What is compost used for?

“What is compost used for?  What’s the difference between compost and manure, or compost and topsoil, or compost and mulch, or compost and…?”

These questions (or some variation thereof) have been posed in Google searches by thousands of McGill Compost website visitors over the years, suggesting a broad lack of understanding on the part of the general public about soil products, in general, and compost products, in particular.

They tell us there’s much more work to be done before compost becomes a solid, steady blip on the soil amendment radar. 

It doesn’t matter whether the compost purveyor is municipal, commercial, or non-profit, or if it’s selling B2C or B2B (or both).   Compost manufacturers, distributors, and retailers can all benefit from marketing programs and advertising campaigns that include a healthy dollop of consumer education along with branding, product descriptions, and price points.

In a recent BioCycle article, Dr. Sally Brown reminds us that “… feel good sayings without quantitative information to back them up doesn’t always help to move the product. To a city engineer, these feel good statements can make you sound like a new age guru pushing a dietary supplement rather than a knowledgeable resource with alternative solutions.

Ouch.  

To be fair to all the OGs out there, in the early days of the composting industry, the only thing we had to peddle was feel good. There was little bona fide research or hard facts that demonstrated compost’s effectiveness to a customer,  just anecdotal evidence and side-by-side field photographs comparing compost and no compost applications.

McGill’s own economic impact studies, conducted in the early 2000s and funded by the state of North Carolina, were among the first to investigate dollar benefits related to compost use.  The research may have been simple by today’s standards, but it validated information our agricultural customers had been telling us for nearly a decade – and provided a solid foundation for the growth of our compost sales program into high-value markets.  (READ: the 2000 and 2001 McGill study reports)

But dollars and cents are only one part of compost’s amazing story that started with fertilizer value, but now just keeps going and going and going to include everything from food waste recycling to stormwater management to carbon storage.

Yet, the abundance of compost’s benefits seems to be a message that hasn’t been told loud enough or long enough or often enough to reach the ears of the majority.  There are still too many stormwater plans out there that don’t fix the soil as a critical first step,  communities that burn or bury compostables, and farmers who don’t use compost on conventionally-managed fields.

Talking who, what, when, where, and how when promoting compost is good.  But today, when a potential customer, policymaker, or specification writer is searching the web, s/he also wants to know the why — backed up with facts and figures.  Why is compost the right solution for their particular problem?   Why is it a better choice than amendment X, Y, or Z?

What is compost used for?

Adding macro and micro nutrients, building soil organic matter, replenishing and sustaining soil microbes, improving nutrient uptake and plant disease resistance, creating pore space, adjusting pH, absorbing rain impact energy, degrading pollutants, storing carbon —  it’s a lengthy benefits list for a single product that just happens to be “green.” 

Fortunately, unlike decades past, cyberspace is now loaded with scientific studies that provide meaningful data related to compost performance.  This is news the marketplace needs to hear.    

For example, it’s true to say compost alleviates compaction.  But when presenting to engineers, would it not be better to also include a link to or slide of this table that compares compost’s performance to other solutions, showing it among the best?

Or when a city is making decisions about its stormwater management strategy, why not share some comparative costs per gallon retained for various retention solutions discussed in Milwaukee’s Green Infrastructure Plan (see Page 63)?

“Compost will hold 10 times its weight in water” is good for visualization.  But how does it help a stormwater system designer calculate potential water and cost savings for mandating compost use vs. rain gardens or storage tunnels?  

These are the types of statistics a decision-maker needs to see when considering options:

  • A typical compost is about 50% organic matter. 
  • Every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter adds 16,000 gallons of water-holding capacity per acre foot.  
  • At only 2 percent organic matter, soil can hold all the rainfall from a typical rain event — around 1 inch or 27,154 gallons. 
  • A 1 percent increase in topsoil organic matter also stores about 60 tons of carbon per acre.

While specific numbers may vary depending on the study and/or source, the core message — that compost can be the better choice — remains constant. 

Researchers say the majority of today’s buyers do their due diligence and make purchasing decisions before reaching out to vendors for that all-important “first touch.”   If true, it’s more important than ever that brochures, point of sale displays, websites, or other outreach tools make the effort to quantify as well as entice. 

