Turning Over New Leaves

November 1, 2001

17 Min Read
Turning Over New Leaves

Michael Fickes

By and large, composting remains a strange little sideline within the solid waste industry. Small businesses hawk home composting bins to homeowners with an interest in natural landscaping. Commercial composters build sites that accept compostable materials from solid waste collection companies for minimum wage tipping fees. These businesses sell their products to landscaping and garden supply companies. Where and when composting seems convenient, these undertakings find adherents.

Most people, however, tend to avoid composting like they avoided separating recyclables from the trash when that movement started 10 or 15 years ago. But just as recycling eventually burrowed into the mainstream with the help of government and private initiatives, composting is turning over a new leaf in certain areas of the country.

Not a Typical Bureaucracy

In the Pacific Northwest and several Canadian provinces, for example, government initiatives at local, regional, state and federal levels have established an increasingly substantial composting infrastructure and achieved notable diversions from the trash stream.

Within several years, similar compost diversion rates could begin showing up in other regions of the country, given the promise of emerging non-traditional markets for compost being fueled by environmental initiatives.

In short, government at all levels, along with industry, is turning the composting business into a more lucrative operation. And something new and more comprehensive soon may emerge from the pile.

According to the Composting Council of Canada, Toronto, Ontario, organic matter makes up approximately 50 percent of a solid waste stream. In light of this, composting offers diversion benefits to any community's solid waste management program.

Municipalities can divert this material through programs that combine two types of composting: backyard and centralized.

Backyard programs encourage homeowners to deposit organic materials in bins, eliminating green waste and sometimes other organic materials from the waste stream.

Centralized composting systems rely on the established solid waste collection system to pickup and deliver materials to commercial composting sites, which process the material and sell it as soil amendments.

Individually, these slants on composting management offer some diversionary gains. But the future may hold more promise, as municipalities in North America find that integrating the two approaches can create significant waste diversions.

Regional Basics

In Oregon, officials of the Metro Regional Government, an elected authority with jurisdiction over solid waste issues in 24 cities, including Portland, report impressive results from a region-wide composting program promoting both backyard and centralized programs.

In 1994, Metro undertook a multi-year program to promote home composting. As a first step, the program distributed plastic composting bins to 60,000 households.

This distribution method has proven important to the program's success. “Metro originally wanted to sell bins through local retailers,” says Herb Noseworthy, president of Norseman, the composting bin manufacturer. “We recommended truckload sales at discounted prices. We set a date for the sale and produced flyers and advertising to promote the sale.”

Noseworthy says two-day truckload sale sites were set up throughout the region in areas with demographic profiles indicating a probable interest in composting. And like a crowd gathering for a rock concert, hundreds of people showed up to purchase bins.

A study of the program conducted in 2000 turned up surprising results. In a survey of more than 44,000 households that had purchased a bin, total diversion from the waste stream equaled 20,365 tons of organics.

The cost to produce that diversion came in at $100,000, which went to advertising, bin distribution efforts, staff time and supplies.

Home composters, according to the study, diverted an average of 925 pounds of compostables per year. Over 10 years, the estimated life of the bin, diversion will add up to 4.6 tons per bin, costing Metro less than $6 per ton per year.

Perhaps diverting 20,000 tons per year doesn't seem like a lot, but it represents a substantial cost savings. Curbside yard waste collection costs approximately $125 per ton per year in the Metro region. So eliminating the need to collect 20,000 tons saves Metro $119 per ton per year ($125 per ton for collection operations minus $6 per ton for composting program costs). That figure multiplied by 20,000 tons suggests that Metro is saving homeowners $2.3 million per year by promoting home composting.

Alfred Von Mirbach, a senior consultant with REIC Perth in Perth, Ontario, calls those results astonishing, but believable. “The Metro region is a perfect area for composting,” he says. “People have a real commitment to it.”

Backyard Benefits

Von Mirbach has organized backyard composting programs for municipalities with impressive results, as well. “In 1992, we pioneered a program called YIMBY, or Yes In My Backyard, in Toronto,” he recalls. As part of the program, free back yard composting bins were delivered to homeowners, with REIC making two or three passes to ensure no household was missed. Of the 30,000 households targeted, 6,000 already were composting. So REIC delivered 18,000 bins, which put Toronto in the 80 percent target range.

