on Highway 191 at the state of the art composting facility.
The facility operates for nine to 10 hours on a typical summer day from 7 a.m. to as late as 5:30 p.m. It was built in 2003 as a joint effort with the National Park Service, Gallatin County and the Hebgen Basin Solid Waste District. The various organizations decided to build the facility in West Yellowstone to assist with waste reduction in Yellowstone National Park and typically operates at full capacity with municipal solid waste that is brought in from Yellowstone each summer.
Scraps of food, coffee grounds, forgotten shampoo bottles and minced up Solo cups travel a distance and complete a lengthy process to be turned into compost, which might even return to Yellowstone as a soil additive.
Last year the compost facility sold the finished compost product in bulk and Yellowstone National Park typically buys back approximately 80 percent of the compost at the price of $15 per yard for road reclamation and planting projects. The remaining 20 percent is sold to local gardeners or businesses in the West Yellowstone area, according to Burns.
"We can take 43 to 45 percent of the trash coming into the composting facility and turn it into a soil additive to help grow new plants and use on road reclamation projects in Yellowstone National Park," Burns said. "It doesn't look like normal compost though, but through word of mouth about how gardens and lawns were growing people starting trying it."
He explained that people noticed small plastic particulates in the finished product and that made some folks hesitant to try it. But after word got around about how great the compost has worked in other gardens the facility now sells most of the compost by early July.
Burns has simplified the process of creating compost with the help of pre-sorted trash coming into the facility from Yellowstone and a computer system that helps monitor the changing temperatures of the composting material through its various stages.
He and previous compost facility manager Kathy O'Hern perfected the recipe for what they cook up in their compost kitchen all year long.
O'Hern has since transferred to another job and Burns now oversees the facility's operations. He has acted as the lead equipment operator for the facility since it opened in 2003.
Burns credits O'Hern to mastering their compost concoction, which mixes 6,400 pounds of municipal solid waste, 900 pounds of manure and 1,200 pounds of woodchips together in a four-auger mixer to form the mixture in the first step in the composting process. Burns compared the mixer to a large dough mixer that's used to mash everything together. The rest of the non-organic material is sent off to a different conveyor and into a container that is transported to a landfill.
The compost is made in a self-contained building where the raw compostable materials, including organic materials from the municipal solid waste, are fed on a conveyor to a wet mill. Raised surfaces in the wet mill make small tears in the bags of garbage while rotating in continuous cycles. Water is then added to the garbage to help break down the cardboard and paper before it goes into the mixer.
O'Hern also found a solution to ridding the compost mixture of tricky film plastic in the form of a $40 fan. The fan helps decrease the amount of candy wrappers, bottle labels and saran wrap contaminates in the mixture, according to Burns, by blowing the film up and away from the rest of the material.
"The fan will take out four 30-gallon garbage cans full of film plastic a day," he said.
The initial mixture is then transported via a system of conveyors to an in-vessel composting system containing seven vessels that are 10 feet high, 10 feet wide and 60 feet long. That's where the actual composting takes place.
Burns and his staff members can determine which vessel they'd like to load and 120,000 to 140,000 pounds of material can fit in each tunnel. Each of the seven vessels is filled to capacity in six to seven days during the summer.
Technology lends a helping hand once a tunnel is full and three temperature probes are stuck into the pile of composting matter. The temperature probes feed information to nifty computer software by Engineered Compost Systems, a Seattle, Wash.-based company, to control the temperature of the pile through a series of pushing in and removing air in the vessel.
"Think of it as bringing in the good air and sucking out the bad air," Burns said.
The concoction reaches temperatures pretty quickly, according to Burns and spends a minimum of 14 days in a tunnel, which is pretty fast composting.
"If you were composting out in the field, it takes a lot longer to get up and stay up to temperature to kill things like weed pathogens," Burns said.
The compost material stays between 150 and 155 degrees Fahrenheit for 72 hours in the tunnel to kill weed seeds and other pathogens. Once it rests at 155 degrees Fahrenheit it will begin to cool down through three temperature regimes and then workers can unload the compost onto the curing floor, which helps with the aging process.
"Each pile (of compost) has to maintain a certain moisture content to keep it active as compost and we keep sucking air out and adding water in," Burns said. "We roll the piles to add air and keep the piles active."
The curing floor will eventually fill to capacity in mid-August and have seven rows of compost sitting out, according to Burns.
Next, once the compost has spent a minimum of five weeks on the curing floor, it goes through two screening processes.
Compost facility staffers load the compost into a hopper, which feeds it up to a bivi-TEC machine, where the machine constantly vibrates along screen surfaces to separate the large material from the small in the screening process. Anything smaller than three-eights of an inch is shaken out from the compost mixture.
"A lot of big stuff like shampoo bottles and rocks gets hauled off to the landfill," Burns said.
An air classifier machine then suspends the light material from the heavy material, as it constantly shakes the compost material to get rid of obsidian sand and glass, which are then disposed of once they are sorted.
"We screen the compost twice and try to remove plastic particulates and glass as much as possible," Burns said.
The first screening process takes six to eight hours and the second screening can take up to two hours, to equal about 10 hours worth of screening.
The clean, finished compost is then stored in a bunker behind the compost facility, where it waits to be purchased.
The compost facility turns out an average of 20 vessels worth of compost per summer, equaling between 900 to 1,200 tons of final product that is "good compost" stored in the large bunker.
"This has a real earthy, natural smell compared to what it's made from," Burns said as he picked up a handful of finished compost, which initially started out as municipal solid waste before its transformational journey through a system of conveyors, mixing and sorting.
The compost facility has also tried a pilot program with Delaware North Companies and the West Yellowstone Holiday Inn to collect compostable material.
The Holiday Inn will bring in about 1,000 pounds of source sorted organic garbage, meaning the hotel staff sorts it themselves. That garbage consists of table and kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and leftover food each week during the summer season, according to Burns.
"Delaware North has taken the time to train staff and have garbage cans to separate compostable trash. We just add it directly to the four-auger mixer, conserving energy," he said. Delaware North receives a reduced tipping fee, the fee paid for dropping off trash at the facility, because they've already done the sorting.
Burns emphasized that Xanterra, the concessioner for Yellowstone National Park, Delaware North Companies and park staff have done an amazing job to reduce the amount of non-compostable materials that are received at the composting facility.
Delaware North Companies has also switched to cornstarch-based bottles that are compostable versus non-compostable plastic bottles.
"Some places in the park are also selling compostable plastic plates and not (selling) things that can't be composted," Burns said.
They've also stationed roll off bins in the park, which are big brown construction containers and trained staffers to put non-compostable materials in those dumpsters, to be directly hauled off to landfills.
"That has been a huge boost in efficiency in our screening process on the tipping floor. It really helps us all," Burns said.
Recyclables including tin, aluminum and plastics numbered one through seven, can be dropped off at the entrance of the composting facility, which shares the same complex as the West Yellowstone transfer station.
Burns also answers questions from the public and is more than happy to explain the magic process of turning trash into usable compost to help gardens and plants grow.
Curious folks can go through a tour of the compost facility as a part of the West Yellowstone Earth Day celebration weekend. Tours of the facility will be offered on Saturday, April 23 from 10 to 11:30 a.m.