The environmental benefits of compost use are still an important part of the message. But the days of the easy sell to a predisposed customer base are long gone.  Now it’s time to win over everyone else.

Expansion of both B2C and B2B markets depends on the industry’s ability to effectively silence skeptics, motivate fence-sitters, and educate the uninformed — while keeping products (and services) cost-competitive.

Facts and figures will play a big role in that education effort.

Granted, there are lots of challenges ahead, and we do need more research of relevance to compost users to help fill quantitative gaps.

But composting is at an unprecedented place in its own history.  For the first time, the general public is eager to know more about what composting and compost use can do to positively impact a wide variety of issues. 

“What is compost used for?”

For the continued growth and wellness of the industry, research-based numbers need to be part of that all-important answer. 

Is composting food waste wasting food?  Until recently,  it’s a question that didn’t get asked.

Recycling organic matter back to the soil is supposed to be a long term, environmentally prudent, carbon sequestration practice — right?  Glowingly green.  Halo worthy.  Self-righteously gratifying.

Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on one’s viewpoint, folks are beginning to question all food waste, including the composting of former edibles.  

If composting was once a way to waste food without guilt, it is no more.  Except for the egg shells, potato peels and the like, that which was once edible food, if allowed to become fodder for the compost bin, is not consumed.  It does not feed anyone.  Ergo, it is wasted. 

Things like that fuzzy green stuff discovered in a leftover container in the back of the fridge, the carton of curdled milk, and the shriveled asparagus stuck to the bottom of the vegetable drawer means the cook prepared too much or a diner ordered too much at the restaurant or the family opted for pizza delivery while groceries languished in the pantry and fridge.

Buying too much prepared food, failing to prepare purchased ingredients, or cooking more than the family or customer will eat wastes food. The fact that the waste is composted does not negate the considerable negative environmental impacts required to get that food from farm to processor to kitchen to table — only to bypass a plate and wind up in the compost bin.

Yes, composting wasted food is far better than most alternatives.  But a critical look at wasteful habits could identify opportunities for improvement.  Chances are, even the most dedicated composting kitchen — whether residential, institutional, or commercial — can find ways to further reduce food waste while still generating enough scraps and culls to feed all those critters living in the compost pile.

READ MORE:  Can I compost oil and cooking grease?

Can I compost cooking oil and grease?

Is it possible to compost cooking oil and grease?

A lot of cooking fat, oil, and grease (FOG) goes down the kitchen drain.  Commercial kitchens install grease traps to collect the mess before it enters public sewer systems, diverting this waste to alternate disposal.

But the typical home kitchen does not, and the practice can clog pipes and negatively impact wastewater treatment systems.

Yes, it is possible to compost FOG.  But for the home composter, volume reduction and reuse is recommended as the first and best management strategy.  Adopt some of these kitchen practices to reduce and reuse to minimize volumes requiring composting or disposal:

REDUCE   

  • Opt for the oven or air fryer instead of deep or pan frying.
  • Spray oil onto food or into pans to lightly coat before cooking instead of pouring oil into the vessel for significant volume (and calorie) reductions.
  • Wipe cooking vessels with a paper towel before washing to remove excess oil.

REUSE

  • Many fats and oils (bacon, peanut, etc.) can be reused.  Cool and pour through a coffee filter or strainer into an airtight container and store in the fridge for up to a month.  
  • Allow cooking juices to cool.  Skim/remove the fat that congeals on the surface and freeze to use later to flavor veggies, soups, etc.   

RECYCLE

  • Check with your public utility to see if there is a FOG drop location in the community.
  • Add cooking grease to the food waste bin if your community composting operation can accept it.

COMPOST AT HOME

  • Small  volumes (up to 1 cup) of plant-based oils are best for home composting.  Simply pour over pile and blend in.  
  • Also compost the paper towels used to wipe oil from pans and kitchen surfaces.      

DISPOSAL

  • Pour waste oil into a non-recyclable can or bottle.  Seal prior to disposal. 

Is it really a good idea to make compostable waste go away and never come back? 

Each year, taxpayers collectively spend millions of dollars to burn or bury compostables.  Much like a tribe of ubiquitous Gollums, they just want garbage — the biodegradable and putrefying fraction of the municipal solid waste stream – to go away and never come back. 

