Compost from Shells
Air Date: Week of June 9, 2000
Jeff Holden, owner of Portland Shellfish, has found a creative way of getting rid of more than five tons of shells his company produces every day. Matthew Algeo of Maine Public Radio has the story.
CURWOOD: If one person's trash is another person's treasure, then Jeff Holden has struck gold. Or as he calls it, gardener's gold. For years, Jeff Holden has been processing shellfish in Portland, Maine. These days he's also making fancy-grade compost from some of the state's most common byproducts: seashells and sawdust. As Maine Public Radio's Matthew Algeo reports, this new business began as a surprise.
ALGEO: Jeff Holden owns Portland Shellfish, a company that processes more than ten tons of crab, lobster, and shrimp daily. That's a lot of shellfish and a lot of shells.
ALGEO: Holden says Portland Shellfish generates five tons of shells every day. The shells are ground up and stored in giant tubs outside the plant.
HOLDEN: Got some claw shell here, some ground claw shell. And then some ground body shell here. And then, in that big tub there, we have some...
ALGEO: Shellfish processors have long considered shells the bane of their business. Some sell them to pet food companies. Others simply dump them, lawfully, at sea. For years Holden gave his shells to a potato farmer, who spread them on his crops. But Maine's Department of Environmental Protection put a stop to that last year. It turned out the farmer was storing the shells improperly. Instead of keeping them on an impervious surface, like concrete or asphalt, he was simply piling them in a field. Environmental officials feared nitrates from the decomposing shells might contaminate groundwater. So Jeff Holden had to find a new way to get rid of his shells, which were quickly piling up outside his plant.
HOLDEN: They attract vectors, seagulls, flies. Plus they smell. So it's something you have to get rid of quickly every day.
ALGEO: Holden did a little research. He found out shells, especially crab shells, can be used as an ingredient in compost, which farmers and gardeners use as an organic fertilizer. Crab shells contain a carbohydrate called chitin, which is a natural bug repellent. Soon Holden began thinking of his shells as an opportunity, not a problem. He contacted the same environmental officials who'd made him stop sending his shells to the potato farm, and asked them to help him set up a composting business.
WRIGHT: Composting can be great. It takes, you know, a smelly waste product and turns it into a highly-valuable soil amendment.
ALGEO: David Wright is with the State Department of Environmental Protection's Residuals Utilization Unit, which oversees commercial composting operations in Maine. He says it takes more than shells to make a good compost.
WRIGHT: You're looking for high-nitrogen material like a fish waste, and a high-carbon material like a sawdust. And you blend those together in a recipe.
ALGEO: Jeff Holden had no problem finding sawdust for his compost recipe.
ALGEO: He called the Saunders Mill in Westbrook, Maine. The mill takes raw logs and turns them into dowels and other wood products. Plant manager Bob Gregoir says the company turns out about 50 tons of sawdust and wood shavings every day.
GREGOIR: You know, we used to call our sawdust waste product and now we call it fuel. We call it a marketable shaving. It's got some use somewhere.
ALGEO: Gregoir says Saunders sells its sawdust to several companies besides Portland Shellfish. He says it's used as everything from animal bedding to an absorbent to clean up spills. Using some sawdust from the Saunders Mill, his own shells, and a pinch of leaves and grass clippings from nearby towns, Jeff Holden has created a compost that is, in his estimation anyway, the top of the line. He calls it Gardener's Gold, and he's so proud of it he keeps a pile of it under a giant tarp outside his office.
HOLDEN: So you can see little bits of crab in it. Little bits of shell.
ALGEO: Holden has just started selling the compost in local Maine stores. He's building a full-scale composting operation, and he hopes to distribute the product all along the East Coast. It's a business he never expected to get into.
HOLDEN: Initially, we got into it just for a way to get rid of our shells. And the more I learned about composting and the more I learned about the properties of the shells, then the rest of the business came along after that.
ALGEO: Given its abundance of sea shells and sawdust, Maine is poised to become the country's biggest compost-producing state. A company called Coast of Maine has been distributing a premium compost in New England for four years. Their recipe includes mussel shells and fermented salmon. Tom Esterbrook runs a nursery in Yarmouth, Maine. He says most of his customers prefer to use a home-grown compost.
ESTERBROOK: "Because it is made from a product that's here in Maine, that is basically a waste product of the fishing industry, which means a lot to us. If we have customers that are, you know, resistant to it, we say, well, try a bag with the plant. And when the plant does better then the others that they planted, you know, they come back and they buy more.
ALGEO: And environmental official David Wright says Maine's compost is already highly-regarded among farmers and gardeners outside the state as well.
WRIGHT: It's really become a product that people seek out. People like the fact that Maine has a clean environment, and that these materials are being recycled, and are anxious to buy compost products from the state of Maine.
ALGEO: Wright hopes Maine compost will soon be available from coast to coast. For Living on Earth, I'm Matthew Algeo in Portland, Maine.
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