Whether you are just starting to look into opportunities in the composting industry or want to step up your game to be a successful compost producer, you have to manage your fixed operational cost and produce quality end products people want to buy. According to Vermeer Recycling and Forestry Sales Manager Ted Dirkx, you can tackle both those objectives by managing how material flows through your yard.
“Having spent time working with composters from around the world, I can say that the layout of a compost facility says a lot about how lean it is operated,” Dirkx explained. “Layout determines how efficiently material is handled and can significantly impact the quality of the end products produced. A good layout minimizes material handling and helps control outside factors, like moisture, that can impact maturing and cause odors. And while the overview of how a compost facility is constructed can seem pretty basic, it’s the little details that make the difference between average and great producers.”
To get a better understanding of the details that matter, let’s take a quick tour of an efficient composting facility. And after we’re done, be sure to reference the accompanying composting layout quick guide as a reminder for you and your team.
FIRST STOP: DROP-OFF AREA
“How and where you accept incoming organic waste matters,” said Dirkx. “Since composting facilities typically include tip fees, their first thought is how they can make it more convenient for people to dump and leave. So they put their drop-off area just beyond the weigh station, and if they are selling compost and/or mulch, they also want to have it readily available near the front of the facility. Having both incoming material and finished material up front requires a lot of movement, and extra time spent moving material can have a significant impact on fixed operating expenses, reducing profit margins.”
The more efficient place to accept incoming material is closer to the grinding area, so as it’s processed, it can gradually move toward the front and be ready for retail. “Controlling the flow from where the material is received can significantly reduce the number of times it’s moved with loaders, helping to save on equipment costs, fuel and labor,” added Dirkx.
The other advantage of having the drop-off area away from the front of the facility is that it can reduce possibility of incoming material accidentally getting mixed in with finished material waiting to be sold.
SECOND STOP: INCOMING MATERIAL AND GRINDING AREA
Not the same place as the drop-off area, but right alongside it, is stacked raw material that will need to be run through a grinder. For the safety of customers, only trained employees should have access to this area of the operation.
“What is important in this stage is material flow and efficient handling. Grinding is one of the highest cost functions of any operation so it’s important to fully use the grinder throughput potential. Materials should be able to be pushed from the drop-off area to the grinder, and the discharge should be pointed in the direction of the composting area,” Dirkx explained.
THIRD STOP: COMPOSTING AREA
In the composting area, you need to look at things from the ground up, starting with the area’s base and then looking at how the area drains storm water runoff.
Dirkx said that while a dirt pad may be the most economical option, it’s not going to be the most efficient or create a higher-quality compost. “When dealing with wet material, like food waste, mulch and rain, dirt pads can quickly get sloppy and potentially give off an odor. Concrete or asphalt pads often offer the best surface for producing quality finished composts.”
He went on to say that compost stored in windrows is preferred to underaged static piles, because it can be aerated more effectively and will break down faster, which means more efficient use of space and a smaller percentage of overs when it comes time to separating your finished products.
Besides what your composting area’s base is made of, you also need to optimize drainage in this area. “The composting area needs to have a slope so there are places for water to go after experiencing a heavy rain,” explained Dirkx. “To keep water from becoming trapped between compost rows, windrows should run parallel with the slope of the pad.”
The spacing of windrows should be kept to a minimum to help maximize usage of the space. It’s also good to use a windrow management system to track the pile lifecycle, including temperatures to help determine the optimum time for turning material.
FOURTH STOP: SCREENING AND FINISHING AREA
Once the compost has matured, it’s time for screening. This area should be positioned between the composting area and retail space to help minimize the material handling involved.
“Trommel screens should be positioned so overs are coming off the conveyor near the composting side of the yard and fines are near the retail space,” said Dirkx. “Simple little things like this can help reduce cross contamination of material, which will help result in a higher quality end product.
FIFTH STOP: RETAIL AREA
Once screening is complete, it’s time to retail it. The setup and layout of this space will depend on your customer base. If you’re selling in bulk, piles are okay. If you’re bagging products, be sure your bulk material is positioned as close as possible to help minimize cycle times. Barriers should be put in place to minimize contaminates, like plastic and paper, from blowing into the retail area. Drainage and coverage should also be considered to keep materials dry and to maintain good quality.
SIXTH STOP: DRAINAGE POND AND PERIMETER
Part of being a quality compost producer is being a good steward of the land. Constructing a series of drainage ponds on the low side of your property near the composting rows and establishing a barrier of trees or fencing to catch light plastic contaminates can be a good idea and are often required by state and local officials.
“Drainage ponds are used to catch runoff and clean it, which is why it’s important to have more than just one,” said Dirkx. “The first pond collects runoff while each additional pond helps slow flow and give sediments a chance to separate. These ponds are also a good resource when the compost’s moisture levels are low. Running a pump and sprinkler is a cost-effective way to bring moisture content back to optimal levels.”
Fencing is almost always required, but trees can offer an additional barrier of protection.
As you can see, optimizing your fixed operating costs and producing high-quality mulch starts with the basics. Setting up your facility to help minimize movement and deliver optimal compost maturing conditions can help you develop and grow a successful composting business.
However, it doesn’t end here. As your operation grows and evolves, the site layout and flow of material needs to be questioned and changes will need to happen. Keeping this spirit of continuous improvement alive within your operation will ultimately guide you to a more efficient compost layout.
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