ELLSWORTH, Maine — The wood shavings used as mouse bedding at The Jackson Laboratory‘s vivarium here would normally go to a trash incinerator, as would the clam and lobster shells from Maine Shellfish Co.
But Josh and Tracey Wellman have a different idea.
Their new company, Maine Organics, is taking the wastes and mixing them into giant piles of compost at its facility at 15 Industrial Road by the city’s transfer station. The result of the process is soil that the company sells wholesale to landscape suppliers, Tracey Wellman said.
“The real benefit here is that we can compost seafood and food waste and create a product that we can sell back to people so that they can use it as a nutrient soil that they can grow their vegetables and flowers with,” she said.
A subsidiary of DM&J Waste Inc. of Winterport, which employs 23 people, Maine Organics launched in July 2018, about a month before Jackson Lab opened its Charles E. Hewett Center at 21 Kingsland Crossing, where the research institution breeds mice for scientific research.
The husband and wife team put about $700,000 and two years of preparation into the business, Josh Wellman said. Maine Organics has taken in about 2,000 tons of the Jackson Lab mouse bedding over the past year. Recently, the state Department of Environmental Protection awarded the company a grant of nearly $32,000 that will allow it to expand its composting operation by increasing storage capacity.
The goal, the Wellmans said, is to increase soil production by 50 percent over the next year.
The Wellmans, who live in Winterport, got the idea to spin off a composting division from their trash hauling business at the suggestion of Mike Wellman, Josh’s father. The family saw potential in removing food waste such as lobster shells from the wastestream, as well as the wood shavings from one of the area’s largest employers.
Mike Wellman “initially came up with the idea to combine the Jackson Lab shavings coming out of Bar Harbor with seafood waste,” Tracey Wellman said. “This was before we knew that Jackson Lab was coming to Ellsworth.”
During its first year, Maine Organics produced about 1,500 cubic yards of the soil made from shellfish and about 5,000 cubic yards of another soil made from biosolid wastes collected from the city’s wastewater treatment plant, Josh Wellman said.
The business has removed 10,000 to 12,000 cubic yards from Ellsworth’s wastestream over the past year, thus cutting down the amount of city trash hauled to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company incinerator in Orrington.
It works out to money saved for the city, said Ellsworth City Manager David Cole. The operation is also an example of a downstream and less-noticed economic benefit to having a mammoth operation such as Jackson Lab’s $200 million mouse-breeding center in Ellsworth, he said.
Mike Danforth, operations manager at the seafood supplier Maine Shellfish, said it’s easy to work with Maine Organics.
“All we do is deliver the stuff to them,” he said.
Josh Wellman said it takes about six months for biochemistry to turn the waste into a usable product. The mouse bedding acts as a carbon source that helps feed the bacteria that break down the seafood waste into soil. Maine Organics’ one full-time worker, Arnold Potter, periodically turns over the piles to keep the temperature up, aerate the mixture and keep the decomposition active.
“The seafood waste is the most important part of it,” Tracey Wellman said. “It’s not revolutionary. We are not pioneering this. But each company has its own recipe or mix. It is a slow process.”
The mix is ready for sale when its cools down, an indication that the biological processes have ceased, Josh Wellman said. He has no doubt that Maine Organics will succeed.
“We have the equipment,” he said. “We are making the material. It just takes time.”