SKOWHEGAN — This is not your backyard compost pile.

The 60-by-120-foot pile of collected grass clippings, twigs, leaves and farm manure at the town transfer station soon could be getting bigger with the addition of food waste from area restaurants and schools.

Selectmen on Tuesday heard from Mark King, an environmental specialist from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, on the benefits of composting food recyclables.

“This is about putting selected food from area restaurants and businesses to be added to the pile at low levels at first to see if we can enhance the compost product they produce,” King said Wednesday. “They will do what’s called source separation, which they collect only food scraps, and any plastics would go into the garbage. We’re looking at only clean, collected food.”

Randall Gray, the town’s solid-waste management supervisor, said the plan is to start slowly, with up to 50 yards of food waste per year going into the pile. That’s about five full dump truck loads to be added to the existing pile.

He said the town generates 800 yards of compost a year in a pile that is turned and aerated every few months to get the organisms “cooking.” The department has two certified composters, Al White and Steve Foss, who have taken a weeklong course in composting and know how to control the operation.

“We have a very progressive program right now, and this will enhance it greatly,” Gray said. “The taxpayer will get a much improved product.”

Compost is offered free to all Skowhegan residents as a finished product at the Skowhegan Highway Department yard.

Anything that was once living will decompose; composting is nature’s process of recycling organic material into a rich soil, according to information at www.recycleworks.com. Composting is an acceleration of the same process nature uses to break down organic material, returning nutrients back into the soil to make a potent fertilizer for gardens and lawns.

The process also produces heat, which literally cooks the pile, Gray said.

Town Manager John Doucette Jr. said the plan was well received by selectmen, and a vote on forming a plan may come at an upcoming meeting.

“They seemed very receptive to the idea,” Doucette said. “I think it will be a good thing for the town.”

Gray said the incentive for composting organic material is the same as that for recycling cardboard or plastic or metal cans — avoiding the cost of trucking and tipping fees at the regional landfill in Norridgewock.

“The town makes about $100,000 a year on the recycling program, which we would have to spend on disposal fees,” Gray said. “If you produce $100,000 and you save $100,000 in disposal costs, that’s a couple hundred thousand dollars a year out of a $700,000 operating budget.”

Gray said the highway department uses the compost to offset landscaping costs.

He said the town installed an impervious pad to hold the pile two years ago. The pad has erosion and sedimentation controls, which catch runoff from the pile with wood chips, which then are recycled back into the compost pile.

Gray said he and Mark King from the DEP will begin contacting local businesses that might want to sign up for the food collection plan.

“We have restaurants, we have a hospital here in town and we have a school district,” he said. “We’ll put together a list and make some contacts. I’m sure we will find participants. It’s the absolute right thing to do.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367
dharlow@centralmaine.com