“Two years later, we found that 55 percent of those households were actively composting,” Von Mirbach says. “The combination of this program and occasional special materials collections diverted 95 percent of all yard waste. Yard cuttings make up about 25 percent of the total solid waste stream in Toronto, and we diverted 95 percent of the cuttings, taking it almost entirely out of the picture.”

Interestingly, the program also produced a drop in kitchen wastes, which comprise 25 percent of the solid waste stream.

“We found that about half of the kitchen wastes began to disappear along with the yard waste,” Von Mirbach says. Normally, meat and dairy products don't go into back yard compost bins, although they can be composted without odor problems if managed properly. Although this wasn't part of Toronto's official message, people seemed to find a way to compost meat and dairy products on their own, he says.

Overall, the program has slashed the organic waste stream from homes participating in the program by about 75 percent, Von Mirbach adds.

On the strength of this program, REIC set up a second composting program, called Earth Works, for Port Colburn, Ontario, just west of Toronto. The city saw similar results.

Thus, the two backyard programs taught REIC a critical lesson. Once you explain how to compost properly, “you can turn homeowners into permanent composters,” Von Mirbach says. “You can't just put the compost bins out there. You have to go back about six weeks later and check on them. Almost everyone has a problem with odor or fruit flies [initially]. The solution is simple, but someone has to go to the house and explain [that throwing] some leaves on top of the pile will eliminate those problems.”

Forming Good Habits

The success of REIC's efforts have been confirmed by tracking the impact of the Canadian programs with waste composition studies. In these studies, garbage and recyclables from 30 households on a particular day are collected and separated into 50 categories, Von Mirbach says. Over the past six years, REIC has conducted 100 studies. “We've found that people don't get bored with composting,” he says. “Once they start, they don't stop.”

Nevertheless, the numbers suggest that the impact of home composting on the overall waste stream remains modest. According to Foseid, the Metro region produces about 200,000 tons of compostable organic materials per year. Home composting diverts about 20,000 tons, or 10 percent of the mass. But Foseid and other composters believe that the diversion achieved from the residential waste stream creates an interest in such programs and could eventually lead to larger commercial organic waste programs.

For example, the city of Portland, Ore., in cooperation with the regional Metro Government, has begun to tap the enthusiasm of home composters to develop a commercial system for composting food waste and other organics.

The state of Oregon follows a set of priorities in dealing with the solid waste stream. The hierarchy is: reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, recover energy, then landfill. For food waste, another hierarchy has been established: feed people, feed animals, compost, then landfill what's left.

Following this adage, Lee Barrett, commercial program manager for the city's Office of Sustainable Development, says during the holiday season, businesses are sent literature explaining the priorities. The literature urges companies to plan for the disposal of leftover food from holiday parties by arranging for it to be delivered to area soup kitchens first, instead of being disposed of in the trash.

“These kinds of programs divert some of our food wastes,” Barrett says. “After that, we ask companies to move food wastes into animal feed programs and composting programs.”

To that end, one commercial food waste composting pilot has examined collection methods for one year and found that traditional source-separation of food wastes including meat, fat, seafood and vegetative waste is the most effective method.

“It's a simple program, and it works great,” Barrett says. “We've found contamination levels of 4 percent, which is hardly anything. We're getting good material, and the processor accepting the material is happy.”

More interesting perhaps is that as the pilot nears its end, participating restaurants have begun to request the program's continuation.


“This is a green area,” Barrett says. “People believe in recycling and composting and want to do it.”

Barrett surmises the Portland went “green,” beginning with the city's bottle bill, which passed in 1971.

“That bill predisposed people to separate out recoverable materials for some sort of recycling,” he says. “When we started our home composting program, many people in the city joined. Food waste separation goes hand-in-hand with what we've been promoting for years.”

In other words, Oregon's inclination to recycle and compost might stem from behavior learned over decades — behavior that has begun to drive broader commercial composting efforts.

“I don't have to spend a lot of time trying to convince businesses in the city to participate in these kinds of programs,” Barrett notes. “For the most part, I provide opportunities to participate, and it's done.”

Commercial Success

Since the 1970s, Portland's recycling rate has grown to about 54 percent or 429,000 tons of the total 790,000-ton waste stream.

