Whatever happened to aiming for the best waste management option? 

If it’s easier to do, then it’s the thing to do.  If the job can be done faster by cutting corners, go for it.  If it’s the cheapest option, buy two.  Somewhere along the path of societal evolution, easiest-fastest-cheapest has become synonymous with best.  This linguistic transmogrification is so pervasive, society no longer takes notice of its shortsighted slide down a spiraling path toward all things inferior.

When did easiest-fastest-cheapest become synonyms for best? When did we stop aiming for the best waste management choices and settle for inferior? 

There are good, affordable options out there that can strengthen/support recycling mandates and result in better waste management systems.  But progress toward zero waste is s-l-o-w and too many communities are still stuck in their comfortable ruts.

Progressive leadership looks to the future, ever-steering its constituency toward that proverbial “brighter tomorrow.”  For waste management, that horizon does not include landfills or incinerators. But it does include high-rate industrial composting … if public and private facility owners aim for the best and not the cheapest.

What are the best options for biodegradable wastes, the best organics collection strategies, the best composting technologies, the best facility designs, the best uses for compost products – who asks these questions before plunging head first into a development project?

Or, if someone asks the questions, do they really mean what’s the cheapest technology, design, and collection strategy? 

As for the resulting compost product, is the real objective to put it to highest and best use or to get rid of the stuff as easy and as fast as possible?

‘Best use’ is hard to achieve with an inferior product

Stormwater management, erosion control, carbon sequestration, turfgrass management, landscaping – these rank among the best uses for compost products.

They represent markets that place high dollar value on stable, quality soil amendments with no odor, high organic matter content, macro and micro nutrients, and other characteristics linked to a high-performance product that can be safely used by anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Poor quality compost cannot meet this minimum standard.  For the most part, its sale and distribution is restricted to low-dollar markets like farming and landfill cover.

The catch here is that, when managing mixed organic wastes, it usually requires a combination of the best facility designs, composting technologies, and management protocols to produce a really good compost product.

To achieve top quality, keep product moving out the gate, and ensure the highest possible revenue stream, a facility owner must match those aspirations with a high-quality manufacturing process and competent management that includes a professional sales effort.

Shortsighted strategies won’t meet long-term goals

Many communities are waking up to the fact that their long-range plan needs to include a viable strategy for organic waste management that keeps biodegradable materials – especially, food waste – out of landfills and incinerators.

Composting certainly fits the bill, and it’s often possible to modify an existing yard waste windrow permit to include other organics.

But what happens a few years down the road when that one load of food waste per week turns into a load per day, and then two loads per day, and then 10 loads per day?

When the entire city is source-separating organics curbside, and the vast majority of those garbage trucks are headed for that crowded, outdoor windrow composting facility, what happens then? 

Historically, facility owners (public and private) can struggle through years of banned feedstocks, failed lab reports, public complaints, unsellable product, fines, and/or legal fees before finally facing the facts. Their antiquated composting system simply isn’t up to the challenge of today’s urban waste streams … and their bargain basement facility wasn’t such a bargain after all. 

Successful high-volume processing of urban streams that include highly putrescible materials and biodegradable plastics requires tight environmental control and a high-rate composting process. 

If a facility owner wants to process in the least amount of space, taking the least amount of time, using the most reliable, predictable process, then that owner is going to convert that lesser system to the best system for mixed urban organics.  A covered and/or encapsulated aerated static pile (ASP) system, preferably with computerized control/monitoring and biofiltration, meets those expectations.

But how much might that region or business have saved/earned by investing in an expandable, high-rate facility in the beginning?  Remember, we’re not just talking composting, but all the dollars saved associated with compost use, too.

While Nero fiddled, Rome burned

Fiddling about while the city buries itself under a mountain of garbage is not an example of good governance.  In the private sector, failing to invest in upgrades and new technologies sets a company up for obsolescence.

Both depict outcomes resulting from failure to act when the time is right.

