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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Wisconsin Team Puts 'Compostable' Cups To The Test

Susan Bence
Some of the people partnering to try to expand composting (left to right) Blue Ribbon Organics' James Jutrzonka, Compost Crusader Melissa Tashjian along with Terri Holzen & Justin Gallion with Milwaukee Area Science Advocates.

The EPA estimates that more food ends up in landfills than any other category of waste. Efforts are underway to tip the tide in Wisconsin. Some people have created their own compost systems at home, others compost through neighborhood gardens. Melissa Tashjian, however, wants to reach a wider audience.

Her composting journey started a decade ago when she spearheaded a small, volunteer-driven operation in Bay View. Tashjian moved on to create Compost Crusader. Her three-truck operation picks up food scraps from businesses, schools, homes and restaurants scattered through the greater Milwaukee area. Last year that amounted to nearly 3 million tons of compost.

READ: Milwaukee Pilots Home Compost Pick-Up

Beerline Café in Milwaukee contributes several hundred pounds a week.

"All of the food waste from the kitchen that we generate preparing the food, along with paper, cardboard and coffee grounds [is composted]," owner Michael Allen says in the dining room. "We have bins for the customers to scrape their plates when they’re done right into the bin."

Credit Michael Allen
Beerline Cafe customers help fuel the compost stream.

Compost Crusader delivers the food waste to Blue Ribbon Organics, a family business located just south of 7 Mile Road, off Interstate 94.

"We can compost up to 40,000 cubic yards of yard waste a year and 10,000 yards of food waste a year. The yard waste all goes through a grinder that sizes it into really small pieces," Blue Ribbon Organic's James Jutrzonka explains.

He and his family combine the yard and food waste, creating huge piles called wind rows. As they break down, the piles are monitored and turned, until they’re ready for landscapers and other customers.

READ: Turning Milwaukee's Waste into 'Black Gold,' aka Compost

Business is humming nicely, but both Jutrzonka and Compost Crusader's Melissa Tashjian are eager to see what other products could be broken down into compost — instead of heading to the landfill.

Credit Melissa Tashjian
A couple of the compostable items that will be tested at Blue Ribbon Organics to determine how quickly they break down and how they impact the quality of the finished product.

They decided to study how long it takes for things like take-out containers, utensils and cups that are advertised as being compostable to break down, and whether they result in high-quality compost.

Tashjian says they need proof that composting those items works and is safe. "There’s a lot of unknowns with these compostable products ... We’ve been wanting to conduct an experiment for a longtime," she adds.

That's where Milwaukee Area Science Advocates come in. They are monitoring the decomposition process. "Our finished product will [then] be tested by UW-Madison and then we’ll probably send it out to some other certified lab that does compost analysis," Jutrzonka explains.

Tashjian has ambitious aspirations for the project. "We’re trying to set ourselves up so in the long run [so that] we can handle institutions like the Milwaukee Bucks who have compostable cups," she says.

Tashjian admits she’s aiming high, but says right now there’s plenty of work to be done. A volunteer group called Plastic Free MKE has offered its help get the word out once the test is complete later this year.

Tashjian says the group is gaining traction, and believes that’s a sign that people want to find solutions.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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