Does composting need a puppetmaster?

For far too long, composting was relegated to a position on the fringe of waste management, despite the fact that 70% of the world’s wastes are compostable. Composters, quite literally, had to wait for someone else to feed them the leftovers.

A major chunk of composting’s potential feedstocks (yard waste, food waste, sludges, etc.) are “owned” by the municipalities in which those wastes are generated.  Traditionally, government has taken the lead in providing waste services of all types, from collection to final disposition.

Unfortunately, that ownership has made composting an ipso facto puppet dancing to the tune of others.  And that song is not a merry jig.  According to the American Bar Association, waste flow control is #2 on its list of the Top 5 most litigious MSW topics.

Numbers tell a sorry tale

There are about 89,000 local governments in the U.S.  But a November 2020 article in BioCycle estimated only 4,500 to 5,000 composting facilities serving those populations – less than 6%.  A mere 326 of 19,000 towns (less than 2%) offer curbside collection of food waste.

Granted, more than half of those are small governments managing jurisdictions of fewer than 50,000 people – our very rough estimate of the population base needed to support an industrial composting operation for urban organics.  

But that still leaves a sizable number of cities, counties, and towns that have the potential to generate the minimum volume of composting feedstocks required for commercial viability.  That support would come from municipal, commercial, institutional, and industrial generators.

Sadly, too many of those who control those wastes seem to be in no hurry to divert the bulk of that stream to a municipally- or privately-owned composting facility, even when it could be the most cost-effective management choice.  

Clearly, the prevailing paradigm needs to shift if composting is to become the management choice for all Urban organics.

Enter new models for resource recovery

Over the past 30 years, composting has matured to become an efficient, economical, dependable, and profitable technology for recycling the full gamut of urban organics. 

A big, 100,000 tons/year indoor plant can go from groundbreaking to start-up in 12 to 18 months, and when equipped with an efficient biofilter, can be sited closer to both waste generators and end use markets than windrow operations.  Its footprint is only 1/10 the size of that windrow operation, too.

When designed and managed with preemption as a priority, a composting facility generates no waste stream of its own, and the resulting compost is a much-needed product for restoring function to depleted urban soils. 

Compost use also sequesters carbon when soils will remain undisturbed for long periods of time, adding to its long list of benefits.

When a community can have all of this – privately funded by experienced commercial companies with no taxpayer investment – why do city and county governments hesitate to put out the welcome mat for composting? 

In recent years, the emergence of small businesses and community non-profits willing to cut the strings and do an end run around the municipal “middleman” has demonstrated new models for resource recovery.  

In the UK,  a bio-ware manufacturer, recyclables/food waste collection company, and composter are teaming up to create a service model outside of a municipal system. (READ: https://www.circularonline.co.uk/news/dedicated-collections-for-compostables-launched-for-london-and-brighton/)

In the U.S., door-to-door collection companies are picking up household and commercial organics and transporting the material to their own composting facilities and/or other established composting operations (of all sizes and descriptions) in the region.

Even companies who serve municipalities (like McGill) also work directly with high-volume generators in the corporate/industrial sector, bypassing the city or county collection system entirely.

While municipal composting programs can get tossed around and fumbled like a political football, collection services by independents providing direct service to the waste generator may offer more stability.

For municipalities struggling to set up composting programs on their own dime, the expansion of composting infrastructure via private-sector services and financing might be fostered and supported by local governments in several ways:

Exclude compostables from flow control.  Flow control is a contentious and much-litigated device used by governments to force all trash generated within its jurisdiction to be managed by a specific facility or facilities.  

At its worst, the practice protects the investment of a private waste contractor – typically a transfer station, landfill, incinerator, etc. – and eliminates any possibility of competition for the life of a project that can have an amortization period of 50 years.

This may be good for the private contractor investing many millions of dollars in the development of a facility.  But taxpayers can end up paying more over those decades when competitors (like composters) are barred from offering alternate services during the contract term.

Sometimes, specific streams are excluded from flow control ordinances.  If organics are included in those exclusions, then the door is open for independents to move in and offer direct services to organic waste generators of every size.

If not, this lock forces a community to use the contract disposal option even when composting might be the least expensive service.

Identify and advertise appropriate composting sites.  The best location for an industrial composting facility serving an urban area is not a farm field or landfill located 100 miles outside of the city.

It makes no sense from either an economic or environmental perspective to shuttle feedstocks out to the country only to truck the finished compost back to the city.  This strategy adds unnecessary cost to both composting services and products. 

So, when both intake and compost use markets are urban, that is where the composting facility needs to be, too.  But composting facilities of any significant size belong in areas zoned for heavy industrial use, not business parks or other locations with too much exposure to the general public.

Over the years, poor location choices may have had as much (or more) to do with facility closures as bad design or management.

While building industrial structures is usually cost-prohibitive on a closed out landfill, an old “dump” located within or near the city limits might be suitable for an operation utilizing tarps or other less permanent containment – with optional biofiltration, of course.

City managers and decision-makers know their jurisdictions better than anyone.  By identifying appropriate sites, acquiring and designating those sites for composting, and advertising/offering those locations to commercial composters, a local government can secure high-quality composting services for its city without a hefty capital investment or related management/operating costs.

Metro areas also benefit when multiple sites and/or companies serve the region, building redundancy into the composting infrastructure.

Mandate compost use.  As demand for compost rises, compost manufacturers will be able to hold steady or even lower tipping fees for composting services.  

One of the most effective mechanisms for increasing demand is for governments to mandate compost use for all new public and private construction projects, major residential landscaping rehabs, DOT construction and maintenance, and all publicly-owned parks, recreation areas, and other greenspaces.  

Typically, this is achieved through stormwater management and grounds maintenance programs.  As compost is one of the lowest cost stormwater capture solutions per gallon retained (native plants are a few pennies cheaper), it only makes sense to begin the restructuring of any stormwater program by mandating compost use whenever and wherever soil disturbance or maintenance takes place.

Working toward the win-win

The ultimate goal is to create a robust market for compost products, one that will generate an even stronger demand for the organic waste that feeds compost manufacturing processes.  

When this happens, manufacturers may be able to greatly reduce (or even eliminate) tipping fees for yard waste, food waste, sludges, and other urban organics received from local governments.

It’s a scenario where both small businesses and taxpayers win.  Isn’t that outcome worth the loss of a few strings?