Caitlin Cummins doesn’t mind rotting things.
In fact, she has a sort of symbiotic passion for decomposing organic material.
A 2014 graduate of East Carolina University, Cummins is on a quest to make Grenville greener by transforming food waste into quality compost, then marketing the nutrient-dense end product.
Two years ago, while working on her masters degree with Green Mountain College in Vermont, Cummins quickly realized composting was as much a way of life for Vermonters as was eating.
“Everybody composts there,” she said.
In fact, after July 1, a state law will ban food scraps and yard debris from Vermont’s household trash.
“Its not something that is very popular down here and I knew eventually it would become a part of our everyday life,” she said. “I figured it was a good thing to worry about.”
Originally from Oxford, Cummins moved to Greenville in 2010 to attend ECU where she received her undergraduate degree in nutrition science, nurturing her interest in food sustainability.
Later, while obtaining her graduate degree in sustainable food systems at Green Mountain, she decided to do her thesis on composting.
She realized discarded food, with time and care, can take on a second life as it decomposes — resurrecting into a nutrient-rich soil, which otherwise would be lost to a landfill.
According to some experts, up to 40 percent of household trash is compostable food and yard debris.
“The goal of my project was to increase the life of landfills and reduce the loss of renewable resources," Cummins said. "The objective was to complete a feasibility study for the processing of organic food waste from East Carolina University dining facilities."
Over the past year, Cummins has been working with a team of ECU students creating a business plan for marketing and selling compost.
“We started with marketing and kind of worked backwards, toward production,” she said. “I brought the composting aspect to it and they brought the marketing, so we met in the middle.”
Through ECU’s iCorps program, a free program offered as a result of a partnership between ECU and NCIdea (a program that encourages entrepreneurship), Cummins’ team won recognition and some grant money to get stated on a pilot program to turn discarded food from the university’s cafeterias in compost.
“Developing an operational model for a composting facility in Pitt County began under the support of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (iCorps) grant program," she said. "This program walked me through the construction of a business canvas model.
"The iCorps program consisted of a 2-day boot camp, and then weekly sessions every Friday afternoon for several weeks," Cummins said. "Each week we worked through the building blocks that make up the business canvas model. Each building block was evaluated for the front end of the business (the food waste input), and the back end of the business (the end user of the compost).
“There is currently no infrastructure or hauling capabilities within a 50-mile radius that could serve the needs of a food waste composting operation for the amount of food waste generated by the ECU dining halls,” she said.
Cummins’ project also is being funded through a grant with the microenterprise program at East Carolina University, “a multidisciplinary strategy that brings together teams of students and industry mentors to support regional business development,” according to the school’s the website.
“The whole point of this grant is to retain students in the community by helping them to start small businesses,” Cummins said.
Pitt County Commissioners set the composting program into motion with a recent vote. By unanimously approving a two-acre plot at the Pitt County Transfer Station, food piles collected by Cummins’ and her team now have a home on which to decompose, eventually becoming compost.
John Demary, director of Pitt County solid waste and recycling, has wanted to see a composting facility in Pitt County for a long time, but knew he did not have enough staff to operate one.
“To make money off of compost, it has to be certified and it has to meet certain standards. It is something you have to stay on top of if you want to produce a good product you can sell,” he said.
Demary was excited when ECU approached him about the program.
“We are starting out slow, which should help. We need to make sure how it is going to work — there is a learning curve,” he added.
Demary said one of the advantages of composting is saving the county money by keeping the heaviest trash out of landfills.
“We are a transfer station, which means we pay to transfer our trash to other landfills,” he said. “Food waste is heavy. If you do a waste analysis of any place that serves food — the hospital, schools, restaurants — the highest commodity by weight (not volume) is food,” he said.
Not only will it save the county money, in the long run, it will save businesses money, Demary said.
“If the program work likes it supposed to — and food waste is separated before it comes to the transfer station — it will eventually become cheaper to compost then send it to the landfill,” he added.
The benefits of composting go beyond saving money and saving the environment by not filling up landfills. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, composting enriches soil, helps soil retain moisture, suppresses plant diseases and pests. It also reduces the need for artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides.
When the pilot program ends in approximately in six months, Cummins will take over the composting business as her own private company, a thought that thrills her and concerns her.
She realizes she will have to secure venture capital in the beginning. But, she said the timing for this could not have been better.
“I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do when I graduated. But I knew I wanted to impact my community somehow,” she said. “I essentially wanted to find a problem and be the solution.”
Cummins knows of only a handful of composting sites in North Carolina, “and none are servicing this area,” she said. Cummins plans to change that with her enterprise.
Eventually, she wants to service restaurants, large businesses and, one day, residents of Pitt County.
Cummins envisions a curbside compost pickup service. Once the waste is composted, which can take anywhere from two to six months, she plans to bag and sell the nutrient-rich product — some gardeners describe as black gold — under the name Terra Bella Compost. She will market her product to local nurseries, landscapers, farmers and homeowners.
“A new composting business will offer a service that is not currently available to the Pitt County region," she said. "It will enable businesses, and eventually homeowners, to become more environmentally conscious by diverting their waste from the landfill, and it will make the community as a whole more sustainable."
Cummins knows she has been given the opportunity of a lifetime.
“All the stars just kind of aligned. This is all my passions blended together,” she said. “This project has encouraged me to make valuable, lifelong connections, become an entrepreneur and make a positive mark on my community.”
The plan is to start with “pre-consumer food waste” — such as vegetable clippings — from ECU’s two campus dining halls, Todd and West End. Pre-consumer food waste is unlike post-consumer waste, which may contain animal fats and dairy. According to Cummins, this type of waste takes longer to break down.
Cummins, along with five interns soon will begin picking up food from the facilities two days a week.
“The cafeteria food service (Aramark) has agreed to provide us with 10 bins,” she said. The food scraps will be loaded onto a box truck ECU is providing, then taken to the transfer station and dumped in the designated area for composting.
Then, for the waste to become compost, Cummins said it will need a recipe of air, moisture, heat, nitrogen and carbon. These ingredients will be provided by the following:
- Air: Perforated PCV pipes will circulate air into the compost, eliminating the need to “turn” the compost so it can receive oxygen. Cummins said this type of composting system, Aerated Static Pile saves labor and is safer.
- Moisture: Moisture will come from the food itself, which is, by nature, wet, she said.
- Heat: As the waste decomposes, heat builds up inside the piles and she said temperatures can reach well over 105 degrees “We will try and keep it under 145 degrees,” Cummins said.
- Nitrogen and carbon: The transfer station will provide the needed nitrogen and carbon sources, which is a win-win for both Cummins and the county. Waste-mulch collected by the county, such as grass clippings and leaves, will be mixed in with the food waste.