Crozet Great Valu Goes Green

Eric Walter of Black Bear Composting
Eric Walter of Black Bear Composting

A trash truck used to pull up to the Crozet Great Valu grocery store every day to empty a dumpster full of refuse. Now it comes once or twice a week to empty two ordinary residential trash carts. CGV has figured out how to recycle virtually all the trash it creates.

“Eighty-five to 90 percent of the store’s cardboard is now being recycled,” said store owner Jean Wagner, “baled up and sent back to the store’s main distributor, Supervalu, in Richmond. It’s hard to find someone who will take the waxed boxes that some produce comes in because it’s iced down. All the organics are first taken out. The plastics are taken out and recycled. It doesn’t necessarily pay for us to do it, but we want to do it because it’s the right thing.”

That just leaves a small container of refuse that Bootsie Sandridge of Sandridge Disposal comes for. He’s been hauling CGV’s trash away, “since the beginning of time,” Wagner said. Those really are the old days now.

One important part of the trash-cutting success has been Crozet-based Eric Walter’s Black Bear Composting company, which collects meat and other organic scraps from the store for its composting operation in Crimora, in Augusta County.

Walter started up Black Bear Composting after he moved to Crozet—he’s from Virginia originally—from Chicago four years ago.

“We focus on recycling food waste,” he said. He’s hauling away from the Charlottesville and Albemarle county school cafeterias, too (but only from Meriwether Lewis Elementary in the Western Feeder Pattern).

“The organic material goes into compostable bags and we pick those up twice a week,” said Walter. “We swap out the container when we pick up. Every aspect of the operation is sanitary. We run a clean ship.

“When I started with Jean, everything was going to the landfill. About 65 percent of her trash was cardboard. Now it’s down to just a couple of carts.” CGV leased a cardboard compacting machine to take care of the cardboard problem.

“We got a check for $400 from Supervalu for the cardboard we’ve sent them since Christmas,” said Wagner. “It’s not much, but it was costing us more before. Now the only thing we don’t recycle is the trash that is swept up off the floor. We’ve only gone to twice-a-week trash pick-up because the weather has warmed up.”

“CGV is doing this because they see the value in it,” said Walters, whose charge is less than that of trash haulers.

“By composting, you break down organics aerobically [in the air] and you don’t create methane, as you do by putting organics in the landfill. Methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A container from CGV will have meat scraps, bread and vegetables, anything but packaging.”

Some of the produce department’s scraps, parts cleaned off the produce before is put out for sale, are being picked up separately by local hog and chicken farmers, too.

Walter’s operation in Crimora is on 47 acres and is fully licensed by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. It has boundary buffers to prevent any potential aromas from reaching neighbors. Walter has two employees. In April, the operation gathered a total of 80 tons of organic waste in the area.

“First we weigh it in order to track data,” said Walter. “Then we remove any trash. Then we mix it with carbon sources, wood chips and leaves. The recipe I’m using now is two bins of wood chips and two bins of leaves for each bin of waste.”

The mix is laid out in windrows about 200 feet long, eight feet wide and about five feet high. The rows are under a textile cover. “We need to control rain water to make the composting work,” said Walters.

The decomposition process takes six months. In the first two months, the windrows are turned constantly. Samples of the compost are regularly sent away to labs for analysis. “You have to keep the compost over 130 degrees for 15 days to get the pathogens out of it,” Walters explained. After lab tests show the compost is clean, the state no longer regards it as waste. Then there’s four more months in what he called the “curing” phase.

“We let it mature. It lets the windrow homogenize and break down more. Then we screen it and it comes out as a moist powder. Then we deliver it by dump truck, six or seven cubic yards to the load. Our biggest customers are local farms that don’t have enough land to let it go fallow, so they want to apply compost. They’re getting great results with it. We’re trying to support the local farms that are supplying local foods to our local restaurants.”

The compost goes for $25 per yard, plus delivery, so a load to Crozet costs about $200.

“I’m the only one around here focusing on recycling food waste,” said Walters. “This is old news in California. Even New York City is getting into composting now. Schools doing it is great because it’s fantastic for the kids to see it happening. They get it faster than some adults do and they love it.”

For now Black Bear’s business is mostly other businesses, but Walter is getting ready to roll out a residential program for Crozet. “We’re starting here. We’ll carry away all your organics in a five-gallon bucket, or we’ll give you a trash cart if you want to add your grass clippings in.”

Black Bear Composting is standing up as a key cog in the local food movement.