Barrett hopes to begin recovering about 20,000 tons of the remaining 361,000 tons when the commercial food waste program rolls-out citywide. “Within a couple of years, we think we could recover about 35,000 tons or about 10 percent of the remaining waste stream. That would represent about half of all the organic food waste,” he says. “You can't get it all, of course. Any recovery program will miss something. In addition, it isn't economically viable to collect from smaller generators.”

During its pilot, Portland sent its food wastes to Land Recovery Inc., a processor in Washington, about 150 miles from the city. Because the material contains post-consumer wastes such as meat, processors must meet odor, water and air quality standards. None of the processors in the Portland area are certified to handle these wastes. So as the program expands, the city hopes to find a local processor. Already, Portland has issued requests for qualifications and proposals so that it can make its selection by fall 2001.

While food wastes represent a relatively new feedstock for composters, other commercially collected compostables are being handled by a network of approximately 12 permitted commercial composters in the Portland area, plus by a handful of unpermitted “rogue” operators.

The largest of the permitted facilities is Grimm's Fuel Co. According to Jeff Grimm of the family owned company, Grimm's took in 325,000 cubic yards (cu. yds.) of organic wastes during 2000.

Tipping fees run $5 per cu. yd. for the general public to $4.50 per cu. yd. for commercial sources. It requires about five cu. yds. of incoming material to produce a single cu. yd. of finished compost. The finished product sells for $115 per 7.5 cu. yds.

“Our incoming volumes have fallen a bit recently as competition has increased,” Grimm says. “Several years ago, we were seeing 30 percent per year increases.”

But Grimm does not see any connection between this decline in incoming material and the growth of home composting.

As feedstocks, including yard and wood wastes, pre-consumer food residuals, and construction and demolition materials from self-haulers, commercial haulers and landscapers, arrive at Grimm's, the company then grinds the material with three hammermills and a portable horizontal grinder capable of mulching small batches from one end of the property to another.

“We compost in large semi-static piles,” approximately 2 acres in size, Grimm says. “Some people call what we have static piles, but we do turn and work them, and the term static is a misnomer. But what we do is different than windrow composting, which takes up a lot of land and requires more active turning. I don't think we could deal with our volumes using windrows.”

The material remains in a primary pile for four to five months and receives three turnings. Then it is reground and screened to a 5/8-inch size and stored in a finished goods pile until it goes to market.

The markets in the Northwest are seasonal, Grimm says. “We have a 90 day window every year when we sell the compost.” But homeowners, landscape contractors and nurseries purchase virtually all the compost that Grimm's processes every year.

So while incoming volumes have declined at Grimm's and perhaps at other commercial composters in the region, Metro's efforts to move larger volumes of food waste out of the solid waste stream and into the composting cycle eventually may lead to new feedstock sources for composters.

This raises the question: If more compost comes to market, who will buy it?

Compost Markets' Future

Metro has its eye on several new and nontraditional markets for compost that could ignite market growth. These include the state and local governments, plus commercial and residential construction companies.

The government, for example, has joined the state of Washington in a program called “Soils for Salmon.” Initiated two years ago in Washington, this program aims to manage stormwater runoff near salmon waterways by mixing compost into these soils. Compost will help capture sediments and silts, preventing them from draining into waterways during and after storms.

Metro also has undertaken a pilot program with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) that will use compost to manage the effects of stormwater runoff near highways.

“We recently secured a contract with ODOT that calls for mixing large amounts of compost into the ground around a major new highway interchange,” Foseid says. “This project will use up to 9,000 cu. yds. of compost.”

The application techniques will take two forms. First, ODOT will mix compost into the top 6 inches of soil on the sloping grades beside the interchange. Second, ODOT will build 2-feet high compost berms along the highway and at the bottom of the grades.

“Compost has the ability to capture petroleum products and sediment that wash off a roadway,” Foseid says. “The compost can protect the soil and nearby waterways from this sediment much better than the hay bales and silt fences ODOT ordinarily uses.”

Foseid also is watching the effect of recently developed Washington municipality ordinances that require commercial real estate developers to maintain a 10 percent level of organic matter within the soils on their building footprints. Again, the idea is that the organic matter would capture sediment from water runoff before it reaches the water table below.

“We ultimately would like to develop a voluntary program in which building designers incorporate compost into their specifications,” Foseid says. “We need to do more testing, but we are going in the direction of using compost as a tool for stormwater management around roads and buildings. This idea also can be extended to agriculture, with the goal of using fewer chemical fertilizers and herbicides.”

