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Venture turns Buffalo Zoo’s manure into rich, exotic compost

Call it what you want: animal waste, dung, droppings, manure or zoo poo.

Dave Majewski has two words for it: “organic surplus.”

Every afternoon, a dump truck from the Buffalo Zoo arrives at Majewski’s composter site in the Broadway-Bailey neighborhood and deposits about a half-ton of poop scooped from the bison pen, elephant exhibit, giraffe house and the watering holes or hangouts of other herbivorous zoo animals like antelopes, zebras and rhinos.

The arrangement between Majewski’s East Buffalo Custom Composts and the zoo began in March.

“We’re now dumping at Dave’s site about a half-ton a day,” said Tiffany Vanderwerf, the Buffalo Zoo’s curator of education.

It’s just one part of a new sustainability plan at the zoo – and one that could wind up saving the zoo quite a bit of money.

Instead of piling the animals’ daily detritus into large dumpsters to be picked up weekly by refuse trucks and hauled 25 miles to a Lewiston landfill, a zoo dump truck makes the five-mile jaunt to the nine-acre composting site Majewski shares with his business partner Ed Shanahan.

So the manure stays local and gets composted.

“This comes seven days a week. It never stops,” Majewski said. “It smells like you’re walking past the elephant house.”

And that’s OK by Majewski, who blends the nutrient-rich zoo manure – and the alfalfa, straw and wood shavings contained in it – with over-ripened fruits and vegetables he gets from a local produce hauler and other occasional proprietary ingredients.

That creates Majewski’s mixture of some of the most unusual, biologically active compost sites in the state for use locally in bio-retention cells, rain gardens and other soil remediation projects designed to build soil and manage stormwater runoff.

One of the biggest will come soon to Buffalo RiverWorks.

Majewski said about half of the 2,000 cubic yards of his special compost inventory is marked for a massive bio-filtration project at RiverWorks’ new “green parking lot” off Ganson Street. That’s an equivalent of about 10,000 large wheelbarrow loads.

The compost is designed to filter and clean stormwater runoff from RiverWorks’ parking lot before water makes its way through the water table into the nearby Buffalo River.

Majewski’s compost has been – or will be – used in several other local green development initiatives to collect and process stormwater at the Central Terminal’s award-winning Urban Habitat Project, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the south campus of Erie Community College, 257 Lafayette Ave. for the Frizlen Group, and most recently at Dr. Barbara Moore’s pediatric dental office parking lot in Hamburg, among other places.

Adding the zoo’s piles will make the mixture even better, Majewski said.

“The quality of the end product is influenced by the diversity of the ingredients,” Majewski said. “I’m getting this plethora of diversity at one time.”

The idea was born last year during a casual discussion between Majewski and Vicki Hodge, a giraffe keeper at the zoo.

Using animal manure for gardening and horticulture is new at the Buffalo Zoo but not nationwide.

Zoos in Memphis, Seattle and San Diego have been doing it two decades or more.

It’s also caught on in Kansas City, Atlanta and other cities.

But Vanderwerf said zoo officials wanted to do their own research into the safety and efficacy of the practice.

Fecal matter contains bacteria and pathogens.

“We’re very cautious,” Vanderwerf said. “We needed to make sure it was safe.”

The zoo consulted its veterinarians and concluded it could release the manure from its herbivores as a first step.

“Our herbivores are the ones that eat all the fruits and veggies,” Vanderwerf said. “We’re excluding all of our carnivores for now because those are the ones that are eating meat and it’s going through their system so it has lots of creepy, crawly things.”

Majewski said the decomposition process heats the compost up to 180 degrees, effectively killing harmful pathogens and leaving behind a nutrient-charged, healthful, microbial-rich compost.

The compost piles are so special to Majewski, he almost treats them like family.

Each of the nearly two dozen specially formulated compost piles at Majewski’s site is tagged with a boy or girl’s name, birth date, its components as well as the dates and temperatures of the compost. It’s part of how he keeps things straight.

There’s “Nigel,” a newer pile composed of zoo droppings, with signs indicating a mix of pineapples, watermelons, cantaloupes and potatoes.

Two-month-old “Kiowa,” named for Majewski’s granddaughter, is topped with decaying wood chips.

And nearby, “Zen-Igor” – a more aged combination of two compost piles – is taking on the darker, more uniform look of matured compost.

Over the next several months, Majewski will strictly monitor Nigel, Kiowa and Zen-Igor, making sure they retain an optimal temperature for microbial growth – about 110 degrees.

He will turn the piles over every three to five days to alleviate the chance of spontaneous internal combustion, bring samples home to check their progress and composition through a 400x microscope and then make any necessary adjustments to be sure the final product cures correctly.

“The whole process and end product is focused on increasing the microbiology populations,” Majewski said. “It is all about experimenting, failing, succeeding and adjusting.”

“Composting is 60 percent art and 40 percent science,” Majewski said.

The U.S. Air Force veteran attended Clemson University, where he studied ecology, using student aid gained through his military career.

He’s parlayed his knowledge, experience and on-the-job training in botany, mechanics and environmental engineering into a burgeoning business, Sustainable Resources Group of Buffalo. The 20-year-old business, also known as SRG, now includes offshoot East Buffalo Custom Composts.

With all of those job descriptions, how does he describe his job title?

“A chef,” Majewski said. “I’m just making a recipe.”

He said the key to any good recipe is quality ingredients.

“It’s all about the soil,” Majewski said. “Every little thing on this planet is dependent on the soil.”

Hodge, the giraffe keeper at the zoo, said he plans to use the reduced-price finished compost in the zoo’s gardens and plantings around the polar bear exhibit will complete that circle.

“We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” Hodge said. “In the big picture, there are so many benefits from it.”

Besides keeping hundreds of tons of manure out of a landfill, the collaboration will also save the zoo money by reducing its fees to get rid of the manure and to landscape its grounds.

Zoo officials said it’s too early to tell how much money will be saved, but other zoos across the nation have reported annual savings in the tens of thousands of dollars.

“The whole idea of sustainability is to keep it close to home,” Hodge said.

What does Majewski get out of it?

Good ingredients. A resale opportunity. And, a free zoo membership.

“I asked for a ‘platinum family pass,’ ” Majewski said. “I’ve been going to the zoo since I was 3.”