Firm makes compost from crab scraps Fertilizer could save space in landfills

March 08, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE -- When C. Patrick Condon sees a Chesapeake Bay crab, he thinks of food -- for plants.

The Chicago-based entrepreneur has developed a method of mixing crab scraps and small wood chips into a dark and virtually odor-free plant food that he plans to market this spring.

If home gardeners like what Chesapeake Blue Plant Food and Soil Amendment does for their roses and tomatoes, it could put Mr. Condon's New Earth Services Inc. on the path to success.

But the biggest kick is that the fledgling company is environmentally correct.

New Earth Services could present one of the first practical alternatives to dumping millions of pounds of "chum" -- or smelly crab scraps -- in landfills near the bay each year.

With a $37,000 University of Maryland grant, he has devised a new fertilizer he hopes will produce the same blossoming results as chicken manure.

"Generally, we think trying to recycle waste products of that kind is the way to go," said Dr. Michael Hirshfield, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's senior science officer. "If he's got a composting process that can stabilize the nutrients, he may have a winner."

Some 4 million pounds of crab waste were discarded in Dorchester County alone last year and during a good crabbing season, county packing houses produce nearly twice that amount.

Almost as much is accumulated in Somerset County.

After the popular crab meat is picked and packaged for consumption, 80 percent of the crustacean -- shell and innards -- is tossed out as garbage.

Although scientists do not consider crab scrap to be particularly harmful to the environment, mountains of the shell waste can quickly fill valuable space in landfills. And after a few hours under a blazing sun, the stuff turns rancid.

"It's a nasty waste product, odoriferous as hell," Mr. Condon said.

Packers deliver truckloads of crab waste to the site, where it is mixed with hardwood chips and water. After three weeks, the crab and wood components are in a 1-to-1 ratio.

Mr. Condon's stockpile of composting crab scrap and small wood chips is laid out in four 500-foot-long rows at a former landfill in rural Dorchester County. He estimates he has 3 million pounds of fertilizer at the site.

Oxygen must be mixed into the rows to help the crab and wood break down to a carbon and nitrogen bond. So the compost is turned with a mechanical aerator attached to a front-end loader while the crab shells disintegrate naturally during the process and nearly all odors disappear.

The end product is a moist and dark soil-like substance. Mr. Condon said the plant food is Ph neutral and contains, among other elements, 1 percent nitrogen and 8 percent calcium.

Depending upon weather and temperatures, the compost should be ready to be used as fertilizer at the end of six months. Mr. Condon said the organic plant food, which will be marketed first in Maryland and neighboring states, will be sold in 20-pound bags for less than $10.

To package the fertilizer, Mr. Condon and an associate designed a plastic bag sporting a mascot named Crabby. In a ditty Mr. Condon wrote, Crabby encourages gardeners not to overlook his other uses: "You know how sweet my meat has tasted, but please don't let the chum be wasted."

Mr. Condon said he got the idea of turning crab waste into a composted fertilizer after watching fish remains disposed of similarly in Wisconsin.

"Everybody knows fish is a good fertilizer," he said. "Fish and shellfish are very similar chemically and we feel there's something in marine life that's good for growing plants that just isn't anywhere else."

Mr. Condon arrived on the Eastern Shore last August and, with a $37,575 grant from the Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program at the University of Maryland, began experimenting with his plant food idea. He said he has seen good results on his own garden plants.

The crab-and-wood compost project was assisted by Drs. Herb Brodie and Lewis Carr, engineers with the university's Department of Agricultural Engineering.

Although there are no data on the effects of Chesapeake Blue, a paper the two men wrote with another scientist concluded that crab scrap compost is similar to fertilizer made from chicken manure.

Dr. Brodie said long-term effects of Mr. Condon's plant food will be studied at a tree farm on the Eastern Shore.

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