Environment

This week, about 30 large truckloads of horse manure and soiled hay will leave Churchill Downs.

The manure is taken to nearby agricultural areas and used as fertilizer. But a Kentucky-based startup is trying to attract investment in a process that would recycle the horse bedding and be easier on the environment.

On a clear April day, Shelly Townsend’s horses were out in the pasture on her farm outside of Lexington.

But sometimes, they’re in their stalls, standing on a floor covered with fine wood shavings. And two to three times a day, the stalls have to be mucked.

“We clean them,” Townsend said. “The wet spots are taken out and the manure’s taken out and then it’s disposed of.”

That means some of the wood shavings Townsend’s horses use as bedding have to be replaced. On a small scale—like on her farm—it’s not a big deal to remove and compost the manure and urine laced-shavings. But for places with thousands of horses, it’s a nightmare. And that’s where Townsend’s startup, Equine Eco Green comes in.

“Wood is a cellulose material,” she said. “We can wash our sheets, why can’t we wash theirs?”

What Equine Eco Green wants to do is collect truckloads of used horse bedding and run it through a cleaning process. The manure is removed and composted, and Townsend said she has a contract to sell that compost. Then the wood shavings go through a patented process and are cleaned and bagged to re-sell to horse farms.

“And you don’t know the difference,” she said. “It looks like it did when you got it from the sawmill. Actually, it’s a little bit cleaner.”

If some of the shavings are too dark to be resold, those will be made into fire logs.

Equine Eco Green could operate in places around the U.S, including Kentucky, Townsend said. But she’s targeting Wellington, Florida, as the place to launch her startup. Anywhere from 12 to 15,000 horses are stabled there, and the mild weather means Equine Eco Green could operate year-round.

And in Wellington, horse manure and used bedding are causing an environmental nightmare.

“All you have to do is have a nose and drive through the south part of Wellington, and you know there’s poop out there,” said Bill Louda, a professor of biochemistry and environmental science at Florida Atlantic University.

In Wellington, the equine industry is producing hundreds of thousands of pounds of waste every day, and the city’s only solution is to spread the soiled bedding and manure on nearby sugarcane fields. They fill up 60 acres every two weeks.

That’s wreaking havoc on Florida’s waterways, Louda said.

Townsend and one of her horses.Erica Peterson | wfpl.org

Townsend and one of her horses.

“Normally this is a good fertilizer when it’s used responsibly,” he said. “But in this case, the manure is applied raw onto the fields, which results in large amounts of phosphorus getting into the water system.

“The problem with runoff is it gets into our side canals, goes into bigger canals, goes into Lake Worth, goes into the Everglades and causes algal blooms.”

One of the reasons that Louda is a fan of Townsend’s process for recycling the horse manure and bedding is because it’s a closed-loop system: all of the water from the process is recycled, so it keeps all of these extra nutrients out of the waterways. This problem with excess nutrients causing algal blooms is an issue in Kentucky, too, though other industries contribute as well.

And besides the environmental benefit of recycling the bedding and reducing the phosphorus in the watershed, Townsend said her plan will be profitable. The source material—horse poop and soiled bedding—is free, and she said the end product will be cheaper for consumers, too.

But Equine Eco Green is still about $3.5 million away from becoming reality; Townsend is looking for investors. And meanwhile, the city of Wellington is four years into a five-year program of studying its horse waste problem, and officials hope to have a solution on line by next year. The city’s program director said another company, similar to Townsend’s, is moving forward with site development and hopes to be online soon.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.