So far, however, the commercial composting industry is not entirely sold on the idea.

“Compost does a better job of erosion control, but price is king in that market,” Grimm says. “Compost costs more than conventional material such as silt-fences and hay bales. Compost also is more labor-intensive to apply. I'm not optimistic about this being a large new market.”

Nevertheless, Foseid has confidence in the concept. “The highway interchange pilot project that ODOT plans to carry out this year will use 7,000 to 9,000 cu. yds. of compost,” he says. “Our largest composters produce volumes in the range of 20,000 to 30,000 cu. yds. of compost per year. This means that a single project would use about one-quarter of the compost available from a single large processor.” If there are just four projects like this per year, this opens a large market for compost marketers, he adds.

Rod Tyler, a compost-marketing consultant with Green Horizons, Grafton, Ohio, agrees. “This is a big trend,” he says. “I used to handle traditional marketing work, selling to landscapers and top soil blenders. But that market has begun to mature. Competition is driving prices down, while the emerging environmental market is huge.”

Not just a wild idea proposed by composting advocates, using compost to manage stormwater runoff from roads and commercial buildings is promoted by the Environmental Protection Agency, Tyler says.

“This is part of Phase II of the EPA's National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES,” Tyler says. “The regulations under Phase II of NPDES will institute more stringent water runoff prevention requirements as of March 2003. Composters have a product that works as a sediment filter as good as or better than anything on the market today.”

Plus, current tools used for sediment control, such as silt fences, are single-dimensional filters that can only form a physical barrier for water, Tyler adds. This means that settlement still can take place due to gravity.

“But compost is the only tool that forms a physical barrier to water, while also acting as a chemical and biological filter that pulls materials out of the water,” he says.

If Tyler's assessment is correct, commercial composters could see markets grow beyond their ability to supply them.

“Specifying compost as a replacement for silt fences on road construction projects would increase the existing market by one-third,” Tyler estimates. “The demand for silt fences on commercial construction projects is about three times the size of the transportation market. Compost also can replace other erosion-control techniques used along roadways. This is a huge potential market.”

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor.

Greening a Grocery Store

In 1994, Roger Vander Wende managed recycling operations for a supermarket chain in Southern California. Interested in finding a company to recycle the chain's organic waste, Vander Wende approached Community Recycling and Resource Recovery Inc., Sun Valley, Calif., which was looking for someone familiar with the grocery store business.

Community Recycling wanted someone to setup a system to collect organic wastes from grocery stores. And the mutual interests led to marriage: Vander Wende went to work for Community Recycling as vice president of the supermarket division.

In short order, Vander Wende made deals with 28 grocery stores and established a system to collect all unsalable foods from distribution centers operated by each participating chain.

Over the past seven years, the Community Recycling program has grown to collect wax-cardboard, produce trimmings and other pre-consumer food wastes from more than 1,100 grocery stores in California and southern Nevada. Participating stores come from chains operated by names such as Vons, Ralph's, Food4Less, Save Mart and Safeway.

According to Vander Wende, the Community Recycling program ranks as the largest food waste program of its kind in the country. “There is a good core reason why we're the largest,” he says. “We're sitting on top of four of the 50 largest retail food markets in the United States. Los Angeles County is the single largest market in the country, by a long way over No. 2.”

And because grocery stores in each of these markets are serviced by a handful of distribution centers, “there is a big clump of supply within a small geographic area,” Vander Wende adds. In contrast, tapping feedstocks of a comparable volume in the Midwest would require large fleets to travel across several states.

As the program works now, once Community Recycling collects the food waste, it flows into a 150-acre windrow composting pad in Bakersfield, Calif. Permitting allows the facility to take in more than 3,000 tons of compostable materials per day. Additional feedstocks, including green and yard wastes, agricultural residuals, and manure, arrive from a Community Resource dirty materials recovery facility located in California's San Fernando Valley. That material is collected by Crown Disposal, a sister company to Community Resource.

Annual production at the windrow facility totals 100,000 tons of compost and wood fines.

Then Community Resource sells the bulk of its compost to growers in the region, including itself — the company farms 2,500 acres and produces cattle feed. And, some of the compost even is sold through supermarkets and nurseries.
Michael Fickes

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