Digging In The Dirt, Unearthing Potential

Composting is arguably one of the fastest-growing aspects of managing solid waste. In the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) hierarchy of solid waste management, composting falls nicely under both source reduction s through home and other on-site composting - and recycling.

Composting has become increasingly important to source reduction, source separation and mixed-waste processing, despite the failures of some earlier experiments. Municipal-scale composting in the United States had a shaky start. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, several states attempted pilot projects, but enthusiasm and reality didn't always mix.

A lack of operating experience with composting prompted inadequate facility design and construction. Compost markets - easily the most touted aspect of these projects -were merely afterthoughts, and the cost of landfill space at that time made composting look excessively expensive by comparison.

According to the EPA, recovery by composting was negligible in 1988. By 1990, according to the latest available figures, the nation was composting 2 percent of its solid wastes. By 1995, the EPA estimates that between four and 7 percent of solid waste will be recovered through composting.

Led by yard waste and sludge composting operations, a growing number of solid waste planners are considering some composting element in managing wastes. Legislated restrictions such as banning yard waste from landfills or dumping sludge in oceans and the rising cost (until recently) of landfill space has made composting a competitive and viable option.

An average of 150 facilities now compost sludge and approximately 3,000 compost yard waste (see Tables 2, 3, 4 and 5 on page CS8). Yard waste composting, which accounts for the lion's share of material now composted, has seen the fastest growth. Since 1988, an average of 470 new yard waste composting facilities have opened each year.

Increased Interest Several factors have contributed to the composting industry's growth. Since most states have either established or raised recycling goals to 30, 40 or 50 percent, solid waste managers are turning to composting to help reach those goals. The EPA and many states count composting as recycling (see Figures 1 and 2 on page CS1).

In addition, relative disposal costs are much higher. Strict regulations have pushed landfill costs upward in general, despite a recent easing of prices. In most areas of the country, composting is gaining credibility with other waste management methods.

Composting separation technologies and behavior also have been improved. Every yard waste composting facility has to deal with some contaminants, but now ferrous metals and plastics, in particular, can be separated mechanically. Contaminants can be more effectively separated from sludge as well, due to more sophisticated sewage treatment plants and tracking down industrial sources of heavy metals.

Approximately 30 to 40 percent of U.S. residents now have access to curbside recycling pickup, and this number is expected to grow. Yard waste composting programs have benefited from separation, and other organic wastes are beginning to follow.

Legislation probably has had the biggest influence on composting. New Jersey started the trend in 1988 when it banned leaves from landfills; now at least 26 states plus the District of Columbia have provisions to separate and/or ban yard waste from landfills. Some are outright bans while others are better described as incentives or endorsements (see Table 1 on pages CS3-4 and Table 6 on pages CS12-13).

The effect of such legislation on the number of yard waste composting facilities has been enormous. Pennsylvania estimates that nearly all of its facilities exist due to the ban. Illinois went from having virtually none to more than 100. Missouri's facilities quadrupled in number and in Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio and Minnesota, all composting facilities can be attributed to high state recycling goals. In New Jersey, which had a strong composting program in place before its ban went into effect, about one-third of the facilities have resulted from the ban.

The industry has overcome unrealistic promises of the past so that today, most composting system vendors and consultants present composting as part of an integrated waste management plan.

Most solid waste planners consider composting to be one element of their strategy. Separation of recyclables improves the composting feedstock, while composting greatly diminishes the negative impact of wet organics on incinerators and diminishes landfill methane production.

Compost Markets Besides mixed-waste composting facilities, where recyclables and compostables are separated from mixed waste, source-separated or-ganics composting is becoming popular. For residences, this usually means wet/dry collection - separating trash into compostables and recyclables. Yard waste, food waste and soiled paper go in the compostables bin.

In Minnesota's Fillmore and Swift Counties, residents separate their garbage into recyclables, compostables and landfill material. Processing is still required, but both counties are largely pleased with the results. Supermarkets, restaurants and institutional food-service operators are exploring the composting option. Several grocery stores in the northeast and the midwest have given their organics to composting sites for a few years.