Unlike even 10 or 15 years ago, when most people were clueless about the many benefits of organics recycling on a municipal/industrial scale, today’s taxpayers are aware of composting as a waste management strategy.

Large volume waste generators in the private sector have been using commercial composting services for decades for one reason only – it’s more cost-effective than landfills.  As a bonus, it also gives corporations green points to use in their marketing messages.

Is it right for governing boards to continue to expect taxpayers to pay more simply because those who made the decision failed to be proactive in their decision-making?

No single option will be right for every community.  But giving serious consideration to organics recycling is always the right thing to do.

Starting at the top and working down is a lot easier than trying to claw one’s way up from the bottom.  So, aim for the best solution first, even if it’s not the easiest, fastest, or cheapest option.  

Then, use easy-er, fast-er, cheap-er tweaks to mold that system into the perfect waste management approach, customized to meet the unique needs and expectations of each community or business. 

Considering the pros and cons of waste management technologies?

Evaluations of waste management technologies can be riddled with inaccurate, incomplete, and outdated information – and the full dollar value of compost use is rarely included.

Elected officials making decisions on behalf of taxpayers may be experts in their respective fields.  But most lack knowledge in many areas specific to municipal governance, especially waste management technologies.  Consequently, staff and consultants are often asked to do some research and provide a report of findings, including recommendations.

A couple of articles released last month aimed a spotlight on inherent weaknesses in a process that relies on published research and interpretive reports for decision-making.

One piece focused on a study out of North Carolina State University.  It concluded the best use for compost was as landfill cover.  The other, from the University of Washington’s Dr. Sally Brown, said those research assumptions were off.  Many benefits of compost use weren’t considered.

No matter which viewpoint seems right to those who read the articles, the fact that there are two different takes on “best use” for compost – both from very reputable sources – focuses attention on one of the biggest struggles engineers and consultants face as they attempt to develop meaningful recommendations for policy-crafters and lawmakers.

A never-ending information stream floats about in cyberspace.  Available facts and bits of data are of sufficient quantity and quality to support almost any position one chooses to promulgate.  Adding or subtracting just one factoid in the mix of observations can result in a very different conclusion.

And the sad-but-true fact is that too many studies involving waste management systems fail to include the full range of economic and environmental benefits of composting.  Conspicuous by their absence are those elusive “dollars saved” numbers resulting from compost use.

Level playing fields for waste management technologies are hard to find  

Decisions related to organic waste management options present unique challenges.  Credible research comparing all four of the modern commercial technologies in the same study is rare.  Landfill gas-to-energy, thermal waste-to-energy, anaerobic digestion, and high-rate composting – finding a level playing field for technology comparisons feels like the impossible dream.

A researcher must wade through an ocean of irrelevant and often conflicting studies to find the few that fit the bill.  Volumes and types of materials may differ from one study to the next.  The specific parameters and amount of data collected won’t match up.  One report might focus on energy generation while skipping over input costs.  Others fail to include industrial composting and/or anaerobic digestion along with landfills and incineration or base conclusions on data that is now decades old.

Unfortunately, staff/consultants hired by municipal governments to gather information for these kinds of reports must rely on this mishmash of published data.  Rarely (if ever) does that consultant or in-house specialist have the budget to conduct new economic research comparing four different technologies at field scale using identical waste streams under real life conditions.

Hunting for needles in haystacks

A literature review may require the researcher to sort through a hodgepodge papers and websites to find information.  The hunt can include bench-scale studies, computer modeling outcomes, masters theses, field trials, magazine articles, and published budgets from public record projects. 

From this jumble comes the reviewer’s analysis, report of findings, and recommendations.  But proprietary information like construction and operating costs from privately-owned composting facilities is rarely available in the public arena.  As a result, a consultant’s report may not reflect an accurate picture of a technology’s true potential or the latest innovations.

