License glitch dumps biodegrading at Cherry Festival
By Anne Stanton 7/6/09
Its not like the National Cherry Festival isnt trying to do the right
thing, but the biodegradable dishes and flatware that vendors were
required to use this year will end up in Glens Landfill.
I never heard anything about this; it makes me wonder why were buying
all this expensive stuff for nothing, said Sue Willard, owner of Sues
J&S Hamburg on South Airport Road.
It appears that the festival required biodegradable flatware before plans
were nailed down on how to sort and compost them. But they say its a
start. The earth-friendly dishes are made from food and plants, not
oil-based synthetic polymers. And they will decompose hundreds of years
faster than plastic. They just wont break down into dirt, which requires
air, water, micro-organisms and high heat.
Willard took her own green steps to save money on the more expensive
flatware by using stirrers instead of spoons, and only providing forks
ONE MILLION DINERS
Composting and recycling have always been an issue at the National Cherry
Festival, where up to one million people eat food and celebrate. Waste
Management, a corporate sponsor, provides bins to recycle plastic
bottles, paper and cardboard.
This year, the festival had planned to go even a step further by requiring
Open Space vendors to use biodegradable dishes with the idea of composting
A little history here. Starting in the mid 1990s, volunteers scraped food
off the dishes and sorted garbage in a recycling tent. The scrap food was
then hauled off to Clearbrook O.R. (Organic Recovery), a small Traverse
City company that composts yard waste and manure. Its owned by Mike
Fiebing, whose wife, Monika is known as the Cherry Festivals trash
queen. But in 2003, former festival director Tom Kern closed the
recycling tent to save money.
The Fiebings applauded this years effort toward biodegradable place
settings, and they were invited early on to handle the compost. But its
not going to happen that way.
Monika said they got involved with the Cherry Festival after being asked
to come back on board last winter by the new executive director, Tim
Hinkley, and Keith DeYoung, the new head of operations.
Keith said they wanted to recycle and compost everything they could,
Monika said. But before we had time to meet with Keith, he left for a
better job. So then it was awhile before we met with the new operations
director, Jennifer, and we explained our operation. And more time went by
and then we got together with her and Waste Management in May.
Thats when problems cropped up. If Monika Fiebing is trash queen, then
Waste Management is trash king, providing all the totes, trash hauling,
and equipment free of charge for the festival (in exchange, it receives
tickets for various events, signage, advertising and public recognition).
Steve Essling said that Waste Management and the Fiebings have always had
a good relationship, but Clearbrook lacked a state license or written DEQ
approval to compost food and biodegradable dishes. He acknowledged that
the Fiebings as some of the hardest working people youll ever find.
The amount of compostables you would generate is large, a single stream
of waste from 200,000 people a day for eight days, and Clearbrook is not
doing food composting at this time. I was worried about the negative
connotation should anything go wrong at the composting site, said
Essling. Its nothing we should apologize for at any particular level.
We just werent ready.
Essling said he is helping to draft rules for the DEQ regarding composting
food waste and is aware of the issues of run-off, rodents, and odors.
It can become a public nuisance. When you add food waste to your compost
pile, which is traditionally yard waste, youve graduated to another
dimension. We want to go there, but we want to do it right, Essling said.
Clearbrook was relying on Waste Management to supply the containers and
transportation in the first round of discussions, but Waste Management
didnt want to provide that unless Clearbrook had met its third party
criteria, which includes the state license.
Monika Fiebing said the state law doesnt require a license, and
Clearbrook decided not to make the effort to get a letter of compliance
from the DEQ because it was clear the festival had already made its
decision not to use the company.
The law states that if you accept food waste and animal waste, you dont
have to be licensed. So we do not have to be licensed to accept waste.
However, its Waste Managements policy to only deal with licensed
facilities. Thats okay, theyre a big company, were a small town
composting facility. Its big business trying to match up with little
business, and it didnt work.
Mike said Clearbrook has experience in removing and composting food waste
from the National Cherry Festival with no problems. They could have
handled the much larger capacity of the dishes with its two five-ton
trucks and a loader to pick up dumpsters.
I just did 3,000 yards of horse manure for Horses by the Bay. I dont
think the volume would have been an issue, Mike said.
Monika believes that money was an issue; the festival said it didnt want
to spend the $2,000 to pay Clearbrook to haul and compost the waste.
I have to be honest; I was very disappointed, Monika said. It goes
against my philosophy and I felt that I could not be associated with this.
Im a recycler. I recycle everything. I make compost for Gods sake. All
those plates would have gone to my compost site, and we would have made
compost with it. When we were picking up food waste, it was composted and
then the city came and put it in the flower bed that sits in the Open
If I had a nickel for every person at the festival who told us we did a
wonderful job, Id be a millionaire. We have the best reputation with
everybody that does the festival. All the vendors love us. All the
volunteers love us. So how could we not handle it?
Monika resigned her volunteer job as trash queen, leaving the direction
of volunteers to someone else.
Tim Hinkley, the festivals executive director, said that it was more a
matter of running a streamlined operation than money. He felt that two
sets of garbage trucks, plus sorting trash thats errantly thrown in with
the biodegradable dishes and food would have added too much confusion.
Monika felt the issue of sorting would have been a non-issue with the
proper set-up. Clearbrook would do any additional sorting at its own site.
The problem is they dont have trust. They heard so many bad things from
last year when we were not involved. The new guys came on and heard the
horror stories from last year, and absolutely didnt want it to happen to
them, Monika said.
Waste Management itself is ultimately interested in composting food; some
of its 200 landfills already do so. But Essling said that it wont make
the move until state laws or rules are in place. They also have to figure
out the logistics of composting food in the dead of winter.
Meanwhile, its making efforts to become more green by collecting methane
gas from the garbage, which will be used to power a new evaporator that
gets rid of dirty water (leachate) that leaks from garbage. That saves
multiple trips to the wastewater treatment plant.
Essling and Hinkley are confident they can get the biodegradables absorbed
by Mother Earth next year.
Hinkley said hed like to run an operation in which nothing needs to get
sortedwhere all festival vendors, including Gibbys Fries and Arnolds
Amusements, use biodegradable dishes.
Our overall intent as we go forward is to have the entire festival using
compostable materials and to use compostable landfills and get as green as
we can. We had a decision to make and decided this was the best route to
go, not knowing the volume and hearing about the different sorting and
separating that was going to have to go on, Hinkley said.
Said Essling: Were doing better every year, but you have to let the
technology catch up with the ideals. Waste Management donates thousands of
dollars for trash removal and recycling. We try to do the best we can.
Can we do it for next year? Well get an earlier and better start. Next
year, well have a much better idea of the volume. If Clearbrook can get a
state license, we can probably do it.