Durham Fair going green for 99th year with composting, recycling, water stations

The Middletown Press || August 29, 2018

DURHAM — The waste from an estimated 200,000 people over the course of Durham Fair weekend adds up remarkably fast.

Add in the garbage and unused food generated by the more than four-dozen food vendors and it’s easy to see how quickly a veritable mountain of refuse can pile up quickly.

Already, fair organizers have been recycling bottles and cans for a decade. Again, they’ll be encouraging food merchants to compost for the sixth of the event’s 99-year history.

Volunteers have added solar panels to some of the buildings, and, for the second year in a row, the fair will provide a water bottle-filling station to limit the amount of cups thrown in the trash bin.

The first year, 35 vendors participated. That rose to 50 within two years. Now, the majority take part, according to Susan Michael, a teacher at Regional School District 13. She has advised the Environmental Coginchaug Organization club at the high school, a group of students concerned about the environment who are willing to work to improve it, said Michael, also a member of the town’s Clean Energy & Sustainability Task Force, where the idea originated.

“When you compost your organics, that reduces the amount of your waste, because most weight is coming from plants in your food. That produces soil, which can be uses as humus in your yard to help the soil,” she said.

“If you can get the message across to the public that it’s a win-win, you’re winning in your pocketbook because the town doesn’t have to pay to haul more mass away, so you’re saving money in taxes; and it’s enhancing the soil because you’re composting,” Michael said.

“Garbage is expensive to deal with, so the less garbage you have, the more profitable everybody can be. We’re lowering the amount of garbage the fair makes, and we’re making it useful. People are more conscious about that now, and I think they feel good about it,” said Marilyn Keurajian, who also sits on the Clean Energy board. She’s part of the composting crew at the fair.

At 7 a.m. each fair morning, before the gates open and visitors arrive, student members of the ECO club and other volunteers drop off pails of various sizes with compostable lining at each vendor’s station.

“When you’re talking about serving hundreds of people, and you have a better way of where to put those apple peels, making scads of apple crisp … they just throw it in, and we pick it up. It’s a no-brainer. We’re not forcing them to do it, we’re suggesting it’s the right thing to do,” Keurajian said.

The Scholarship Committee, which sells chocolate-dipped bananas at its booth, gets a big rolling bin to discard banana peels and the Exchange Club receives two barrels for its potato refuse.

Keurajian helped create the water bottle refill station at the south end of the Cow Palace. Visitors are encouraged to refill their bottle, and can save between $2 and $4 each time.

This year, she designed a cartoon to catch people’s eyes. It has a little worm in boots making its way through a leaf with the words, “We feed the tiniest livestock.”

As worms digest the food scraps, they produce compost as waste.

The logo reminds fairgoers of the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle.

“It’s an agricultural fair, and we think about goats and horses and cows and whatnot, but, really, it starts on a more ground level than that. We’ve brought it down to that earthy place,” Keurajian said.

Compostable items include coffee grounds, eggshells, fish and chicken bones, any type of plant or animal products, paper-only items such as napkins, cups and wax-coated cups, foil, leaves — even grease, Michael said.

Once the fair ends, they are picked up by Quantum Biopower, an industrial facility in Southington.

“They add anaerobes and organisms, and get it turning over, and they produce methane from it, and then, whatever doesn’t get digested by the bacteria, gets made into compost,” Keurajian said.

The results are impressive. The first year, volunteers took in a ton of compostable items, the second and third, 2 and 3 tons, respectively. The fourth year, 4.8 tons were gathered. Last year, the goal was 5 tons. In all, 6.1 were taken in.

The composting team is also trying to get vendors to shun polystyrene for other, environmentally sustainable containers.

Michael’s husband, Stefan, is superintendent of recycling for the fair. Last year, he and his helpers took in 46,000 bottles and cans with the help of Boy Scouts from Troop 27 in town.

To put that into perspective, those items would almost fill a tractor-trailer full of 50-pound bags containing between 150 and 200 pieces per bag.

The team distributes 200 blue, 55-gallon drums with lids on top so only bottle- and can-size containers can be placed inside for recycling, he said.

Stefan Michael estimates they pick up about half of the containers from drinks consumed at the fair.

“We don’t capture everything,” he said.

“But we do make a good dent,” his wife added.

He attributes the uptick in cooperation to improvements with the collection system, the visibility of the containers, especially now with logos, and the lids that prevent the non-recyclable materials from being deposited in bins.

“People are getting better at it, but there’s still a lot of laziness. We could have a recycling barrel right next to a garbage pail, and they still just throw it into the garbage pail. It kind of irks us, but that’s the education you have to try to initiate,” Stefan Michael said.

Coginchaug Regional High School’s ECO club is aiming to change those bad habits, starting at a young age.

“A couple of years ago, we took newspapers and folded them into origami pots, took potato eyes, and planted them in there. So they were growing their own plants in a recyclable container,” Susan Michael said. “Sometimes it’s easier to train kids than adults.”

The fair’s 99th year runs Sept. 27 to 30. For information, visit durhamfair.com or call 860-349-9495.