Meeting Diversion Goals: Compost Countdown

Not only will January 1, 2000 usher in a new millennium, it also will be judgment day for many cities and counties striving to reach mandated diversion levels. To help them along, more than 29 states have passed legislation banning green wastes from landfills, and like dominos, the rest are likely to follow.

So, where have all the leaves gone? Hopefully, into a compost pile somewhere.

Composting reduces the volume of feedstock by one-third to one-half, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB), Sacramento, Calif. So, one ton of organic material makes approximately one-half ton of compost.

And, compost not only provides a function to the enormous amount of diverted green wastes, it's beneficial too.

"In addition to being used as a soil amendment to improve its organic structure, compost also is used as a disease suppressant, to help change pH levels, for erosion control, as mulch and even as a remediation medium due to its absorptive qualities," says Rebecca Roe, a spokesperson for The Compost Council (TCC), Alexandria, Va.

Farmers and growers in large-scale agriculture currently represent the largest market for urban compost use. However, nursery owners and landscapers are emerging markets that are gaining momentum, according to the CIWMB.

Before starting composting programs, thoroughly consider all aspects from beginning to end. Criteria to be considered include cost factors, goals, public-versus-private and, most importantly, compost end use. According to Roe, challenges to marketing compost include:

* product maturity;

* odors;

* user education;

* aesthetics and contaminants (heavy metals, plastic or other organic debris);

* meeting regulatory requirements;

* finding dependable haulers;

* finding a means of properly spreading; and

* promotion costs.

If you're considering using compost, costs may be your biggest concern. The cost of using compost includes the product's price plus any delivery and application fees. The costs to spread the product remain relatively high, the CIWMB reports, and likely will until equipment and application methods can be refined - a situation that can only occur with increased usage. Also, transportation costs can exceed the product's cost when shipping a great distance.

Front-end costs must be compared to back-end benefits such as crop yield or increased organic matter. In addition, comparing short-term benefits of synthetic inputs to the long-term benefits of compost (improved water-holding capacity) may prove difficult, warns the CIWMB.

Home Composting An estimated 3 percent of the population compost at home, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C. Often, they are encouraged by their city or county who offer grasscycling and backyard composting programs.

Specifically, communities with centralized compost facilities can benefit from these programs, according to a nationwide survey conducted for TCC. Reportedly, 97 percent of survey respondents affirmed that home composting complements centralized composting.

Communities of all income levels participate in home composting. The average program budget is $15,000, based on the survey results. Some large, regional programs have budgets that exceed $100,000. At minimum, most home composting programs:

* employ a paid staff person;

* distribute brochures on composting;

* offer home composting workshops;

* distribute compost bins; and

* educate children and teachers about composting.

In addition, some of the more successful programs also use:

* advertising;

* volunteer training to teach others about composting;

* compost demonstration gardens;

* literature for distribution; and

* a telephone hotline.

According to the survey, volunteers contribute approximately 200 hours, performing duties such as distributing literature and giving workshops. More than 75 percent of respondents indicated that volunteers help in various capacities with their community's home composting program.

Many programs distribute home compost bins, often at a subsidized rate. The average subsidy was $16 per bin - ranging $0 to $34 per bin, according to the survey. However, the results did not provide clear evidence that bin distribution correlates with high participation rates or waste diversion.

Comprehensive composting programs typically offer compost hotlines, which according to the survey, are used heavily by residents: An average of 900 calls were reportedly received per year by the respondents. And, compared with other promotional approaches, hotlines are low-cost education and outreach tools.

Home composting programs responding to the survey reportedly divert an average of 14 percent of the total yard trimmings generated in their communities. More than half are diverting at least 1,000 tons per year through home composting.

The sampled set of home composting programs has an average goal of 45 percent for single-family households. These goals can be attained only through sustained efforts over a number of years.

On average, residents who home compost in these communities divert approximately 650 pounds per year from the solid waste system. This is roughly equivalent to one ton diverted per year for every three households that compost at home, the survey reports. These residents generate approximately 20 cubic feet of compost annually; residential gardens typically can incorporate at least this amount of compost into the soil every year.

In some communities, grasscycling reportedly forms the most important component of source reduction of residentially-generated organic materials, according to the survey. Communities which indicated that they have significant grasscycling programs have below-average program costs, in terms of dollars spent for every ton of material that is diverted from the solid waste stream.

