Published on 10/28/98

'Douglas Natural Pride' a Brilliant Waste Solution

Like many cities, Douglas, Ga., had a problem with solid waste. What's different in Douglas is that people now are standing in line to take it away.

"Douglas Natural Pride" is the compost that's fast gaining a reputation in area nurseries, farms and gardens.

"I used it to put in a new day lily bed," said city manager Danny Lewis. "I separated the day lilies, cut the stalks back to 2 inches and planted them in the new bed. A week later they were 11 to 15 inches tall."

Lewis made sure every nursery around got all of the compost they could use. "They all say it's the best stuff they've ever used," he said.

The word spread fast. "We're having to be a little selective now when we give it away," Lewis said. "We don't want to be caught without any for the next people who come by."

The Douglas story is like something out of Tom Sawyer. The compost people are clamoring to get is made of two things they were eager to get rid of a few weeks before.

It's made of yard trimmings - pine straw, leaves, grass clippings, limbs - and dewatered biosolids, or sludge, from the city's waste treatment plant.

The south Georgia city of 14,000 generates about 35 tons of yard trimmings daily. City officials knew that figure was high. But nothing had helped reduce it.

They'd tried an exhaustive campaign to get people into backyard composting. "We reduced yard trimmings by less than 5 percent," Lewis said.

The city solved the problem first by contracting with a private firm to grind yard trimmings into mulch.

"As the process evolved, people began requesting the mulch," Lewis said. "We began loading trucks and trailers on Saturday mornings at no charge."

That got rid of about half of the mulch. The city tried to use the rest in public projects. But they still had a surplus.

City officials had worked closely with the University of Georgia Extension Service office in educating people about composting and using mulch. In April 1997, they contracted with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences to prepare a composting plan.

UGA engineer K.C. Das came up with a recipe to combine the ground yard trimmings with the 9 to 11 daily tons of municipal waste in a seven-week composting process.

The city got a $200,000 Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority grant that covered all but $68,000 of the startup costs.

"The funds for GEFA grants vary from year to year. But it's something local officials need to keep an eye on," said UGA engineer Mark Risse, who helped Douglas get the grant.

"GEFA also offers low-interest loans for this type of project," he said. "It's usually about a 3 percent loan. That can make these things a lot more feasible."

Lewis said Coffee County extension agents Rick Reed and Randy Roberts worked with Glen Harris, a UGA crop and soil scientist in Tifton, Ga., with the local hands-on work.

"They were champions," Lewis said. "We could not have done this without the University of Georgia folks."

Harris said the compost has about a half-percent of nitrogen, phosphate and potash. But its best value isn't its fertility. "We have a lot of low- organic-matter soils down here that can really benefit from this compost as a soil amendment," he said.

The product has no unpleasant odor, and the weed seeds in the yard trimmings are killed in the composting. Best of all, it's a process other towns and cities could use, too.

"I really think a lot of towns could do this," Harris said. "The things the Douglas folks did so well is they went at it as a low- cost process and were just determined to make it work."

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.