The city of Missoula, Mont., purchased EKO Compost in November 2016. You could say it is now organically reaping the rewards of this investment in more ways than one.
Gene Connell, who acts as the treatment facility superintendent in the city’s wastewater division, has been with the facility for nearly three decades. He said the move was strategic on the part of the city. EKO Compost was a privately owned public facility adjacent to their operations. They had been the contracted disposal method for biosolids since the ’70s.
When the owner retired, he gave first priority to the city to purchase the assets. According to Connell, the city — which has a population of about 73,000 — saw the purchase as a practical public works investment.
“We now use the composting operation as a part of the wastewater treatment process,” he explained. “It processes our initial biosolids into Class A composting available to the public and landscapers and such.”
To that end — through Garden City Compost — Missoula is providing a valuable public service year-round. What does that return on investment look like?
“Our estimated production of classic compost is about 24,000 cubic yards per year,” he said. “And the city of Missoula generates about 2,200 dry metric tons of biosolids, mixed with municipal community green waste, such as lawn trimmings, tree branches, etc. So that’s diverted from the landfill. Under normal circumstances, that stuff would go to the landfill. We’re able to convert that material into compost. We probably divert around 40,000 cubic yards a year of green waste to become part of the composting process.”
Connell is quick to give credit when credit is due. He said the amount of waste being diverted from the landfill has increased with the help of the public and local businesses in the region. Whether it’s used in a residential garden or for commercial purchases, it’s known that the organic material in and of itself yields many benefits across the board, such as cost savings, improved soil quality and reduced carbon footprint.
To that end, Connell said the public seems to be aware of the merits and they’ve responded favorably. This is especially encouraging when mistrust and cynicism of government can get in the way of progress at the municipal level.
“It’s gratifying that the public has come around to really appreciate the composting operation,” he said. “We’ve put a lot of capital into it and cleaned it up. And our sales have increased every year since we started to manage the operation.”
Speaking of money, Connell said the city was previously paying EKO Compost about half a million dollars annually to dispose of biosolids. Now that it doesn’t have that line item in the budget, the city can use that money to fund operating expenses.
“Our goal is to run the operation at net zero, and we have been achieving that,” he said. “We’re breaking even on composting sales.”
Despite the program’s success, Connell said it hasn’t come without challenges — especially in the early days. For one, there were some compliance issues associated with EKO Compost, which soured its reputation with the community. So, the city had to do some work on its end to ensure the odor was controlled. From the outset, it made an investment in capital expenditures to do just that.
According to Connell, they were able to address the pervasive not-in-my-backyard sentiment local governments often face from citizens.
“You know, people will tolerate a certain amount … of smell,” he said. “But once people get angry, they break this certain threshold and will speak up. For example, there were periods of time where we would get hundreds of complaint calls. But right now, we receive maybe five per year total for our wastewater treatment plant and composting facility.”
Beyond keeping the public happy, Connell said local governments looking to take on a similar undertaking need to take a calculated approach in order to succeed. “Develop an engineered system properly and maximize the efficiencies in material handling so you don’t have to move material more than once to come up with a nice engineered system that is as efficient as possible,” he said. “That gives you every advantage to lower costs, and it makes the operation viable.”