What's In A Name? What is the key to selling your compost at the highest price? First, you must realize that all compost is not equal and take advantage of this: Products or "brand names" from recognized producers command higher prices.

Compost brokers typically are paying between $1.50 to $19 per ton for compost while professional end users are paying between $2 and $27.50 per cubic yard, according to recent statistics. Retail customers are purchasing the product for between $4 and $35 per cubic yard, picked up. Bagged product is being marketed for between $1.50 and $4 per bag by mass merchandisers as well as local garden centers.

The challenge? Compost marketers must find a way to make their own product stand out in the crowd.

Remember, consistent product quality, customer service and successful marketing techniques are key ingredients to maintaining product demand. Specifically, users want "clean" compost with no contamination by unprocessed waste or heavy metals.

Curbside-collected organics may be mixed with glass, plastic, metal, rock or other foreign matter, according to the CIWMB. Even green material processed through a permitted facility may contain contaminants, such as plastic bags or tennis balls that are not screened out during processing.

In an effort to help compost manufacturers and end users meet half-way, TCC currently is developing the Compost Assurance Program (CAP). The program's purpose, according to Roe, is to allow consumers to compare products, to standardize compost information and, ultimately, to assure better performance and quality.

As with any business, a compost producer must reliably produce a consistent product and have sufficient quantities available when needed. With a "seal of assurance," producers can add credibility to the product by offering consumers a "second opinion."

CAP's key elements include:

* regular testing of product according to standard test methodologies;

* producer providing reporting/labeling to customers;

* producer providing guidance in proper use of compost product;

* independent labs using standard methodologies to certify compliance; and

* council certifying producer participation in compliance with CAP.

"Once the program is approved," says Roe, "it will be disseminated to state agencies to regulate local composters."

In California, a program similar to CAP already is underway. In fact, the Sonoma Compost Co., Sonoma, Calif., has earned the first official seal of approval in the state for its yard waste compost product, using guidelines developed by the California Compost Quality Council (CCQC), an association comprised of farmers, compost producers, agriculturists, landscapers, university professors, soil researchers and recycling advocates.

The CCQC required the company to pass site inspection visits, maintain strict quality control over its products and comply with stringent state composting guidelines limiting the presence of pathogens and trace elements. Additionally, it had to disclose its composting methods and product's organic matter, salinity, feedstock additives, particle size, bulk density, pH levels and moisture content.

Developing Agricultural Markets In California Farmers and growers in large-scale agriculture represent the largest market for urban compost use, says Roe.

In California, compostable or organic material - comprising more than 40 percent of the solid waste stream - can be put to good use on the state's 30 million acres of farmland.

Although organic and sustainable farming methods promote compost use, most farmers have little firsthand experience using compost and agricultural markets remain largely undeveloped, says the CIWMB.

Awareness of sustainable farming practices, however, continues to grow, spurred on by the need to:

* reduce hazardous pesticide use;

* conserve water, particularly to reduce nitrate leaching from agricultural chemicals into the water table;

* prevent erosion; and

* adopt methods replenishing soil's organic matter.

"In California, there is a big movement away from fertilizer and toward more organic uses," Roe reports.

As a result, the CIWMB has contracted with the University of California system and local governments to use compost or mulch in five multi-year agricultural demonstrations. The projects' focus is to promote the use of urban yard trimmings in the state's commercial agriculture, which harvests approximately 8 million acres a year.

Farmers in Alameda, Fresno, Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara, Stanislaus and Tulare counties established agricultural trials using yard trimmings compost or mulch (see demos on pages 40, 41 and 45).

According to the CIWMB, commercial crops such as apricots, broccoli, cotton, grapes, green peppers, jala-peno peppers, hay, lettuce, onions, radicchio, peaches, strawberries, tomatoes, watermelons, Christmas trees and nursery stock were grown in soil amended or mulched with materials primarily made from yard trimmings.

Farmers can realize several benefits from the use of compost in commercial crop production. An increase in soil organic matter and the diversity of the soil's microbial population are anticipated benefits associated with regular compost amendment to most California soils.

Some of these demonstrations are attempting to evaluate other potential advantages such as an increase in soil moisture infiltration and retention, a reduction in commercial fertilization applications and a reduction in nitrate leaching.

Overall, the relationship between the characteristics of different compost types and their potential impact on soils and crop productivity are still unclear, says the CIWMB.

