While many Midcoast households turn food waste into fertile soil through composting, two companies with roots in the community are turning compost and plant products into large scale business.

Union startup hopes to serve community composting needs

In Union, Compost Maine LLC received a $8,830 grant from the Maine Technology Institute to develop municipal and commercial scale composting services using specific in‐vessel composting technology. Compost Maine will match the grant with $14,618.

Compost Maine is in contract negotiations with municipalities and companies and is planning three or four facilities in the state, and will manufacture its first set of composting bins. He said the technology that the vessels use was originally developed 20 years ago in Ohio.

“The purpose of the grant is to do a test to collect data for design criteria and to appease the Department of Environmental Protection,” Palmer said. “They don’t understand what we’re doing.”

“What we’ve developed is an incubator for microbes,” he said. “It’s a fairly elaborate process. We can compost very quickly and generate a lot of useable heat.”

He said Compost Maine would not be selling equipment, but would provide a service to large institutions such as schools, industries, hospitals and municipalities.

Palmer said the new technology would use source separated organics — food waste and soiled paper products that are separated before entering the waste stream. Compostable waste that had already been commingled with other trash could not be used, he said, adding that items such as lobster shells from shellfish processors would work well with the technology.

“When we come to a town we will start at the industrial level, with school and hospital cafeterias — any large singe source — because those are easiest to educate,”Palmer said. He said towns that use financial incentives, such as per-bag fees, to get homeowners to separate waste will benefit from the new system.

Communities such as Rockland, where residents pay for waste disposal through property taxes and automobile sticker fees, have no such incentive, he said.

At the Mid-Coast Solid Waste facility in Rockport, users pay $1.50 for each bag they throw out, he said. Palmer suggested that a lower fee for a compostable bag that would be used in Compost Maine’s system would help households save money.

“If we set up at MCSW the waste would come directly to us thereby reducing MCSW’s cost of handing material which we project at 1,000 tons a year,” Palmer said. He said costs there could be substantially reduced.

Palmer said he was in talks with local restaurants to design a service that would pick up compostable waste at their locations on a regular basis.

Once the waste has been turned into compost, Palmer said, his company plans to market it.

“We can organically engineer designer compost that will directly compete with fertilizer companies,” Palmer said. “We can mange the process in such a way that we can get similar nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium values.” Palmer said he hoped to have the facility in Madison up and running and to be providing services in the Midcoast by the end of summer.

Waldoboro company uses seaweed to improve stress tolerance

Ocean Organics in Waldoboro processes rockweed, or bladderwort, to make liquid and granulated products that use nutrients and hormones which, according to George Seaver, tap into natural mechanisms that are part of the way plants evolve.

According to the Web site at oceanorganics.com, the seaweeds contain high concentrations of cytokinins.

“In seaplants, cytokinins play key roles in boosting stress tolerance and survival potential under a wide variety of conditions.” the Web site states. “In land plants, cytokinins are critical to plant survival under extreme cultural and environmental stresses.”

Founded in 1991, as a spin off of Atlantic Laboratories, Ocean Organics specializes in golf course products. Seaver is part owner of the company whose majority owners are based in Michigan.

“They own the line we manufacture and ship it to distributors who sell it to golf courses,” Seaver said. “In the past few years we’ve started to move back into agricultural products.” Locally they sell their products to landscape companies.

“When you process rockweed in certain ways you get hormones that, in very small amounts, effect how plants grow and how stress tolerant they are,” he said. “You don’t need anywhere near as much fertilizer if you use these clever, efficient ones.”

He said the rockweed-based products cut back on the need for petroleum-based chemicals and reduce runoff and groundwater contamination, because less fertilizer is needed.

Seaver said that three companies harvest rockweed in Maine and the seaweed used at Ocean Organics is locally harvested.

He said that research at the University of Maine showed that about 40 percent of the rockweed along Maine’s coast dies in any given year due to wave action and ice breakage. Sea urchins and other predators account for a small amount of seaweed loss on the coast, Seaver said. He said nature replenishes this loss every year.

“When they harvest, even in Cobscook Bay, which is a relatively confined area, they don’t take more than 5 percent,” Seaver said. He said the harvest was like mowing a lawn, but not as frequent, and that proper harvesting leaves the plant’s holdfast, which connects it to the rocks that give the seaweed its name. This is accomplished with with a rake and cutter, or by using a vacuum harvesting machine that lifts the seaweed off the rock and cuts it above the holdfast.

Seaver said most of the animals that live in rockweed are down near the holdfast when the floating seaweed is harvested and that most of what remains is shaken loose and falls out in handling, before the rockweed comes ashore.

He said the Maine Seaweed Council is a self-regulating association of about 20 members including researchers, harvesters, processors and other interested parties.

Seaver said the compounds made at Ocean Organics increase the heat and drought resistance of the grasses used on golf courses.

“They influence how the plant makes its decisions,” Seaver said. “If you apply these to agricultural crops you can get more yield.” He said treated plants were more environmentally tolerant.

“Without getting into a debate about climate change, it seems like there have been a lot of crop failures recently,” he said.

Seaver said the United States was not a leader in creating the types of product made at the Waldoboro facility and that Norway, Iceland, Ireland, Great Britain and Canada have all been working with rockweed, which only grows along the North Atlantic shore.

In addition to rockweed, Ocean Organics uses fish and other organic meals and extracts its purchases for specific applications.

“Most of our business in the past 20 years has been with golf courses,” Seaver said. “We’re moving more and more toward agricultural applications.” He said that Ocean Organics’ products were already in use in Aroostook County.

“We’re selling our extracts to people who make fertilizers that go all over the country,” he said.

The Herald Gazette reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.