In the real world, research scientists are limited by budgets, people power, time, personal knowledge, and the expectations of funders.  And while that may be the nature of the beast, the resulting scientific paper merely represents a snapshot of conditions and available data as they existed within the framework and specific timeline of the investigation – nothing more.

Scientists understand this.  But the elected officials using those study results to guide their decisions may not, taking those studies as gospel.  They don’t see inconsistencies or information gaps.  They don’t ask the right questions.

But if all of those studies ignored compost use, do any of their only-halfway-there conclusions really matter?

Getting waste management comparisons to the finish line

Just to see if it could be done, we took a stab at stitching together a balanced comparison of organics management options. Pulled the most recent data we could find from multiple studies.  Adjusted dollars for inflation.  Converted all energy input/output to a common unit of measure.  Cobbled together bits and pieces from a slew of research papers, municipal budgets, and other web resources.  

Tipping fee revenue was assumed for all technologies.  Commercial composting was compared instead of municipal operations because [1] we had a pretty good idea of the costs for building and operating a big, industrial composting plant and [2] many of the published costs we’ve seen over the years for municipal construction and/or operations for similarly-sized or smaller facilities were far higher than our own experience.

Based on a 100,000 TPY operation, annual revenue calculations included tipping fees and sale of products like energy and compost, minus debt amortization for facility construction (without interest) and operating costs per ton processed.

Admittedly, the resulting numbers were very, very crude.  But the grand total of those figures?  All options netted about the same dollars per ton.

Yeah.  We were surprised, too.  However, what none of the studies calculated – including our own investigation – were all the additional economic benefits to be had through compost use. 

Compost use tips the scale in favor of organics recycling

Sadly, the oversights of these reports were not unusual.  The full dollar value of compost use was missing from almost every published economic evaluation of waste management technologies for organics.  The absence of this highly relevant data represents a glaring hole in the big picture, one that can negatively impact an entire region for decades.

Mostly, these benefits represent dollars saved, which are much more difficult to identify and calculate than dollars spent.  But that doesn’t mean those dollar values should be ignored:

  • There is a dollar value for carbon sequestration through compost use.  
  • There are dollar savings in water treatment costs when runoff is cleaner because of compost’s filtration abilities.  
  • Construction projects save when they use compost-based controls for erosion.  
  • Turfgrass managers save when there is compost beneath players’ feet.  There is also a reduction in the severity of sports injuries … more avoided dollars.
  • When compost use is specified as part of a communitywide stormwater program, stormwater systems and their construction costs can shrink.  
  • During times when synthetic fertilizer costs are high, the NPK content of compost can represent a real bargain.  There are also avoided costs related to transatlantic shipping and synthetics’ reliance on natural gas.
  • Compost helps soil combat weeds and control some plant diseases, reducing chemical use on lawns and sports fields.

When a government body responsible for the general well-being of hundreds (or millions) of people is not provided with all the facts, their decision-making suffers.

Granted, it’s devilishly hard to assign dollar values to some of these benefits.  This article by Dr. Brown demonstrates how involved the calculation of even one aspect of compost’s advantages can be.

Yet, the greatest value of organics recycling comes not from composting, but from compost use.  Ignoring this fact serves no one and significantly undervalues composting as an option for mainstream waste management.

If a municipality wants to be assured of choosing the very best technology option for its organic waste stream, issuing agencies and departments will include those important “dollars saved” calculations on the list of deliverables required of their consultant or engineer.

True sustainability requires a system, not marketing-speak

Sticking a bird’s head on a spider does not transform that organism into a creature capable of flight.  Adding energy generation to incinerators and landfills doesn’t make them sustainable systems for organic waste management, either. 

“Sustainable” is one of those words that has been co-opted by Madison Avenue, slapped on everything from dog food to baby toys, and flung about willy-nilly like insults on nighttime reality TV.

It seems every product, process, and entity with even the smallest claim to the word uses it, because “sustainable” has finally caught the attention of the general public.