About 30 pilot projects are currently underway to try source-separated organics collection and recycling at both residences and businesses. After a series of pilot projects, the restaurant and food-service industry and its suppliers are now working with the Composting Council to increase food-waste composting.

Unlike most other solid waste management techniques, small and medium-sized companies can play in the market to compost municipal wastes. Yard waste composting in particular has relatively low capital costs and has attracted many entrepreneurs.

One indicator of the growth of composting is the increased membership in the Composting Council. In about three years, membership has grown from 25 to 150, with the small business category growing from three to 40, or from 12 to 27 percent.

Large waste management firms are slowly becoming involved in the field, as recent acquisitions and reorganizations testify. Their customers have been instrumental in this shift by demanding a composting element in waste management plans. Both WMX Technologies and Browning-Ferris Industries are becoming more involved in composting, in addition to landfills and incinerators.

In a 1992 Composting Council survey to determine whether the expansion of compost production would encounter limited markets, potential markets were found to be much larger than potential compost output. Potential compost production was found to be about 10 times more than potential supply.

The Composting Council plans to conduct a follow-up study that incorporates field data and makes a better distinction between dollar markets, which will pay for compost, and volume markets, which will accept compost (see Tables 7, 8 and 9 on page CS14). The difference can be significant; for instance, the study revealed that agriculture is the biggest potential market.

However, experience has shown that while farmers will usually take good compost, they are rarely willing to pay for it. The Composting Council also has developed a hierarchy of compost markets according to potential return. While gluts of compost exist in certain areas, overall there are many opportunities to move compost.

Opportunity to sell compost is another question. High-quality composts have sold well, but the industry is still young and increasing capacity may change the equation. For the most part, composting makes money through tip fees, or fees to accept waste. Investment banks and venture capitalists who finance composting facilities base their financial assumptions entirely on tip fees. But companies that revolve around compost markets exist as examples for the rest of the industry.

Dealing With Problems Despite the composting industry's growth, major obstacles include odor problems, immature compost and undercapitalization. The failures of some large facilities have made the industry cautious. Facilities in Oregon, Florida and Delaware, each of which accepted more than 600 tons of material a day, have closed because of odor complaints, lack of finances to address them and politics. Several sludge facilities and at least a few dozen yard waste facilities have closed, usually due to odor complaints.

Complaints and closings have taught several lessons: odors can come from a surprising number of places, including windrows, puddles and feedstock areas; grass clippings are a big odor source; and feedstock deliveries vary due to weather.

As one state official said, "On a Monday following a sunny weekend, the grass coming in would be overwhelming; in the fall after a windy day, we'd find ourselves swamped with leaves."

Odor control problems have led to increased site monitoring and permit requirements in some areas. A larger buffer between the site and residences is now required. Every year for the past three years, the Illinois state legislature has unsuccessfully introduced a bill to increase the buffer zone to as much as two miles.

Methods to treat odor include biological filters installed on many large-scale facilities in the United States and in Europe. Improvements in process control have usually caused improvements in odor control, but odor remains the bane of a composting facility's existence. Its effect on the facility's relationship with the community is an important consideration.

Immature compost production is related to odor. Some designs do not allow enough time or space for compost to cure and mature. And when the original design needs adjustment, as it often does, the finances don't seem to be there. Capital costs are frequently underestimated.

A recent interest in aspergillus fumigatus, a ubiquitous fungus found in composting facilities, forests, living rooms and anywhere decaying organic matter exists, has posed another problem. Opponents of specific composting projects have suggested that the fungus is dangerous, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.

Finally, the recent Federal Trade Commission guidelines for environmental labeling state that, in order to label a product or type of packaging as compostable, facilities that accept and compost that product or packaging must be widely available. The guidelines passed, despite opposition that they would discourage an infant industry like composting.

Still, more than 3,000 composting facilities operate in the United States. Most states cite few complaints and express overall public acceptance. The state of New Jersey, which has the longest composting track record and the highest population density, has seen only a dozen facilities out of hundreds fail since 1988 - a successful rate for a relatively new waste management technique.

