Recent mandates to further organics diversion will result in greater material volume, which, in turn, will spur the need for new facilities and the expansion of existing ones. Facilities that currently process only yard trimmings and choose to expand to include food residuals will require additional regulatory approvals.
Failure to manage odors adequately during composting is the most common cause of adverse publicity, regulatory pressures and facility closures. A recent Listserv posting showed residents and elected officials demanding that a local composting facility be shut down because of chronic odor complaints. Other compost facilities with similar issues have been plagued by complaints, lawsuits or closure. Among the approximately 4,000 compost facilities in the United States, however, there are many well-run operations that have few, if any, odor complaints and live in harmony with neighboring communities and regulators. The concern is that odor issues, shutdowns and adverse publicity will impede the expansion of existing facilities or the siting of new ones. To deter this outcome, all existing facilities need to follow strict protocols for optimizing the composting process and managing odors.
With the advances made in composting during the past 20 years, we presently have the tools to operate efficient compost facilities while maintaining odors at acceptably low levels. Although fugitive emissions may occur at any facility due to a temporary operational problem, this should be only a rare occurrence, and a contingency response plan to resolve the situation quickly needs to be readily available and immediately implemented.
The design of all composting and anaerobic digestion facilities should include a comprehensive odor management plan and site operations plan that optimizes the composting process and incorporates site-specific measures to mitigate potential odor emissions at every stage of the process. In addition, specific plans are needed to address fugitive emissions that could escape on occasion and potentially impact sensitive receptors downwind of the facility. To accomplish this, facility planners should incorporate advances in composting systems and technologies, odor prevention and treatment methods, and best management practices for facility operations, while owners should recruit qualified site managers who have thorough understanding of the composting process as well as experience in utilizing site-specific solutions. If a site manager needs assistance to this end, another option would be to hire a consultant with the requisite expertise to develop the plans and controls as needed and then train site personnel to implement them. No matter how good a composting system design looks on paper, knowledgeable and experienced site managers are essential to efficiently implement operational procedures and odor control protocols. At a minimum, this position requires an individual who has a solid understanding of the biology of composting, the factors that govern the process, and practical application of the science to real-world situations.
Compost sites and anaerobic digestion facilities that operate in harmony with neighboring communities and regulatory officials provide a powerful incentive for approval to site new facilities and expand existing ones. The development of an ever-broadening infrastructure that will continue to accommodate increased diversion of food residuals and other organics is critical to the ongoing and arduous journey towards zero waste. I have learned through my own experience as a site manager and as a consultant for new and existing facilities with odor issues that getting it right from the outset proves less expensive than undergoing a constant barrage of complaints or battling with regulatory officials which may result in sanctions, fines and legal action.
Odor management is a monumental topic that can only be touched on briefly in this column. Future articles will address specific aspects of odor control that may be helpful to both novices and veteran composters, as well as operators of anaerobic digestion facilities. Odor issues and solutions are among the many topics focusing on the future of the organics management industry that will be addressed at the Third Annual Composting and Organics Recycling Conference at WasteExpo in Las Vegas in June 2015.
Stuart Buckner, Ph.D., is the principal of Buckner Environmental Associates LLC in East Islip, N.Y.