The Iowa City site is one of the few turning food scraps into compost

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Jennifer Jordan walks to a 250-foot compost mound on a sunny morning at the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center.

She tosses it with a thermometer and smiles as the gauge climbs to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, nearly 70 notches above the outside temperature.

“Isn’t that so cool?” marvels Jordan, the city’s superintendent of resource management. “It’s the process. It’s Mother Nature.

The pile is made up of food scraps, such as eggshells and banana peels, and garden waste, such as dead wood and mowed grass. But it doesn’t stink. Even in winter, the accelerated process of natural decomposition generates enough heat to convert what were once the remains of Johnson County residents into rich soil.

But the city lacks the space to transform the 11,500 tonnes of green and food waste it collects each year into land. It’s one of two large-scale compost sites in Iowa that accept food, even though food scraps make up 20 percent of the state’s waste stream.

That means Iowans send about 556,313 tons of compostable food to landfills each year, according to the most recent estimates. Not only does it take up space and stink up the air, but it also generates methane, a greenhouse gas.

But even if more Iowans decided to sort their food waste, the state’s current composting infrastructure wouldn’t be able to handle it.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports that only six facilities are licensed by the state to accept more than two tons of compost per week, and two of them accept food scraps. Another 77 sites process compost – not necessarily including food – but cannot cross the two-tonne weekly threshold.

None of this is new to Jennifer Trent, program manager at the Iowa Waste Reduction Center. She is also Vice President of the US Composting Council.

“When I started looking for ways to divert food from the landfill through composting (in Iowa), I noticed a huge deficit. But it seemed so easy for a municipality to start something,” she said. “And I found out that it’s definitely not the fruit at hand, it’s clear at the top of the tree, and that’s a problem that we have to solve.”

Iowa passed a law preventing yard waste from ending up in landfills in 1991 and, as a result, started a checkerboard of yard waste composting programs.

Only eight states have laws in place to prevent food waste from ending up in landfills, according to the US Composting Council.

Trent said that when she started targeting food waste reduction with the IWR about 10 years ago, she discovered that the average person was unaware of food waste composting and its implications for the climate.

That has now changed, she says, although there is work to be done.

“People are learning about it, people are hearing about it, and I think all it takes is educational awareness to make a difference,” she said.

Staff at the Iowa City compost site take the temperature of the piles twice a week to make sure they are warm enough for microorganisms to break down the material and kill pathogens.

If the temperature reaches 185 degrees Fahrenheit, they spread out the waste to cool it; when it is too hot and dry, it can catch fire. They also need to check oxygen levels every month and “turn” the heaps – basically stirring them around so they cook evenly like dinner in the slow cooker.

The mounds range from light brown to dark brown depending on their stage in the process. It is a powerful demonstration of nature. Jordan remembers a call from nearby Coralville hoping to get rid of a truckload of dead fish. Once they received a tank truck loaded with rotten eggs.

In both cases, they were successfully composted.

The whole process takes about a year. Upon completion, the fertile soil is checked for safe levels of ammonia and carbon dioxide. It is sold for $20 per ton, or one cent per pound. On average, the center sells 2,600 tons per year.

Theresa Stiner, senior environmental scientist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the agency wants to encourage composting, but at the same time “protect the environment where it happens.”

Runoff from poorly managed composting facilities can endanger the environment; the soil resulting from the process must be safe to use.

A large composting facility in Eddyville closed last summer after violating several permit regulations, including allowing runoff to enter the ground. Residents complained of not being able to open their windows or spend time outdoors because of the smell, according to local media coverage.

Trent, with the IWR, said the facility “smelled like heaven” and as a result damaged the reputation of composting in the area.

“I started getting phone calls all the time from companies and businesses looking for somewhere to send their food waste, and all I had to do was tell them there is no had nowhere. Everything is buried again,” she said.

Trent would like to see the two-tonne composting limit increased so that it’s easier to open and grow composting businesses – still with environmental protections listed. As things stand, the process of obtaining a permit to exceed that threshold is costly and time-consuming, she says.

Plans are underway to review state regulations, Stiner said.

The DNR has received a number of requests for waivers from the current regulations, Stiner said, indicating it might be time for an update. This means someone is asking to circumvent a regulation, assuming they can prove they won’t harm the environment in the process.

“(The regulations) just need to be updated with what other states are doing and the current state of composting,” she said.

Other states allow more curbside programs and industrial-scale composting facilities, while Iowa City’s program is rare for the state.

The first half of the process means spending months working internally to draft updated regulations, she said.

Then, a nine-month formal process begins. That includes getting approval from the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, a nine-person board appointed by the governor. The updates would also be presented to the Administrative Rules Review Committee within the Iowa Legislature.

Kaveh Mostafavi is CEO of Compost Ninja, a private company in Iowa. He sought to obtain a permit for a large-scale composting facility, but decided it was too expensive.

The company collects food scraps for composting in Des Moines, but with no local option to bring them, brings the waste back to Iowa City. He said he hopes to invest in electric vehicles to reduce environmental impact.

“We’re super lucky to have the Iowa City landfill picking up leftover food,” he said. “They have the most nutritious and amazing compost in the end. But at the end of the day, the infrastructure doesn’t exist to do this at scale.

The Iowa City Composting Site was granted a permit to go beyond two tons per week in the late 2000s. This happened after a group of University of Iowa students lobbied for a food waste composting program and worked with the city and university to test how it might work.

As a result, the city launched a “curbside” program in 2017 to make it easier for the average citizen to compost food waste. People living in single family homes or quadruplexes can request a 25 or 95 gallon compost bin to accompany their recycling and garbage pickup for an additional $2 per month.

About half of the city’s households participate, Jordan said.

In addition, the $45 to $50 per tonne fee to “dump” garbage into the landfill goes to the composting program. In other words, as the composting program continues to grow, it loses money.

The city is figuring out how to expand its composting space, knowing that it is already running out.

And that there is more to collect.