Picked, Ground, Piled: Compost Southern Style

"We're bigger. We're hotter. We're faster," said Brian Donnelly, president of Microlife USA Inc., about his three-year-old, Boston, Mass.-based composting firm.

His company's composting rows are bigger - 18 feet when most in the industry are six. His compost cooks hotter - 184 degrees. And, his methods turn waste into nutrient rich, black dirt in three months. Two years ago, Microlife ap-proached the Olympic committee about recycling paper and food waste and ended up with an impressive contract - no small feat for Donnelly, a self-described "new kid on the block" in a relatively fledgling industry plagued with problems.

This "new kid" from Massachusetts earned gold for Olympic organizers in the area of environmental relations. Despite a permitting problem with Fulton County, Ga., which held up the compost processing for seven days into the games, the company accounted for the lion's share of waste recycled.

"With all cylinders firing, Microlife allowed us to come up to 82 percent recycled materials for the last 10 days of the Olympics," said Kevin Nall, program manager for ACOG's waste management, recycling and cleaning.

To prove their worth, Microlife invited organizers to tour its 250-ton-per-day East Central Solid Waste Facility in Mora, Minn. This operation had produced and sold more Class I compost in two years than all other Minnesota facilities combined, despite the fact that the state's class I standards on heavy metals and PCB's are among the strictest nationwide.

In 1993, Donnelly and Microlife co-founder, Mark J. Olson, studied the market potential for a recycling and composting service company.

"Our philosophy is to out-compete a landfill," Donnelly said, "with tip fees hat save the hauler's money."

In Microlife's process, bottles, cans and non-recyclables are removed early. The remaining waste is ground up in a vertical shredder which turns paper and garbage into two- to three-inch scraps and glass into sand. The shredder flattens remaining plastic bottles which can be screened out after composting. Soil amendments and microbes are added. The waste is composted in tall, unaerated static piles that are covered with two feet of wood chips.

"The wood chips are a biofilter that work a lot like a thatched roof which absorbs moisture, never allowing it to penetrate the rows," Donnelly said. The company's methods are not labor-intensive. The Rockdale County, Ga., composting facility that was used for the Atlanta games consisted of two-acres of black top, a retention pond and three employees.

In the beginning, Donnelly and Olson investigated a number of successful composting methods. They also hired John Madole, a former board member of the National Recycling Coalition, Alexandria, Va., as compost manager. "He's the best mix master in the United States," Donnally said. "He lives and breathes compost."

Donnelly worked the tipping floor at the 300 ton-per-day compost preparation facility once it could legally begin Olympic operation. The facility ran around the clock on a demonstration permit, with 23 workers per eight-hour shift.

"The waste was food and paper, with a 70 percent moisture content," Donnelly said. The ground waste was transported to the compost facility in 345 truck loads, using six trucks. As much as 200 gallons of leachate made its way from each truck load onto the tip floor, where it was absorbed by shredded garbage.

Microlife's challenge was steep, but the Olympic committee already has purchased 500 tons of the compost to re-seed Olympic venues. "With this process, the waste will have come full circle," Donnelly said.