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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Supermarket Compost

Air Date: Week of

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A grocery store in New Hampshire is using a super-sized compost system to turn its waste food into fertilizer. Dan Gorenstein reports.


CURWOOD: Each week, the typical supermarket generates 15 tons of waste that winds up in the local landfill or incinerator. But in New Hampshire, one supermarket chain is testing a new technology to turn most of their organic waste into profitable compost, and it’s saving thousands of dollars in the process.

From New Hampshire Public Radio, Dan Gorenstein reports.

GORENSTEIN: Back behind the produce department, behind the deli, behind the bakery, a Hannaford Brothers employee sorts unsellable food. He cuts through items like plastic bags of frozen French fries and cartons of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The food packaging is destined for the trash compactor, but the food itself is thrown into a wax-corrugated box.

Until recently, the store never sorted their trash. But that was before the Super C3. That’s the formal name for the store’s in-house composting system, but Hannaford employees call it Zola. That’s Greek for “ball of earth”.

BROWN: Hannaford wanted to have an everyday user name that was very easy and user-friendly.

GORENSTEIN: Ted Brown is Hannaford Brothers’ Environmental Affairs Manager. He spearheaded the effort to bring the new technology to the store. Each week, Zola turns seven tons of waste into compost. Here’s how:

The employee loads a box full of food waste onto a conveyor belt that carries it to a shredder. Paul Kerouac conceived of the Super C3 and runs Nature’s Soil, the company that sells the system.


KEROUAC: And the shredder slices everything to about the size of a piece of paper, but as thin as a piece of paper. The product goes through the shredder and then is auger-fed into this stainless steel drum.

GORENSTEIN: The drum is where the waste is transformed. It’s 40 feet long, eight feet wide, and can hold up to seven tons of material. Housed in a park-bench green container, it sits outside at the back of the store. Inside, there are three separate barrels.

KEROUAC: The product falls into the first barrel, and inside the first barrel we have the active bacteria already in there.

GORENSTEIN: Just like a simple backyard composter, the Super C3 uses bacteria to break down the waste, but the system here is considerably more high-tech, complete with a computer.

KEROUAC: The computer on board can control the moisture and the temperature and the oxygen, so this is the proper atmosphere for organic food waste to break down into another form.

GORENSTEIN: Kerouac says the computer controls the temperature inside the drum by occasionally signaling it to rotate. It’s kept at 131 degrees, hot enough to kill dangerous bacteria like e-coli, but cool enough to preserve the useful microbes. And after about a week, the waste is removed from the third, final compartment.


GORENSTEIN: Kerouac opens the drum door and loads some of the finished product into a bucket.

KEROUAC: You see these little, tiny balls, about an eighth of an inch and sixteenth of an inch in size? They look like little--like dirt, if you will. Just take a whiff of that if you will, smell that. What do you smell?

GORENSTEIN: It’s not a foul or a strong odor or anything.

KEROUAC: It’s like a more earthy smell.

GORENSTEIN: It’s not quite earthy, but definitely better than the odor that comes from grocery store dumpsters. The company says once it has enough of the compost material on hand, it plans on packaging and selling it as fertilizer at its stores. Hannaford’s Ted Brown says this system makes for good business. A Super C3 costs about $185,000. Brown says when compared to the cost of the usual way of disposing of garbage, the composter should pay for itself in about three years.

BROWN: You have to look beyond, and include all of the cost, which not only is the cost of the composter, which is a capital cost, but you also have to consider the tipping fee, the hauling fee, and those fees become a significant cost of doing business. Here in southern New Hampshire, particularly, and many other New England states, the cost of waste disposal has gone way beyond what would be considered a reasonable cost.

GORENSTEIN: But in other parts of the country, like the Midwest and South, where landfill fees are not as expensive, a system like the Super C3 may not be as attractive. Despite the economic sense it made to Hannaford Brothers, it didn’t necessarily make sense, at first anyway, to the company’s employees.

Mike Emory manages the produce department for the Nashua store. He doesn’t recycle at home, which could be the reason why his kids are so excited their dad has to at work.

EMORY: And they certainly are more into the “save the earth” than I am, and they’re loving this. No, they think it’s a great idea. And you know, I’m kind of in the converted file, because I thought it was a lot easier to just open that door and throw the stuff in there.

GORENSTEIN: Kerouac says his system comes closest to being what Emory is used to: opening the door and throwing the stuff out. And there are other conveniences. For instance, while one batch of waste is being broken down in the final compartment, a new one can be loaded in at the front end.

Kerouac says his company is designing a municipal size composter that could process one thousand tons of waste a day. And there’s also a plan to develop, what he calls, a home composting vessel

For Living on Earth, I’m Dan Gorenstein in Nashua, New Hampshire.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for coverage of western issues.



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