Sealing Compost's Fate

Like shopping in a used car lot, compost end-users can't always be sure they won't get a lemon.

This is because “there are composters who don't test,” says one composting facility owner. “You've got a lot of people who are piling up material, and they'll call it whatever.”

The United States Composting Council's (USCC) Seal of Testing Assurance (STA) Program is trying to change that. Initiated three years ago, STA strives to improve customer confidence in compost selection and use by encouraging compost producers to test (with standardized methods) and label their product.

In a grocery store, every packaged product lists the ingredients, nutritional facts or instructions on how to use the product. The USCC says these same common-sense standards should be applied to compost, too, according to Ron Alexander, STA Program co-manager.

Compost Quality Control

When composters join the program, they are required to regularly sample and test their products using STA-approved labs for chemical, physical and biological properties. All labs use the same standardized testing methods.

Testing frequency is based on each facility's production volume. Smaller composters test quarterly while larger producers test monthly. And lab data is available to both the USCC and the composter, who then can provide it to specifiers and customers to inform them about the compost they're purchasing.

Upon receiving the laboratory test data, fees and other required program information, the USCC also will approve the participant's compost as “STA certified,” permitting the use of the STA logo on all literature and bagged product.

Currently, the program's main funding comes from participation fees — $650 a year or $500 a year for USCC members. STA also has had the backing of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture, both Washington, D.C.-based.

The EPA provided initial funding for STA, and the Department of Agriculture helped fund the Test Methods for the Examination of Compost and Composting Manual (TMECC). Some Department of Agriculture labs also were used to test compost in the program's trial year.

The USCC's ultimate goal is to have compost specifiers, regulators and users purchase only STA-certified compost. But so far, the young program has only attracted 60 participants producing 1.7 million cubic yards.

Testing a Young Program

“I'm not sure how much it's really catching on,” says Ken McEntee, who covers the industry through regional monthly profiles of compost producers for the Composting News. “I don't often run across somebody who is involved with the STA Program.”

Wayne King of ERTH Products, Peachtree City, Ga., operates the largest composting facility in Georgia and was the first to enroll in the STA Program. His facility in Plains, Ga., was first to qualify for the STA label on its bags.

“We are committed to that program and think that this is where we're going to have to go to raise the bar and separate the large-scale manufacturers from the backyard composters,” he says.

But other composters don't see much incentive for joining the program, or say the program doesn't do enough.

Geoff Kuter, president of Agresource, Amesbury, Mass., says his company has participated for two years and will continue to participate, but his own testing goes above and beyond what the STA Program mandates.

“For many products which are regulated, such as biosolids compost, the program doesn't fully satisfy the regulatory requirements and thus adds expense without necessarily any proven value,” he says.

However, Kuter sees incentive for facilities that aren't required by their permit to test compost to join the program because it provides “a one-stop sampling, testing, quality-control program in one nice, neat package.”

“Unfortunately, the program is most valuable to people who are least sophisticated about evaluating their own compost, and those are the people who are least aware that it even exists,” he says. “I would do most of this testing on my own anyway, and had been before I started participating in the program. I continue to do additional testing outside of the program because I don't think it includes all the parameters I want.”

Particularly in an industry where each composter has his own laundry list of tests depending on the particular product, creating a one-size-fits-all testing solution for all products and facilities is impossible, Kuter says.

“The program is successful [considering] what it's doing is difficult,” he notes. “It's walked that fine line between including a lot of tests and keeping a basic set of tests at a reasonable price. For a small facility that's getting started, it's an excellent program.”

Test Benefits All

According to Alexander, although composters may be making different products, “one of the benefits of this program is standardized lab testing and sampling procedures.”

“Maybe it doesn't help every STA member,” he says, “but it's a long-term benefit to the industry.”

King agrees.

“Previously, if you took a large sample of your product and sent it to three different labs, you would get three different answers,” he says. “There are different ways for testing for salts, other nutrients, carbon and ash. Depending on which way they're doing it, you get different answers. The STA labs that do the testing are certified, or designated STA-approved.”

This means the program will provide better data to help move the industry forward, according to Alexander.