It cannot be assumed that all composts will provide the same benefits and, so, until these products are more predictable, a more dramatic increase in agricultural markets' use of organic material will be a difficult row to hoe.

A two-year nursery trial on various species of containerized plants was conducted at Grover Nursery, Stanislaus County, Calif. Preliminary data from the trials suggest that the fertilization of containerized plants may be reduced if 50 percent or more compost is used in the potting mix, according to the CIWMB. Additionally, data collected during the three years of watermelon, sweet corn and tomato production on the C.J. Rumble Ranch soon will be analyzed and disseminated to row crop farmers.

For more information, contact Kevin Williams at (209) 525-4160.

Cotton was planted at the Tulare County, Calif.-based Bergman Ranches in April 1995 using compost or chicken manure alternately applied to adjacent strips at a rate of five tons per acre. Preliminary data indicates no significant difference in the cotton yields, according to the CIWMB.

In winter 1996, the crop was changed from cotton to corn and two additional compost strips were applied at a 15- to 20-tons-per-acre rate on either side of the original trial. Single-year yields and other parameters soon will be evaluated for each growing season to compare effects and cost benefits of a single, high-rate application versus annual, low-rate applications.

For more information, contact Carol Frate at (209) 733-6363.

A Christmas tree farm and apricot orchard near Gilroy, Calif., joined Wente Brothers Winery in a mulch demonstration in 1995. In this trial, night crawlers were introduced on a small scale to the mulched apricot orchard. Also, weed germination studies were conducted at the Bay Area Extension Experiment Station to address farm advisors' concerns regarding the possible introduction of noxious weeds as a result of applying uncomposted material.

For more information, contact Jo Zientek at (408) 277-5533.

Composted green material, prepared mostly from home garden debris, was applied in the Wawona Orchards, Fresno County, Calif., over a four-year period. When the compost was applied at the same rate of nitrogen as the other standard materials, it adequately maintained the recommended nutrition levels of the trees, according to the CIWMB.

Fruit yields, size, quality and post-harvest did not vary substantially between the trees treated with compost and those treated with the regular methods. In addition, no increases in either disease or insect damage were noted.

A taste test panel was conducted in 1995 using peaches fertilized with the compost. According to the CIWMB, the panelists could not detect any differences as far as sweetness, color or aroma were concerned; however they did find that the peaches grown with commercial fertilizer were "less mushy" than those grown with the compost.

For more information, contact Harry Andis at (209) 456-7557.

In 1994, experimental composting projects were initiated with two on-farm compost operations and the North Monterey County, Calif., Waste Management District. The Glaum Egg Ranch's shredded waxed cardboard compost and a yard trimmings and wood waste compost from the North Monterey Landfill were used in Monterey crop trials.

Almost all of the crop trials were done in commercial fields managed with typical grower practices, the CIWMB says. The crops tested included broccoli, onions, lettuce, cauliflower, beets and potatoes.

Trial results reportedly varied from significant suppression of plant disease to crop damage due to a soil insect. Yield increases were observed for lettuce in a Monterey County field, but not in a trial conducted in San Benito County. However, compost applications did appear to influence soil nitrogen dynamics and soil microbiology.

Finally, conflicting results in onion trials, where suppression of Fusarium end rot was observed in 1995 but not in 1996 suggest that there are subtle differences in characteristics contributing to compost quality, according to the CIWMB.

For more information contact: Marc Buchanan at (408) 459-6859.

Communities that are planning to set up or to expand home composting programs should consider Berkeley, Calif.-based Applied Compost Consulting's recommendations to The Compost Council:

1. Focus efforts on single-family households.

2. Target people who garden at home first.

3. Develop a brochure.

4. Gather volunteer support and assistance.

5. Give how-to workshops on home composting.

6. Use media effectively to publicize the program.

7. Disseminate information through community groups.

8. Include grasscycling tips in any promotional or educational information.

9. Evaluate a mobile or neighborhood chipping program for brush and branches.

10. Structure economic incentives for participation, by adopting refuse collection rates that reward waste reduction.

11. Consider having a subsidized compost bin purchase program - especially one-day sales.

12. Evaluate cost-sharing opportunities among cities within a county for educational efforts and bin distribution programs.

13. Provide a hotline number

14. Measure success over the course of at least a few years.

15. Monitor results, especially participation,diversion rates and cost per ton diverted.