But the term, when applied to waste management choices, may be just as misleading as the words “natural” and “organic” on supermarket shelves.  What’s behind the label can still be the environmental equivalent of junk food. 

Admittedly,  people have become so adept at generating waste that the world has a never-ending supply have the stuff.  Ergo, any disposal or recycling technology could legitimately claim its feedstocks are sustainably sourced – even landfills without methane capture and plain, old incinerators.  

But that doesn’t make the total system sustainable or economically prudent or environmentally sound.

If pears are grown in compost in South America, shipped to Asia for processing, and transported back across an ocean to the U.S. for distribution and consumption, are those pears a sustainable choice?  

Using compost is better than not using compost.  But, c’mon, folks.  Did that pear earn the right to call itself sustainable?

Of course not.  Neither do disposal options that burn or bury compostables … even if they do result in energy generation.

Currently, only technologies that recycle or divert organics for use as a soil amendment (in farming, landscaping, turfgrass management, etc.) can claim true sustainability.  They close a loop, and when properly managed, do no environmental harm in the process.  

It remains to be seen whether some of the emerging re-uses for organic waste like building highways and formulating cleaning products will help or hurt the effort to recycle biodegradables back to the soil. 

Making new products from waste can be a swell idea.  But if those products can’t find their way to recycling at end-of-life, if the reclamation process renders them too toxic or otherwise inappropriate for composting, or if that reclamation generates a waste stream that cannot be efficiently returned to the soil, these types of reuse projects will likely – albeit indirectly – contribute to further soil depletion, more polluted runoff, increasing stormwater problems, and atmospheric carbon overload.

When government decision-makers are asked to evaluate new systems for organic waste management, marketing-speak has no place in a serious discussion.  One or two sustainable components does not make a sustainable system.

True sustainability cannot be conferred by feedstock source alone.   For organics, returning nutrients, organic matter, carbon, and beneficial microbes to the soil in an efficient, cost-effective manner makes composting and compost use a true sustainability choice – no marketing-speak required.

What’s the difference between compost and peat moss?

Compost is manufactured from recycled materials derived from plants and animals.  Peat moss forms naturally over many, many years – also from decaying plants and animals.  Both are rich in organic matter.  But it takes so many years for nature to form peat moss that the product is not considered “sustainable.”  Peat also tends to be too expensive to be used in large projects.  Fortunately, compost can be substituted 1:1 for peat in any media mix or soil recipe.  

McGill named to 2020 Influencers list

Thank you, Feedspot, for including McGill among the “Top 40 Compost Blogs, Websites & Influencers in 2020.”  We are honored to be one of the few industrial composting operations on the list.

Lab test lingo:  How much is 1 PPM?

Test results — compost analytical reports included — often convey constituent concentrations in parts per million (ppm) or milligrams per liter (mg/L).  Both state the fraction of the tested substance found per one million units of gas, liquid, or solid.

But what does that really mean?  Is 1 PPM a drop in the bucket or a thimble of water in an ocean?

Such infinitesimal amounts can be difficult to visualize, but here are a few examples found on the web that may help:

PPM

PPB

Sometimes, even smaller concentrations may be reported as parts per billion or micrograms per liter (μg/L).  When you see this term, correlate to:

Know the limits

One of the best analogies is 1 ppm equals one large mouthful in a lifetime of eating.  But it must be said:  just a small bite of the wrong thing can be one bite too many.

That’s why it’s important to always correlate reported concentrations  with the limits deemed safe by regulators and other jurisdictional entities.  Typically, for easy comparison, these ceilings will be reported in an adjacent column on the lab report.

FAQ: Do I have to rake fall leaves?

Nature drops fall leaves for a reason, and it’s not to give sightseers an excuse to tour the countryside.  Those red, yellow, and gold gems will eventually decay to help fertilize the soil for the coming season.   So, no, leaf raking is not a necessity. 