“Our industry is typically not even properly labeling their products,” he says. “We need to better educate buyers … so they buy the correct product.”

Still, Kuter says no customer has ever asked about his testing data or whether he participates in the program. And until customers do, there's little incentive for producers to do more than their permit requires.

“If the compost customer said, ‘I want to see that data and I'm willing to pay extra for your compost,’ or ‘I'm going to pick your compost over someone else's because you're participating in the program,’ then you'd see more people participating,” he adds.

Alexander attributes the lack of customer knowledge to the program's infancy.

“Some facilities will say, ‘I sell all my compost, why do I need to do this?’ My only argument is that when your competition starts to have the seal on their product and you don't, it's going to affect you,” Alexander says.

Composters also can benefit from the program's reduced lab fees. The battery of tests can be pretty expensive, Alexander explains. “But labs are putting [them] into an ‘STA testing package’ and giving us fantastic prices,” he says.

For example, labs charge between $150 to $400 for heavy-metal testing. But the STA Program's entire test packages typically cost between $225 and $350, including respirometry testing, which can cost $100 to $125, Alexander says.

The Value of a Seal

Beyond the price reductions, Alexander believes the STA Program will help composters think more like an industry instead of individuals.

But to do this, the USCC would have to overcome the challenge of growing the program nationally, says Matt Cotton, principal of Integrated Waste Management Consulting, a member of California Compost Quality Council (CCQC), Nevada City, Calif., and USCC board member.

For instance, California's five-year-old testing program, which is similar to the STA but more comprehensive, was difficult to implement in a state where most of the regulations are uniform.

“Every state is different, the regs, requirements and standards are different, and it's difficult to bring all that together,” he says. “[The USCC has] done a good job, but there's more they can do.”

Cotton suggests using STA as a minimum starting point.

“Better, more forward-thinking, well-developed facilities are going to be attracted to it because they want to show that they're doing a really nice job,” he says. “They're going to have the forethought and the forward-thinking attitude that, ‘We need to support this, it's a good idea and it's going to help the industry, not just my facility.’”

As more composters join the program, this may help add measurable value to the seal.

“To add real value to a customer, [the STA seal] has to mean something to the buyer,” Cotton says. “There's so much value to compost that most people outside the industry don't appreciate. It's probably going to take 20 years, realistically, before people really say, ‘I want that and not this.’”

King says he often has to explain the seal to customers, but once he does, it can separate his company from the competition. Particularly, the program makes a difference when working with architects on specifications for “high-end” projects like golf courses. And King has earned projects with the Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) because the seal provides assurance that his products will perform.

“When I meet with the architects on big jobs and I can explain to them why they can have some confidence in our material that it will perform when we use it in these engineered soils, it makes it a lot easier sell,” King says. “It's like the ‘Good Housekeeping’ Seal. If you put two bags in front of [a customer] and one has the STA and the other doesn't, they might choose it if they didn't know one product from another.”

Pushing Forward

Ultimately, the STA program will depend on composters to buy into the program, and promote it.

“It's like a carrot and stick,” Alexander says. “There are people who are marketing minded who are going to get involved because they see the value — the carrot. But there will be composters who aren't going to get in until they're hit with a stick, which means their customers are demanding that they get in the program, landscape architects are specifying it or the state DOT says, ‘Sorry, you're not in this program; we can't buy your product.’”

Some composters won't ever want to participate, he admits. Perhaps they're satisfied with their own testing, perhaps they don't see the value or perhaps they just don't want more regulations to follow.

Nevertheless, the USCC will continue its push to get more facilities to participate in the STA program, and to educate customers about the program's value.

“I would like to have multiple facilities in every state involved,” Alexander says. But in the meantime, the goal is to sign up 100 composting facilities to the program.

King, however, hopes for a different outcome.

“What we don't want are failures in this industry,” he says. “We want to see good, consistent quality products. And once more people have more confidence in compost, then there will be more demand for it.”

According to both King and Alexander, they expect the STA will provide that kind of confidence.

Nikki Swartz is a free-lance writer based in Springfield, Mo.