Food waste composting — not as easy as it looks

Food waste composting - collectionWe recently stumbled on a blog where the writer was bemoaning the closure of a food waste composting facility.  It had served a large U.S. metro area.  The author asked: how hard can it be?

Well, we can answer that.  It’s very difficult to do food waste composting right.  Successful ventures require significant investment and operator skill if they want to avoid the biggest public complaint — odors.

What do we mean by composing done right?  For any manufacturing process, all components must be in place to ensure success.  For highly-putrescible materials like food waste,  this requires:

  • Equipment designed specifically for compost manufacture.
  • Compost-certified managers and trained personnel.
  • A facility designed to manage intake in all weather conditions.
  • The ability to meet collection expectations without fail.
  • The ability to process those collections in a timely manner — also without fail.
  • A technology designed to quickly neutralize the inherent odors of decaying putrescibles.
  • An understanding of and appreciation for composting regulations and the people charged with protecting public and environmental health.
  • The energy to successfully meet the above challenges while managing all other aspects of running a successful business.
Composting requires devotion … to business

To be successful, a composting operation, whether for-profit or non-profit, must meet revenue targets.  And it must do so without irritating the neighbors, causing environmental problems, or producing an inferior product no one wants.

People who compost food in outdoor windrows must be persistent, consistent, and doggedly devoted to the task to be successful.  Indoor composting using a high-rate process is faster and offers more control with fewer headaches.  This brings predictability to the process.  We believe it’s the only way to go for wet feedstocks like food waste.

We readily acknowledge facilities like ours, processing 100,000 tons and more a year, are not for everyone.  But the basic requirements for successful composting operations are the same no matter the size and type of facility.

Meet critical goals without fail

Contemplating an adventure in composting?

  1. Keep the bugs happy.  Composting is a biological process.  Mechanics and engineering must support the biology, not the other way around.  The aerobic (with air) microbes responsible for biodegradation are living creatures.  Feed them, water them – not too much, just what they need.  Give them air and keep temperatures within their comfort zone.  Create the ideal environment, and you’ll have those little microbes dancing in the aisles.  They have much in common with Goldilocks – everything has to be just right.
  2. Keep the neighbors happy.  Unpleasant smells indicate the presence of anaerobic microbes — tiny little critters that thrive in the absence of air.  Food waste, grass clippings and other wet feedstocks are havens for anaerobic microbes.   Blend and prep these feedstocks on arrival.  Lengthy pre-processing storage can give rise to anaerobic conditions.  Improper blend preparation or poor process management can cause a composting pile to go anaerobic, too. Keep the air flowing through the composting mass, but don’t dry it out.  Too much air can be just as bad.  Odors can return if material was dried and not composted.  Composting outdoors?  Diligent turning/aeration and leachate management are essential to reducing odors, controlling vectors and preventing runoff.  Fortunately, most of these challenges go away or are greatly minimized by indoor operations.  We think all of our steel and concrete is worth every penny.
  3. Keep the customers happy.  Most compost customers want (a) a stable product, (b) with a fine screen, (c) available when they need it, (d) within a reasonable drive, (e) at hours convenient to them, and (f) at a price they can afford.  It’s surprising how many composters get these fundamental rules of compost marketing wrong.  Miss the mark on just one of these points, and you could wind up with a mountain of compost that doesn’t sell.
Advice for new-to-the-business composters

The best advice we can give new compost facility operators is this:

Start slow.  Ramp-up carefully.  Don’t be impatient.  Bugs need time to acclimate.  Employees need time to be trained and feel comfortable in their jobs.  You need time to troubleshoot systems and equipment.  Fix problems while they’re small and manageable.  Allowing trouble to take over your operation can be costly.

Visualize your operation during a week with —

  • the worst possible weather,
  • half of your work force out with the flu,
  • thrice the expected intake,
  • a mountain of compost that’s not going to move for three more months,
  • no computer/server access, and
  • two trucks and a loader out of service.

If you can design your composting facility and systems to handle that week — and it will happen — the remaining 51 weeks of the year will be easy.

 Up next:  Planning for a successful composting operation.