Know, however, that the fall leaf drop can wreak havoc on stormwater systems.  One should, at the very least, make the effort to keep those leaves well away from stormwater inlets and  flow pathways.

Use a mulching mower to break up the leaf mat and accelerate biodegradation once that colorful blanket starts to fade.

If you can’t get through October or November without grabbing a rake, rough chop some of those leaves and use them to mulch planting beds and gardens.

The remainder can go to composting, of course.  Add them to your backyard compost pile, or prep them for curbside collection following your municipality’s guidelines.  And, please, do remove plastics, metal, glass, and other contaminants before moving those leaves to the curb. 

FAQ: Is fall a good time to use compost?

Most definitely, yes.  In fact, some believe the fall season is the best time to add compost to lawns and gardens.  For grassy areas, sprinkle a little over the surface and rake in.  For planting beds, add compost and work into the top layer of soil.  Alternatively, just leave the compost to sit on the surface of the planting bed and allow Mother Nature to work her magic over the winter months.  Cover the surface with leaves or other mulch to help retain moisture.  When spring planting season rolls around, the soil will be ready for you.  Compost products will vary, so always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations about exact amounts to use for specific applications.  You can find McGill’s recommendations here.

FAQ: How does compost protect drinking water?

Primary sources of drinking water include wells, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers.  Compost will protect drinking water sources by breaking down pollutants and reducing erosion/siltation in runoff.  Microbial activity and absorption of rainfall energy are among the mechanisms at work.

Soil microbes break down many chemicals — like petroleum products – during feeding activity, severing molecular bonds and reducing complex compounds into simpler, more benign forms.  In fact, compost is used to remediate petroleum contaminated soils at airbases, underground storage tank removal sites, highway accidents, and similar clean-up projects.

Compost’s organic matter content cushions rain or irrigation water.  When water hits the ground, that energy is disbursed, and fewer particles are dislodged.  That same organic matter also absorbs more water, resulting in less runoff.

In addition, the use of compost reduces the need for chemical input on farms, turfgrass, and in the landscape, which also helps to protect drinking water sources.

Estimating organic waste volumes for composting 

Imagine you’re the facilities manager for a large commercial building or institution, staring at a row of overflowing carts or roll-off boxes sidled up to the wall in the alley or back parking lot. 

They’re filled with crumpled paper, reams of old reports, food leftovers, used coffee pods, an avalanche of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, and pizza boxes with paper napkins stuck to the remnants of a variety of cheese toppings.    

You know all of those discards can be recycled and/or used as compost feedstocks.  Since most of that waste is compostable, diverting the organics from the landfill to composting could save money.   

The problem is, few composting operations will accept mixed waste loads.  The resulting compost is just too contaminated to use and winds up in the landfill anyway.  And if you want to develop an on-site composting project, knowing the volume/weight of compostables influences everything from sizing to siting to process selection. 

Source-separation – removing recyclables and compostables from the disposal stream at your location – is not as difficult as it sounds.  A good education program supported by a healthy dollop of (re)enforcement usually does the trick.   But before investing time, money, and brainpower in the project, you know the decision-makers will want to talk dollars and sense.  They’ll want assurances that the economics work.   

The first step is to determine how many pounds or tons of compostables are being generated each year.  Then, you can begin the planning process and start to gather cost estimates. 

Routes available for developing estimates all come with advantages and disadvantages, mostly related to things like people-power, total generation volumes and required degree of accuracy.  A web search will offer lots of ideas.  Here, we look at 3 broad categories: 

Route 1 – Develop estimates based on published norms and averages 

The easiest, fastest, and cheapest method to estimate compostable volumes is to glean “typicals” and “averages” from the web.   

The U.S. EPA says about 61% of the total MSW stream is made up of food, paper and cardboard, wood, and yard trimmings.  If your commercial or institutional stream is similar, this method could work for you.  Couple this percentage with known weight capacities of the specific receptacle in use, and the result is a baseline number you can use to calculate weekly or annual tonnage.   

