Update: See 2019 Golden Heart Utilities Compost Update
Composting In The Subarctic
For a long time, many thought composting at 65 degrees north of the equator was difficult. The concept of “hot composting” up here in the north is hampered by 6 month winters and sub-zero temperatures for most of it.
Composting on a commercial scale was certainly of thought of as impossible. But, it’s being done on a commercial-scale here in one of the world’s most northern cities.
Enter Golden Heart Utilities, our local water and sewage company here in Fairbanks. Through some ingenuity and a bit of experimentation, they figured out how to compost bio-solids all year round here. The temperatures of this compost gets high enough to kill off any pathogens, even through one of the harshest winters on earth.
Wait. Did You Say Bio-solids?
For the uninitiated, bio-solids are not particularly the prettiest topic to discuss. It is effectively human waste. Not of the garbage variety, but rather that which goes down our toilets and siphoned out of the waste water treatment plant.
This scares some people off from using it and has also been the source of many untrue rumors. But, it’s effectively the same as using cow manure compost. No one would bat an eye with using cow manure compost in their garden. Just a different animal.
The composting process will effectively eliminate any “bad stuff” like pathogens or other harmful things. This process is like pasteurization or canning where temperatures are raised and held to a level where most things can’t survive. During processing, it is combined with wood chips and compressed air to kick-start the composting process and to diversify the sources of nutrients. The result is a very effective compost that your plants, gardens and trees will absolutely love. It will not be functionally much different from other sources of compost.
Bio-Solid Composting Can’t Possibly Be Safe, Can It?
A big concern I’ve heard is the risk of arsenic, medicines that have been flushed down toilets or other even stranger claims. Obviously Golden Heart Utilities has a major liability if these things were the case, so they test the output regularly to make sure everything is within safe margins.
They even publish the results of their testing and give exact quantities of what is in it. Try getting that out of a bag of compost you buy for 30 times the price at Home Depot!
Their compost meets the EPA’s “exceptional quality” grade of compost and features no restrictions on its use. There are also no scientific studies that illustrate the transfer of these things into a plant. Golden Heart Utilities also offers a handy brochure and frequently asked question sheet about their compost!
Note: In 2019, it was discovered that Golden Heart’s compost was contaminated by PFAS. The entire batch was withheld from sale to the community. This is testament to the testing that was performed, but it also puts the future of this resource in the balance.
I’m Not Afraid Of Little Humanure, Tell Me More!
In years past, Golden Heart Utilities maintains a free pile of the compost near their administrative office near University and College.
They also will fill entire pickups, or even larger loads, at their waste water facility. There is a very small charge for this and it basically pays for the loader operator’s time. (Current rates are $20/pickup load or $10/yard for larger loads.) This also saves a ton of shoveling if you need larger quantities. In years past, the operators have been available until 7PM.
- Admin Office Free Pile: 3691 Cameron Street, Fairbanks, Alaska
- Waste Water Facility: 4247 Peger Road, Fairbanks, Alaska
The biggest problem with the free pile is that many people use it in the spring. Some people stop by to fill their entire pickup. We have observed that some people have filled containers (buckets, totes, etc) at the waste water facility as well. Although we haven’t asked, we assume they’ll let you do this for free as well.
Everything Else You Need To Know About It
Just one more thing to cover here. The community gardens have special provisions for the Golden Heart Utilities compost. It is not prohibited, and many community gardeners use it, but you basically have to take care not to get any on neighboring plots. That’s totally understandable. If someone isn’t comfortable with it, they shouldn’t have to have it on their garden.
This is an extremely valuable and wonderful thing we have here in Fairbanks. Access to free or very inexpensive compost is a major value to us gardeners.
We also like that it provides a bit of natural cyclical balance to our lifestyle. Once you get past the idea you’re using human poop to grow veggies, you’ll happily use it. From our experience, it does a great job at providing essential nutrients to our plants.