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Caledonia company turns 'Zoo Doo' into environmentally friendly compost

Posted at 6:02 AM, Sep 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-19 23:39:25-04

The Milwaukee County Zoo is home to more than 3,000 animals, and while that's what most of us see when we visit, there's a dirty job we don't see or often even smell that is helping keep the environment green.

No ifs, ands or buts about it: These animals do their business every day.

"The animals don't care if it's a Saturday, Sunday or holiday. They just keep doing their thing," said Jeff Maas, who may have the dirtiest and most secure job at the Milwaukee County Zoo. "There's what we call a food run, and we call this the back end of the food run," Maas told TODAY'S TMJ4's Jesse Ritka.

He helps vacuum up what comes down into 15 waste pits throughout the zoo. And the smell isn't the best.

"You know, you get used to it, but it's very nasty," Maas said.

There is plenty to keep him and other vehicle machine operators (VMO) busy, especially with African elephants including Ruth and Brittany contributing to the waste.

They are herbivores and they don't eat meat, but they — along with the other non-meat-eating animals — create 11 tons of waste every week. That's about how much the two African elephants weigh, and because the elephants aren't toilet trained, their waste has to go somewhere.

That's where Maas comes in. "We always used to take it Waste Management, but here at least it gets recycled now."

Maas and other VMOs transport the waste more than 20 miles south to Blue Ribbon Organics in Caledonia, where more than 1,650 tons of waste has been turned into nutrient-rich soil in the last three years.

"The zoo was looking for different avenues that they could figure out how to not take this to a landfill, more reuse it, so composting," Blue Ribbon Organics owner James Jutrzonka said.

It's a partnership that helps lower the zoo's carbon footprint and that doesn't stink. "It smells like earth actually," Jutrzonka said.

"The animals don't care if it's a Saturday, Sunday or holiday. They just keep doing their thing." — Jeff Maas, who may have the dirtiest and most secure job at the Milwaukee County Zoo

Blue Ribbon Organics combines food waste from local restaurants and schools along with yard waste to create a compost unique to the Caledonia company.

Jutrzonka said the compost does a lot of the work on its own. "It's just slowly breaking down, reactivating microorganisms, so it's actually like billions of workers that are inside these wind rows that ... just keep eating and working and breaking down the raw materials."

Those microorganisms actually raise the temperature to 160 degrees. You can even see steam coming off when Blue Ribbon Organics turns the rows of yard, food and animal waste. When the process is complete, the temperature of the compost falls into the 90s.

The weather plays its part in the process as well, Jutrzonka said. "We monitor a lot of it by moisture and temperature, so different times of the year it will be a faster process, more of the six months. When you get more in the start of winter, winter months, it's more around the eight-month period."

After a half a year or more, the compost is mature and no longer just manure. Maas notices the stark contrast from what he brings in and what the finished product becomes. "It is unbelievable what it looks like when they're done, unbelievable. It looks like the richest black earth you ever seen," he said.

The compost is tested and screened before being sold, mainly to landscaping companies. Jutrzonka said the compost process is different depending on the region, "Essentially it's just dialing into the recipe that works best for the finished product, so the finished uses are for like vegetable and flower gardening, around trees and shrubs and lawn application."

It helps green up southeastern Wisconsin by going green.

The zoo may even start selling packages of "Zoo Doo" for you to use in your gardens. And the best part: It doesn't smell anymore. The zoo pays Blue Ribbon Organics for composting its "Zoo Doo" but said it is less expensive than diverting it to a landfill and it is more environmentally friendly.