Thomaston Mills officials are thankful their trash is a treasure to area farmers.
The Thomaston, Ga., textile mill's slashing, scouring, bleaching, mercerizing and dyeing processes produce a lot of solid waste. For years, the mill got rid of that waste by spreading it on its own property.
With the added waste products, the mill's landscapes flourished. In one area, the waste rebuilt the topsoil's nutrients and organic matter where commercial fertilizers had failed.
Problems arose, though, when production increased. The mill reached a point that it was producing more waste than it had land to distribute it on.
"We had seen from our own experience how vegetation thrives when the waste product is applied," said projects manager John Hightower. "But to distribute the product outside the mill, we had to have proof of its benefits.
"To have the product labeled as a soil amendment by the Georgia Department of Agriculture," he said, "we needed a credible source to test the waste."
The mill found its credible source in Larry Shuman, a University of Georgia soil chemist at the Georgia Experiment Station in Griffin. Shuman took samples of the waste material to his lab and analyzed its contents.
He found phosphorous and nitrogen, which build up organic matter in soil. "They improve the moisture-holding content of soil and improve aggregation," he said.
Shuman then studied the waste product's effects on crops. Using cecil soil, the reddish soil common in the Georgia Piedmont, Shuman planted corn and applied the mill waste. Results showed the plant weight increased three times over the control plant's weight.
"I used corn because it's an easy crop to work with, but the material should primarily be used on pasture lands to increase vegetative growth," Shuman said.
With Shuman's data, the mill was able to apply for a permit to distribute the waste product as an agricultural product now known as "Agri-fiber."
"Larry helped us 'sell' it to farmers, so to speak," Hightower said. "We now give it away to cattle farmers in our area. We knew it would grow grass. But we didn't know if there were any down sides. Larry provided us the data we needed to prove it's a beneficial product."
Had the mill not gotten an agricultural classification for the waste, it would have had to bear the cost of drying it out and hauling it to a landfill for disposal.
Shuman also analyzed a waste product from the mill's coal-fired boiler. He found the product, boiler ash, contains calcium and magnesium, which are also beneficial plant nutrients. The boiler ash also has a liming effect -- it can raise the soil pH.
The mill now distributes the boiler waste to farmers, too.
"Before we found out how useful it is to farmers, we were having to haul the boiler ash 80 miles away to Taylor County and pay $20 a ton to dispose of it," Hightower said. "We were averaging 50 tons a week. That's a high price to pay for waste disposal."
Besides saving the mill money, using its waste on area farms conserves badly needed space in nearby landfills.
"Here we've taken two waste products and put them to commercial use," said Paul D'Andries, the mill's environmental manager. "Now that's what I call pollution prevention."
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)