Happy Trash Can Curbside

Students learn about composting on Tuesday, May 2, during a tour of the Happy Trash Can Curbside composting facility.

“We’re going to the dump!” Professor Mary Stein announced as students from her sustainable foods and bio energy systems class boarded a bus to the Happy Trash Can Curbside Composting facility on Tuesday afternoon. The field trip provided students with a unique opportunity to explore the final destination for most of MSU’s food waste.

MSU composts around half a million pounds of food waste each year, according to Logun Norris, director of the MSU composting system. That’s 30% of MSU’s total waste that gets diverted from the landfill, he said. So what happens to that waste instead of sitting in a landfill? That’s where Happy Trash Can steps in to work its magic.

Ryan Green and his wife Adreinne Huckabone established Happy Trash Can seven years ago. In 2021, Happy Trash Can joined Bozeman Solid Waste to expand the city’s composting capacity, in turn taking on the task of collecting MSU's compost, according to Green.

At first glance, Happy Trash Can, located at the North end of Story Mill Road, just looks like some piles of dirt pinned against the backdrop of the Southern Bridgers. But the process of developing those piles is actually quite complex and innovative. 

Green greeted the students as they unloaded at the facility and led them through the piles of compost, most of them 12 or 15 feet tall.

Green explained that putting food scraps into landfills is very damaging to the environment. Landfills are anaerobic environments, meaning that there is no oxygen. Without oxygen, it takes food scraps hundreds of years to decompose, during which they produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is 30 to 60 times more environmentally harmful than carbon dioxide. 

Composting food scraps is Happy Trash Can’s alternative.

“What we're trying to do here is curb the production of methane. We're capturing organic matter that would be lost in [the landfill] system, we're bringing it back to a composting facility, we’re creating a viable fertility source, not only for our community but for local agriculture as well,” Green said. 

To maintain the ideal carbon-to-nitrogen ratio that yields healthy compost, Happy Trash Can uses an aerated static pile (ASP) system, Green said. Compost piles are covered with tarps, then aerated using ports on the tarps. ASP uses the heat produced by the decomposition process (the compost piles range from 132 to 160 degrees) to maintain enough moisture within the piles. 

As water evaporates from the compost, it condenses on the tarp and re-releases into the pile. Each pile has an oxygen and temperature probe so that the conditions under the tarps can be closely monitored and controlled. 

The ASP process expedites the composting process, which allows Happy Trash Can to turn food scraps into healthy, fertile compost within 8 weeks, Green said. That compost goes straight to local gardens and agricultural operations.

“Until we started up, a lot of farmers were purchasing compost from out of town, even out of state, as far as the east coast even. So that's a lot of emissions and a lot of miles to be putting on when we're talking about local food systems here,” Green said. 

Unfortunately, food waste coming from public compost bins like those at the MSU dining halls is rarely garbage-free. “We handpick literally every piece of plastic, every piece of aluminum that is mistakenly put into a compost bin out,” Green said. But Green is hopeful that the educational and outreach programs that Happy Trash Can offers in public schools will help establish good community habits. “By the time [students] get to college, they've got it figured out,” he said.

The field trip concluded at the Bozeman community garden in Story Mill Park, where students placed compost, taken directly from the Happy Trash Can facility, into the community garden. The compost was still warm to the touch as students raked it into raised beds that will be filled with various herbs and vegetables as the spring unfolds. 

After students returned their shovels and gloves, Green spoke one last time. “We need your help,” he said. “We need every single person's help in this community. We want sustainable systems to thrive, we just can’t rely on the government or the private industry. We as citizens, as community members, all need to take responsibility for our actions.”

“We’re not gonna see systemic change from the top down, it’s gonna come from the bottom up. So all I can ask from every one of you is [to] keep contamination out of my compost,” he said.

By 2035, MSU has a goal of 90% waste diversion, according to Norris. “It’ll be tough to get. But we've got another 10 or so years to do it,” he said. One approach to reaching this goal would be to produce less waste to begin with. The dining halls could use a computer program to forecast meals and log consumption so that they can adjust production amounts according to how much food actually gets eaten, Norris said. 

Students can also reduce their personal waste by avoiding taking any food that they aren’t going to eat. 

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