Lisa Daugherty, owner of Juneau Composts!, stands in front of a recently acquired trommel screener, which separates different materials like soil, gravel, mulch and sand. She has invested $250,000 in the company since she started it in 2017. (Meredith Jordan/ Juneau Empire)

Lisa Daugherty, owner of Juneau Composts!, stands in front of a recently acquired trommel screener, which separates different materials like soil, gravel, mulch and sand. She has invested $250,000 in the company since she started it in 2017. (Meredith Jordan/ Juneau Empire)

Federal dollars for public composting project concerns private-sector operator

Juneau Composts! owner says city project could ultimately shut down business

Federal money promised to Alaska for various sustainability projects has trickled in since the passage of the massive infrastructure bill in Washington, with municipal and tribal officials in Juneau expressing optimism about how the funds will help their efforts.

A Nov. 17 announcement by U.S. Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska stated $22.4 million in grants to address food waste had been earmarked for the state, $1.5 million of it for the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

Separately, the public comment period for the design and construction of a commercial-scale compost facility for the City and Borough of Juneau has opened, the next step in getting the $2.5 million promised last December delivered in city coffers.

The public-sector money goes toward funding long-term solutions for problems such as reducing food waste to the landfill.

But those projects are also creating uncertainty for Lisa Daugherty, owner and operator of Juneau Composts! She leases land from the city for the business she founded in 2017, which is a few hundred yards from the Lemon Creek Gravel Pit, where the large municipal composting facility is planned.

“It could easily put me out of business,” Daugherty said. “I’m not going to be able to compete with a facility that doesn’t have overhead, which means it can undercut my prices and lure my customers away.”

Dianna Robinson, an environmental project specialist with the CBJ’s Engineering and Public Works Department, noted that the grants have different parameters. Some limit what can be earmarked for businesses.

She said that is the case with the Build Back Better grant money for the design and construction of the large compost facility.

Robinson said the city has been working with Daugherty on a $400,000 USDA Composting and Food Waste Reduction (CFWR) grant that would harden the site leased by the city to Juneau Composts! Results of the funding application are pending.

Food left to decompose in landfills is highly problematic because it emits methane, which ends up in the atmosphere, according to the EPA. Those greenhouse gasses affect the Earth’s temperature and climate system.

Meanwhile, CBJ is well aware that Juneau’s only dump has a ballpark-estimate lifespan of about 20 years, Robinson said.

Adding pressure to that is the fact that Waste Management, the Houston, Texas-based company that owns Capitol Disposal Landfill in Juneau, increased prices 185% last January. That pushed the minimum dump charge from $49.50 to $141.18.

But government commitment to the effort is relatively new.

In 2015, CBJ hired Cedar Grove Systems of Seattle to do a citywide study on the viability of a composting program. The firm submitted a 13-page report in January 2016, which noted challenges to creating a program and recommended the city first test a small-scale demo site — and then build a permanent facility.

“CBJ is encouraged to try a pilot/demonstration program to process local and readily available green yard waste, landscaping, wood, and commercial pre and post-consumer food waste (grocery, restaurant, and hotels) to test community interest and engagement, while learning directly about the composting process,” the report stated.

“They decided not to do it,” said Daugherty “That’s the reason I started my company.”

Since 2017 she has invested $250,000 in the company, most recently with the acquisition of a trommel screener that separates materials like soil, gravel, mulch and sand.

“I did the pilot project work,” she said. “I figured out the bear issue and how to successfully compost year-round in Alaska. And I’ve shown it works economically.”

Daugherty said Juneau Composts! has nearly 600 residential customers and 35 business customers. Clients include Fred Meyer, Allen Marine, Kensington Mine, restaurants and stores like Rainbow Foods.

Juneau Composts! handles less than 5% of Juneau’s estimated overall food and yard waste, based on numbers prepared by three sources, said Robinson. “I am hopeful and confident there is enough to go round, no matter how it turns out,” she said.

Daugherty, who doesn’t challenge the estimate, said in 2023 the company has weighed in about 500,000 pounds of food scraps, along with a similar amount in yard debris, which doesn’t get weighed.

Juneau Composts! has grown every year, she said, but it has done so significantly in recent years. The company has collected and composted 1.8 million pounds of food scraps since 2017, 54% of it in the last two years, Daugherty said.

Part of that growth is the increased awareness on the part of the public.

“She has a very well-run business, very reliable,” said Rainbow Foods owner David Ottoson. “They come and pick up food waste, and some of our paper, twice a week — like clockwork.” He also has residential service. “It’s pretty seamless,” he said.

The company operates as a monthly subscription service that takes food scraps and yard waste full circle. Customers can drop off for $15 a month, or receive pickups for $27 a month. There is also a hub program where several members can team up and drop buckets to a hub for pickup for $20 a month. The material is processed and eventually sold to the public.

Getting it to the facility is the first step of a process that ultimately “closes the loop,” said Daugherty.

Food “in aerobic compost piles allows carbon to be captured and sequestered into the soil,” according to her website. It also improves soil with better nutrient exchange and water-holding capacity. Once the composting process is completed, it is available for sale to local gardeners.

“It’s the most fantastic compost,” said Betsy Walatka, who buys it for her garden and also pays for a $15 drop-off subscription with Juneau Composts! “I was trying to compost in my yard and that was not working out well.”

Walatka said she fills about one bucket a week. She doesn’t mind the effort of taking it to the facility. “It keeps the waste from going to the landfill, and that helps with climate-change thing.”

She called Daugherty an “expert on the entire process,” from how to make composting work with Alaska’s challenging weather conditions to managing bears, Walatka said. “She is keeping a tremendous amount of waste out of the landfill and that is a huge thing.”

CBJ’s Robinson is also a customer of Juneau Composts! She said Daugherty gets a lot of credit for the momentum that has built for composting in Juneau in recent years.

“Lisa has been very passionate and vocal about diverting food waste, and she knows her stuff,” said Robinson.

“But at the end of the day our hands are tied, I think more than she thinks. It’s the speed of government — we don’t know until we know.”

• Contact Meredith Jordan at meredith.jordan@juneauempire.com or (907) 615-3190.

The City and Borough of Juneau is working with Juneau Composts! on a grant that would harden the land the company leases from the city, seen here in an image taken Friday. (Meredith Jordan/ Juneau Empire)

The City and Borough of Juneau is working with Juneau Composts! on a grant that would harden the land the company leases from the city, seen here in an image taken Friday. (Meredith Jordan/ Juneau Empire)

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