Doing the Dirty Work

FOR COMPANIES OR MUNICIPALITIES looking to turn trash into cash, a composting facility may be just the ticket. However, it's important to first study the market area to determine if opening a facility would be feasible.

Market studies evaluate the revenue potential of new composting operations and are critical when developing a business plan. Such studies determine an operation's financial sustainability, and help a business or city decide whether it should establish a composting site.

The University of Georgia's Engineering and Outreach Service, Athens, Ga., and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Pollution Prevention Assistance Division, Atlanta, conducted a study that included a statewide compost marketing survey.

First, researchers categorized the quantity of compost processed according to facility type. In 2002, Georgia had 38 active composting operations that processed 553,600 tons per year of organic materials. Of those 38 operations: 18 were private, 12 were institutional (schools and prisons), and eight were municipal.

Private operations composted all types of feedstocks but primarily animal manures (33.3 percent) and yard waste (27.8 percent). The one private operation that composted biosolids accounted for 33.8 percent of all private materials composted and 25 percent of all materials composted in the state.

Of the 12 institutional sites, one operation was responsible for 28.2 percent of the 14,206 tons composted per year. Eleven of the 12 institutional operations were composting food waste, while one site composted yard waste and was pilot testing food waste.

Of the eight municipal sites, four composted biosolids, two yard waste and two industrial wastes, including municipal solid waste (MSW) and tobacco residuals.

Facilities used and/or distributed compost in one of four ways: 42 percent used their product internally; 31 percent sold in bulk quantities; 19 percent were small-scale landscape suppliers and nurseries that sold bagged compost; and 8 percent were municipalities and private manufacturers, contracted by municipalities, that gave compost to the public.

The majority of the compost produced at the eight municipal operations was given away to county residents or used as landfill cover or roadside plantings. The compost ranged in price from free to $10 per cubic yard.

According to the survey, institutional compost operations typically used compost internally and did not market to the public. Institutions composted either to reduce waste, save money or use in school environmental education programs.

Private vendors were classified as bulk or bagged product suppliers. Typically, vendors of bagged compost were small-scale nurseries and home garden centers, which sold between 333 cubic yards and 780 cubic yards per year, with the smaller number sold by a family owned nursery and the larger number sold by large home and garden stores.

Compost sold by study participants most commonly was in 40-pound bags approximately 1 cubic-foot in volume. Prices ranged from $2.35 to almost $8 per bag, with an average price of $4.72 per bag. Factors that most affected the market price included compost quality, nutrient content, feedstock material and quantity of compost sold.

Bulk compost vendors typically were large nurseries, landscaping companies or compost manufacturers, selling on average nearly 950 cubic yards of compost per year. Bulk compost normally weighs between 800 to 1,200 pounds per cubic yard. The average bulk price for a cubic yard of compost varied from $13 per cubic yard for yard waste compost to $35 per cubic yard for food waste compost. Research showed that price varied by feedstock material and the finished product's quality.

Compost manufacturers were identified by facility type and by location. Of the 38 composting operations surveyed, 76 percent were located outside the 22-county metro-Atlanta area, while 24 percent were within the metro area. The compost price outside the metro area was 46 percent greater than that within the city because compost prices normally are influenced more by source material than by the operation's location.

Landscapers and nurseries were the two largest volume buyers of compost. The amount of compost purchased by nurseries and landscapers varied from 150 tons per year to nearly 2,000 tons per year. On average, landscapers bought approximately 800 tons per year at an average price of $9 per cubic yard. Nurseries typically bought both bulk and bagged compost — the bulk compost was used internally, while the bagged compost was sold to their customers. Nurseries bought compost at an average price of $12.33 per cubic yard. The higher cost of compost purchased by nurseries probably is due to the increased cost of bagged compost, which is often of higher quality and in lower volumes.

Clearly, marketing surveys are a snapshot in time as products and economies continually fluctuate. Since this study was conducted, some facilities have significantly increased or decreased their throughput volumes, and new composting facilities have begun operations. Future studies should concentrate on specific compost product markets, such as potting soil or erosion control applications; product development, such as processing adjustments, blending with other materials and/or field trials; product specifications, such as the new erosion and sediment control specifications developed for the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials; marketing strategies, such as researching target customers and regional product demand; and dissemination on a regional scale through sales and advertising efforts.

A marketing study that detects a sufficient demand or insufficient supply for specific products can be a great catalyst for economic development within the given study region. Companies willing to do the dirty work and scrape through the statistics help place themselves at the top of the composting heap.

Final use of compost for composting operations in Georgia

Type of facility Internal use only Free to the public Sold by the yard1 Sold by the ton
Institutional 12 0 0 0
Municipal 3 2 2 1
Private 5 22 11 0
TOTAL 20 4 13 1
1 Four operations that sell by the yard also sell compost in bags
2 Both of these operations are under contract by municipality to provide compost to public for free
Courtesy of The University of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources