Many communities would like to incorporate composting into their waste management agendas, but devising an economically sound and logistically feasible plan can be a nightmare.

However, thanks to a recent report, entitled “Building a Market-based System of Farm Composting of Commercial Food Waste,” fertile fields may be ahead.

Published by the Center for Ecological Technology (CET), Northampton, Mass., the report details how CET, along with waste generators, farmers and haulers, implemented a comprehensive, long-term approach to composting commercial organic waste.

From fall 1996 through spring 2000, more than 70 businesses diverted 22,000 tons of organic materials to seven farms using six haulers. The report notes that this waste diversion reduced greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 5,700 metric tons of carbon equivalent (MTCE).

To begin the project, CET organized a group of farmers, haulers and waste generators. An infrastructure, which consumed the majority of the project's time and resources, was created. It includes how each sector performs its major activities, such as scheduling waste collection, planning the most efficient trucking routes, etc. Also, an economic incentive for participants was established, which allowed cooperation that otherwise wouldn't have been possible, according to John Majercak, director of special projects at CET.

CET then assisted participants in establishing their routines. For waste generators, the organization coordinated waste pickup with haulers and designated a farm as a drop-off site for organic materials. Also, the report states, the organization “helped businesses with the design and development of organic waste separation, collection and storage systems.”

Once the program began, diversion rates and savings were monitored, which turned out to be significant for most generators such as the regional supermarket chain, Big Y World Class Markets.

Currently, Big Y sends organic waste from 14 of its locations to composting farms. Materials diverted include food waste from the produce, bakery and deli departments, and waxed corrugated boxes. Each department disposes of its compostable material in a dumpster specified for organics. The containers are emptied once a week.

On average, Big Y stores divert 5.1 tons per month, approximately 27 percent of the chain's waste stream. Each store saves approximately $138 per month, according to the report. In total, all 14 locations save a total of approximately $23,000 yearly.

For haulers, the composting program makes economic sense because the diminishing number of local landfills has caused tipping fees to increase.

CET helped area haulers including Waste Management Inc., Houston, to design efficient routes and, eventually, collect 15 tons to 20 tons per week. According to company District Manager Brian English, “Waste Management believes that composting is an untapped market that will become big … in the next few years. The organics route is a value-added service.”

Waste Management did face difficulty in collecting uncontaminated material but is considering adding more customers to this program, the report adds. Routes are expected to become more profitable as more volume is collected, Majercak says.

According to the report, CET helped farmers schedule delivery times, identify appropriate organic waste generators, provide waste quality control, manage regulatory issues and more. Farmers noted their efforts were profitable or would be profitable in the future.

Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School Farm, Northampton, Mass., generated $13,000 annually in compost sales. Although the farm has an educational mission, it operates as a business to fund learning activities, according to the report. The farm composted manure, bedding and approximately 12 tons per week of food and corrugated cardboard.

Smith Farm plans to continue the composting program and currently is making improvements.

After four years, participants have learned several lessons, including:

  • Larger waste generators can save money by composting source-separated organic waste. Interestingly, through the program, “supermarkets and institutions reduced overall waste management costs by 10 percent to 25 percent,” the report states.
  • Haulers must collect efficiently and have long-term access to compost sites. They were open to providing services if it was economically feasible, convenient and long-term. Material transportation also must be efficient.
  • Farmers benefit from starting small and adding specialized equipment as operations grow. Most farms were comfortable with their existing equipment. However, when compost volumes increased, many farmers bought or rented specialized equipment such as windrow turners and screeners.

CET's success has helped similar types of projects around the country. Currently, the organization is conducting a food waste recycling program in the greater Boston area with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Boston, and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Boston.

For more information about CET's project, visit to download a free copy of the report in PDF format. To request a hard copy of the report, e-mail the EPA's RCRA Research Library at [email protected]