Last updated: April 2015
A community composting scheme: Fairfield
New Smithfield Market is Manchester’s daily fruit and vegetable market. It runs seven days a week and it used to send 30-40 skip-loads of waste to landfill every day. That was until a social enterprise was set up to deal with the waste from the market. Joanna Long talked to the General Manager, Ian Treppier, to find out more.
Around the turn of the millennium, in an effort to ‘regenerate’ East Manchester, the City Council proposed to build an incinerator to handle the waste from New Smithfield Market. The scheme was opposed by locals and was eventually defeated but that still left the problem of what to do with the market's waste. Plucky local environmentalists suggested that the waste be used to create compost and the council agreed. And Fairfield Composting (now Fairfield Materials Management) was born.
Caution! Microbes at work
In 2003, the group began handling waste from the New Smithfield Market using an 'in-vessel' composting system. In-vessel systems work like a garden compost heap but on a larger scale: material is piled into a container, cut off from the outside air and heated to kick-start the naturally-occurring microbes in the fruit and vegetable material.
First up are the organisms feeding on sugars, starches and simple proteins (known as thermophiles because they thrive at high temperatures). Gradually these are replaced by organisms feeding on cellulose and lignin (known as mesophiles because they operate at moderate temperatures) before the pile is finally colonised by invertebrates.
Unlike a garden compost heap, though, an in-vessel system can be heated to ensure optimum temperatures for microbes at certain stages of the composting process, as well as killing off pathogens and viruses.
“Fairfield began with just one composting module in 2003 but within two years the site had six modules operating at capacity, processing all the waste coming out of New Smithfield Market” said Ian Treppier. “Unfortunately though, the type of system we had was expensive to run and had to be retrofitted to meet ever more stringent composting standards. By 2012 it had become unsustainable for us to run the on-site plant and we had to outsource the composting process to a local contractor”.
In February 2016, however, Fairfield will bring waste processing back in-house using a new anaerobic digestion system.
“This is an enclosed process that acts like a cow’s stomach to break down not just fruit and vegetable material but also more general food waste from around Manchester, including meat and dairy,” Mr Treppier explained.
“As it is with cows, a by-product of this system is a gas that is 60% methane, which we intend to clean up and burn to generate electricity for the market and local businesses” he said, adding that “any heat we generate in the process will be used to heat water for the market and the grey waste water from the process will be used to clean the market’s lorries.” The uneaten solids left over from the process will be sold to the agricultural market for compost, or dried and sold to waste-to-energy plants.
Because the feed material for Fairfield's compost is from fruit and vegetables, it is vegan-friendly and suitable for organic growing. “Although there is some seasonal variation in our feed material, we take care to have a good mixture in each batch” said Mr Treppier. “If we suddenly get in a load of grapes, we'll always mix it with other material before we send it for composting.”
As with other companies handling industrial and household food waste, there is also the problem of de-packaging and ‘sharps’. “Cucumbers come shrink-wrapped, lettuces come in bags, berries come in a punnet... there is such an array of packaging that no single machine will de-package everything effectively and it would be a waste of time and money to try” said Mr Treppier. For that reason, Fairfield de-package their waste manually and find end-users for all the inorganic waste.
In keeping with Fairfield’s social and environmental philosophy, many of the de-packaging staff are on volunteer placements or are those in need of sheltered work. All profits from Fairfield Materials Management go to its owner, the charity ‘Fairfield Environment Trust’, which not only promotes waste reduction and recycling but seeks to improve the lives of those in socially and economically disadvantaged communities.
Where to buy
You can buy compost in bulk from Fairfield (www.fairfieldcompost.co.uk, 0161 231 2139) and either have it delivered to your location or pick it up yourself. If you want to buy Fairfield compost by the bag and you live in the Greater Manchester area, you can buy it from Hulme Community Garden Centre.
If you would like to learn more about community composting or start your own, contact the Community Composting Network, 0114 258 0483, info[@]communitycompost.org.