Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient Dustin Montey is the assistant manager at SMSC Organics Recycling Facility, the world’s largest tribally-owned composting facility, where he helps ensure efficiency and the production of high-quality compost.
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) is a federally recognized, sovereign Indian tribe located southwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul. The facility recycles organic materials for residential, commercial, and municipal customers, and sells compost products.
In this Q&A interview, Montey shares his career experience and talks about the importance of focusing on quality in producing compost, and looking at better definitions of what it means for a material to be “compostable.”
Waste360: What are some of the challenges that you faced running a composting facility during the past couple years of the pandemic?
Dustin Montey: Our normal challenges that we always deal with are not necessarily Covid-related. Composting is not new, but I think with the way that organics is growing, regulation is trying to get caught up. We're trying to figure out, as a country, or a state, individual states, how do you regulate it? How do we ensure quality?
Then, with Covid, in particular, there were all these organic mandates to keep everything out of the landfills, but there were regulatory exemptions. Then you started seeing haulers, and whoever else, they no longer have to bring it to a composting facility or an organic recycling facility because we're in a pandemic. They bring it all to a landfill, and it's cheaper, and you don't have to worry about all this stuff. We saw numbers dip, because, once there was an exemption, it's whatever is easiest on the haulers.
Waste360: Are those exemptions still in place?
Dustin Montey: The exemptions are no longer in place. I still feel like some people are trying to skirt that and fly under the radar; but, I would say as a whole, our numbers have been steadily bouncing back. Last month, we took in three times the amount of food waste as we did in the previous month of last year. The numbers are growing, getting back to pre-pandemic levels, and then even growing from there; more so because mandates continue to come out for organics diversion.
Waste360: What was your professional path that brought you to your career field?
Dustin Montey: I left active duty in the Marine Corps, and somebody had offered me a job running heavy equipment that I had no experience in, and I said I can figure it out. I started at the ground up, by pushing up these piles, and grinding them, and then blending them, and trying to figure out on the ground the science of making a quality product.
From there, it was any chance I could get to go to the US Composting Council and learn from classes that they have there; and just continuing to always keep pursuing education in the industry. I don't really ever stop. I go to two to three conferences a year. Building a strong network of composters and being able to all share our ideas and issues and solve them together across the whole country has been great.
Waste360: What do you wish more consumers knew about composting? And does your organization do education to help people understand?
Dustin Montey: I'm seeing compost used as a general blanket that could be a lot of different things that I don't think should be called “compost.” I see somebody leaving a pile of leaves and letting them decompose until it's like this brown leaf-looking thing, and they're selling it as compost, when it's not. Now, the consumers out there are thinking, compost doesn't work. This is a terrible product. That's not what compost is. But, people just don't know.
Stressing the importance of knowing that you're getting actual compost from a facility that is implementing all the required processes to make a beneficial compost, or an actual composting product—I think that's probably one of the biggest challenges, right now.
There are certain systems out there that are drying food waste and yard waste, and then they're calling that dried product a compost. Once you get it wet again, it's going to heat up and, arguably, be worse for your soil than anything else.
Waste360: How do you talk to consumers about what's good compost or why your product is superior?
Dustin Montey: I think the biggest messaging there is through the US Composting Council's Seal of Testing Assurance (STA) Program. You're now taking grab samples of the compost that you're selling, you're sending it to them, and they're third party testing it to make sure that it actually is true. Not only has there been sufficient pathogen reduction, but you're not hitting levels of heavy metals.
I think that's a big point that I like to bring to consumers, and say, wherever you're buying compost, I would recommend that you're getting an STA-tested product. Obviously, with positive results. Somebody could go get an STA and it could fail. You need to make sure that it's passing. Then, I'd say purchase your compost from a facility that's doing the required pathogen reduction and testing. Following that PFRP, which is the industry process to further reduce pathogen.
Waste360: What do you wish that more businesses knew? Or, to put it another way, do businesses find it valuable or are they just following the regulations?
Dustin Montey: A couple of things come to mind. You're 100% right that some people are following [the regulation] verbatim. It’s the law. That's the only reason they're doing it. Then, there's a fair amount of other people who are doing it because it's the right choice, it's reducing the amount that's going to a landfill.
I think another huge issue is the amount of greenwashing in the industry because of lack of regulation. I can't tell you how many times I see something that says “sustainably sourced,” “eco-friendly,” and all of this stuff looks great, but it's garbage. You can't compost it, and it's not recyclable. It's just garbage. It really confuses consumers, which is very frustrating.
I would say from our end, I can't take garbage and turn it into a quality compost. You have to have clean feedstocks coming in. I can't take just the household garbage route, turn it into compost and screen it and sell it back to you without there being some major contamination problems, both visually and in the actual compost itself—the stuff you can't see; the chemicals or heavy metals.
Waste360: You're a board member of the Minnesota Composting Council. What are some of the issues that you deal with in that role?
Dustin Montey: A lot of the stuff that I just brought up to you is stuff that's parroted there a lot. Trying to figure out the “compost” that's out there that should not be. Trying to figure out, how do you regulate that without discouraging people from doing backyard composting? It's always that fine line: some of the stuff needs to be regulated in the sense that consumers are going to get confused and they're not going to get the product that they should be getting. It’s trying to figure out, how do you encourage and continue to grow composting without putting up too much red tape to make it unfeasible?
The compostable labeling bill we just got through the Minnesota House, passed in the omnibus bill, this year, is trying to figure out the greenwashing optics. We need truly compostable items, because it's frustrating for me when a restaurant calls and says, "I bought 10,000 of these clamshells.” And, I have to say, "Those are trash. You can't compost those." It's very frustrating for me to have to give them the bad news. They thought they were doing the right thing. They're trying and they're getting fooled.
Waste360: You’re interested in having better regulations around what can be called compostable?
Dustin Montey: A few of us on the Composting Council board have been trying to create a white paper to further define for government agencies in Minnesota what is compost. This is what we're looking at. Obviously, we utilize everything that we can from the US Composting Council and everything that's been widely adopted, but that's another large thing that we've been working on. The goal of the white paper is defining compost, and that's specific for the state. It’s been a long road.
Waste360: What is a new future initiative for SMSC?
Dustin Montey: We are relocating our facility in order to triple its capacity. The new facility is going to be 212,500 tons. Our current operation is less than that. But next year, we'll be open at our new facility, we're on track right now to be open July 2024. With that facility, we will be able to triple what we're bringing in right now. That shows where this industry is headed.