Like each facility, composting as a whole succeeds with some tinkering and site-specific modification. It has taken time, and will take more time, for systems, regulations and markets to settle into place. Composting can only be effective as part of an integrated solid waste management system.

The statistics are familiar and depressing: of the 291 million tons of solid waste generated in the United States in 1992, 72 percent was landfilled. And our "throw-away" society is running out of places to throw trash away.

In only five years, the number of landfills decreased 48 percent to 5,386 landfills by early 1993. Subtitle D regulations may result in significant reductions in the remaining number of landfills by the end of this year.

Considering that the average remaining landfill capacity is approximately 14 years and that the potential for replacement sites often becomes a timely political battle, alternative waste management methods are crucial.

In 1972, in response to the demand for home horticultural information, the Master Gardener program began in Washington and has now expanded to 45 states and four Canadian provinces. More than 45,000 people have completed Master Gardener training.

Master Gardeners include people of all ages, races, educational levels and socio-economic status - a diverse group that is brought together by the common bond of plants and gardening. The diversity that exists among participants often stimulates creative approaches to problem solving within the community.

More than 130 people have completed the Master Gardener program in Middlesex County, N.J., which began in 1988. New Jersey has eight counties with Master Gardener programs, but Middlesex County was the first to include environmental topics as an integral part of the curriculum.

In January 1993, the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service of Middlesex County, N.J., created the Master Gardener/Environmental and Community Stewardship (MGECS) program. The volunteer program encourages individuals to take personal action to help resolve local environmental problems.

MGECS is conducted by Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County with support from Cook College-Rutgers University, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Energy and the Middlesex County Department of Environmental Health.

MGECS participants receive more than 100 hours of classroom and laboratory instruction in horticulture and environmental science in exchange for 100 hours of community volunteer service through Cooperative Extension supervised programs.

Participants receive classroom and hands-on training in horticulture and environmental science, including classes in botany, plant propagation, plant pathology, integrated pest management, soils, composting, ecology, community action and problem solving and solid waste issues. Classes are taught by Rutgers Cooperative Extension staff and subject matter specialists, Rutgers University faculty and staff members from county and state agencies in agricultural and environmental sciences.

The program stresses solid waste reduction strategies in the home and workplace. As part of their volunteer commitment, participants are required to share their newly acquired knowledge with community members through lectures, demonstrations or the horticultural question-and-answer telephone hotline.

In a survey conducted last summer, 85 percent of the participants felt that they became better environmental stewards. Ninety-five percent of the participants believe that the horticultural curriculum must include environmental issues. One respondent noted that "gardeners are generally more aware of environmental issues but need to be taught how to educate others."

The survey revealed that more than 47 percent of the participants increased their home composting activities by five to 25 percent and that 57 percent of the participants increased recycling activities by five to 25 percent. Participants indicated that these changes were influenced by their participation in the program.

In the first seven months of the program, participants logged more than 1,200 hours of volunteer service. Middlesex County's MGECS program increased volunteer service 30 percent in 1993 from the traditional Master Gardener program offered the previous year.

MGECS volunteers contact more than 2,000 county residents on a person-to-person basis or a group setting through various community events and a speakers' bureau, where they emphasize solid waste reduction through composting, reuse and recycling.

Volunteers are establishing a composting demonstration area at Rutgers University Display Gardens in New Brunswick, N.J. Master Gardeners recently conducted a public composting demonstration for 80 county residents at the Fall Foliage Festival at the Rutgers Display Gardens - an ideal opportunity to deliver educational programs on personal environmental stewardship. The compost demonstration area will be expanded to include gardens demonstrating compost use as well as fact sheets and information boards to encourage better solid waste management among county residents.

Master Gardener volunteers also staff a horticultural telephone hotline for Middlesex County residents. Trained volunteers encourage composting and the use of compost to improve poor quality soil and reduce the amount of solid waste generated by residents.

The complexity of the solid waste management crisis demands creative and practical solutions that encourage individuals to take positive action. Beyond the solid waste management industry's efforts, more individuals must come to terms with their responsibilities as stewards of our planet.