By Angela Hawn
Photos courtesy Astoria Organic Matters Canada
Waste not, want not. If Astoria Organic Matters Canada were looking for a slogan, this one would fit nicely. Just ask Al Hamilton what his company does and you’ll find his answer rings with similar simplicity.
“We’re basically a compost manufacturing facility,” explains the 52-year-old with obvious enthusiasm for his subject. “We take in all kinds of organic waste and raw materials with no additives, blend them and make compost out of it.”
Now quiz Hamilton on what comes first: his business sense or a passion for running an enterprise with a firm set of environmental goals. The details get a little more complicated. With a background in civil engineering and a Masters degree in business, it’s clear this savvy entrepreneur knows his way around the economic practicalities involved in keeping a retail operation afloat. But make no mistake, Hamilton cares deeply about preventing green waste from ending up in landfills and he’s thrilled his line of work revolves around that very same mission.
“Very little residual waste ever leaves the site,” claims Hamilton, though even he admits conventional landfills still fill a need in contemporary society. “For example, waste might come to us in plastic bags and we use someone else to get rid of the plastic bags.”
Hamilton goes on to explain customers might very well be under the impression organic waste dropped off in biodegradable bags composts easily. But the bags still take over 20 years in the ground to break down, while the green waste inside turns to compost in about 20 days.
Still, pesky plastic bags aside, diverting green matter from dump sites forms a key part of Astoria’s mandate. To that end, the operation promises to accept all of a customer’s organic waste and turn it into high grade organic fertilizer, all within just eight weeks.
Hamilton first started thinking about how to accomplish this lofty set of goals when he worked in a paper mill geared towards 100 percent recycled paper production. Having just returned from a civil engineering job in Florida, Hamilton dreamed of setting up some kind of green business model right here in Canada. Certain even more could be done to help reduce waste, he looked to Europe for inspiration.
“We all really need to take a plane ride to Europe and see that landfills are few and far between,” the businessman declares emphatically, noting most European countries banned green waste from landfills long ago. “They are 20 years ahead of North America.”
Knowing European culture maintains a strong environmental consciousness, Hamilton crossed the Atlantic to do a little research and seek out investors. He soon found several interested parties in Germany with the financial chops necessary to get a European style composting plant up and running back home.
Meanwhile, he checked out a few overseas operations whose composting methods involved the use of a special type of compost cover. Produced by Gore, this unique technology had already gained a solid reputation world-wide for making the whole process quick and efficient.
“A colleague and I were travelling in Spain and we wanted to see the Gore covers handling something at its nastiest,” chuckles Hamilton, as he reminisces about one of his composting tours. “This place was dealing with stuff like chicken and fish waste and we couldn’t believe there was no odour.”
Hamilton explains the Gore covers which shield Astoria’s organic waste piles during the initial stages of the composting process perform a vital role in keeping the entire operation running smoothly. Translation: we’re talking about odour or the lack of it. Made from material similar to that found in “breathable” Gore-tex rain jackets, these heavy duty enormous covers resemble the type of oversized tarp the Friendly Giant might take camping.
These high-tech covers allow the compost to “cook” at tremendously high temperatures, which in turn speeds along the entire process. Hamilton notes the Gore technology not only meets, but exceeds both Ministry of Environment regulations and Climate Change requirements. The extreme heat even kills weed seed.
Considering only a handful of Canadian companies currently use the Gore product, Hamilton’s plant appears quite unique. The absence of any kind of similar operation in eastern Ontario certainly played a key role in the decision to set up shop in Hastings County.
“The Gore cover acts as protection, letting nothing in and letting nothing out,” says Hamilton, crediting the gigantic shields as one of the major reason his compost business functions without offensive fumes. “The only thing you might see are the CO2 emissions coming out as steam.”
Pay a visit to Hamilton’s sprawling $19 million operation set in a gully on Belleville’s eastern rural edge, take a deep breath and decide for yourself. What this environmentally conscientious businessman professes about odour (or the lack of it) certainly appears to be true. In fact, the scent comes across as earthy, spring-like and not at all unpleasant.
But if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then scent (or the perception of same) probably rests with the sniffer. Hamilton admits a small group initially protested the opening of the plant. Most worried about potential odour problems, a few mentioned concerns about wear and tear on the roads due to both waste drop-off and compost pick-up and several were under the mistaken impression Hamilton was looking to start up a conventional landfill. Nothing, of course, could have been further from his mind.
Hoping to better inform the public and form a stronger connection with the surrounding community, he held information sessions to let everyone in on Astoria’s green philosophy. In an effort to show goodwill, the business even offered to kick in some money towards road maintenance. And, in the end, the composting operation went ahead, though it took about two years to get the necessary permits.
And while holding public meetings and creating a Public Liaison Committee are two of the necessary steps involved in meeting Ministry of Environment regulations for plant approval, Hamilton knows they mean more than just that. This Napanee area native has no desire to upset the neighbours.
“Some of the people who once had concerns are now customers,” declares Hamilton in the confident tones of one who just knows the passion he feels for Astoria’s mission must surely be contagious. “All the staff buy into the environmental aspect and we all care about what we do.”