Simply convert those gallons or cubic yards to pounds (based on container weight limits), divide by 2,000 to get tons, then multiply that number by .61 or 61%.  This is the estimated weight of all compostables. 

There are also sources that will provide weights based on generation rate per defined unit.  Example: 41 pounds MSW per week per household or 200 pounds per week for each fast food restaurant employee.  Again, convert pounds to tons and multiply that number by .61 for a rough estimate of compostable tonnage. 

Want to count bins or carts?  Contact your waste hauler for specific container sizes/weights or use a more generic number like 180 pounds for a 96gallon cart (from one online resource). 

Just focusing on food waste?  A cubic yard of food waste weighs about .5 tons. 

This method of estimating volumes for composting is probably best for low volume generators, because the total volume and weight of any “error” will be relatively small.  For everyone else, use this type of generic data for rough estimates only. 

You can find charts to help with weight estimates in our SlideShare title:  Estimating volumes of food waste and other organics for composting. 

Route 2  the DIY waste audit 

This method relies on statistically representative random sampling to develop a picture of the total waste stream.  There are several sample size calculators available online to help you get it right, and they come in handy for evaluating validity of other types of surveys, too. 

The following examples were calculated using the SurveyMonkey tool: 

Let’s say you counted a total of 40 trash cans in your office building.  Using a confidence level of 95% and a 5% margin of error, the calculator suggests a sample size of 37 trash cans. 

If you have a larger building with 400 trash cans, using the same confidence level and margin of error, the sample size is 197. 

Trying to pin down the generation volume of a city of 40,000?  The sample size is 381. 

Once you know how many units you need, identify a representative subset for sampling.  A human can do this, but to be totally unbiased in the choice of trash cans, let a computer randomize the list.  Using the 40-can building as an examplecreate a list of all trash can locations in a spreadsheet.  Then randomize the list Randomizing is easy … this site is just one of many with step-by-step instructions.   

Once the list is randomized, use locations 1-37 for your audit: 

  • Assemble supplies (gloves, aprons, scales, etc.) and identify helpers. 
  • Pull all 37 trash cans at the same time on the same day and move to your audit location. 
  • Provide training to any helpers who might not be able to distinguish compostable from non-compostable.
  • Separate can contents into those two piles.  If conducting a full waste stream audit, further subdivide the non-compostables into glass, metal, plastic, etc. 
  • Weigh the compostables pile and divide by 37 (sample size) to get an average weight per can.  Multiply that average by 40 cans (total building) for a daily average.  Multiply the daily average by the number of workdays per year to arrive at an annual weight and divide by 2,000 to convert pounds to tons. 
  • If you’re just doing compostables, you’re done.  Otherwise do the same calculations for each waste group you wish to audit. 

Advantages of this method are improved accuracy and the fact that audits can make good group projects.  But the audit is only as accurate as the volunteers, and auditor safety (masks, gloves, etc.) must be a top priority.  

Also consider, as an alternative to the internal DIY, the resources of a local university where a researcher, class or student may be looking for a project.  Some private companies and governmental entities also offer free audits.  Just make sure they understand the focus is compostables, not just the more traditional recyclables like plastic and glass. 

Route 3 – professional waste audits 

Sometimes, only a professional audit will do.  This will include sizeable and/or toxic waste streams where the expense of professional expertise is warranted.  Typically, these will be engineering firms and other specialists with experience in waste management. 

Professionals can charge by the hour or by the contract.  If taking this route, choose a reputable firm and make sure there is a clear set of deliverables, as well as a timeline, spelled out in the Scope of Work agreement. 

As might be expected, this option can require a healthy budget.  But on the plus side, using professionals can be more accurate than any other when estimating volumes for composting.  If composting costs less than landfilling in your region, the audit may well be a money-saver in the long-term. 

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