The desire to make disagreeable discards disappear into fiery furnaces or burial mounds is understandable.  But is it wise?  Is it fiscally responsible?  Is it really a good idea to make organic waste go away and never come back? 

Nature recycles everything 

Rocks weather and erode, creating sediment. With heat, pressure, and time, that sediment becomes rock again.  Plants and animals feed and drink from the earth, die, and decompose to replenish the soil that will sustain future generations of flora and fauna.  Water drops from the sky as rain, filters down to aquifers, upwells and evaporates back to the clouds to fall once more. 

In a fantasy land, it may be possible to keep using resources without a thought to replenishment.  But in the real world, organic waste – the decaying residuals of once-living things – must be recycled back to the soil to maintain life-critical soil functions.   

Some seem to think the destruction of organics to make energy is more important than rebuilding soil.  But pushing an organic-waste-to-energy agenda by sacrificing the soil makes no sense. Humans managed to survive for millennia without electricity and centralized energy systems.  Without soil’s life-essential contribution to food and clean water, people face extinction in weeks.  

So, which is more important, energy or soil? 

Make energy and rebuild soil?   

Organic waste from developed societies includes all types of vegetation, food, manures … even compostable plastics.  When turned into a quality compost, these once-lost resources can be used by anyone anywhere to replenish depleted soil.   

Happily, making energy and building healthy soil does not have to be an either/or proposition.  It is possible to extract energy from organic waste without destroying the beneficial properties that make it valuable to soil.   The organic waste streams from these processes can then be used as feedstocks in the manufacture of compost products. 

Unhappily, energy production from biomass is one of the most expensive ways to make energy.  Even solar and wind power can be more cost-effective. 

Furthermore, bioenergy technologies based on anaerobic digestion of organics are still too pricey to be practical in many places.  Where they do exist, the waste stream (digestate) is not always put to highest and best use (i.e. composted).  Instead, residuals may be landfilled or relegated to low-dollar-value reuse. 

But one day, as more communities opt to restore natural soil replenishment cycles and energy generation technologies become more efficient, extracting energy from biomass, followed by composting and compost use, can become the system of choice for organic waste management. 

In the meantime … 

The importance of healthy soil 

Where humans live, topsoil has been scraped away or eroded.  Nutrients are used up.  Compaction has destroyed the pore spaces essential to the transport of air, water, and microbes.  Without a regular infusion of new organic matter to correct these deficiencies, soil dies.   

There are lots of processes for generating energy, but there’s only one way to replenish disturbed soils in developed areas – feed them a good, wholesome diet derived from organic waste converted into compost.   

From farms to lawns to sports fields, soils require periodic applications of compost.  There’s no other way to easily and economically provide soil with everything it requires to retain water, nurture vegetation, and create the type of environment soil microbes need to support nutrient uptake, contribute to disease resistance, and degrade pollutants. 

The best news? In many metropolitan areas, efficient, high-rate composting – the type needed to successfully manage big, urban waste streams – costs no more than landfilling or incineration.  Often, recycling at a modern, industrial composting operation can be more affordable than traditional disposal.   

Composting makes organic wastes go away, but they come back as enriching soil amendments.  Biodegradables need to keep recycling, just like they have since the beginning of time. 

Breaking the natural soil cycle by incinerating or burying compostable waste is a bad idea that should go away and never come back.

VIEW THE SLIDESHARE:  Addicted to convenience

How to make compost fast

The desire to make compost fast can be driven by space restrictions, the need for more product, or simple impatience.   It’s a common goal for composters everywhere, from the backyard to industrial facilities.

Unfortunately, wishing will never make it so.  The speediest course from raw feedstock to finished quality compost is a series of steps controlled by the person doing the composting.  Skip or bungle just one, and biodegradation could slow or even grind to a halt.

It doesn’t matter whether you make compost by the tumbler or by the ton.  If you want to make compost fast, follow these steps:

  1. Consider carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratios when mixing every batch.  Base mixes on the C and N percentage of each feedstock, not feedstock volume – it’s not buckets of “brown” to buckets of “green.”   Learn more about calculating C:N ratios.
  2. Get the blend right with uniform particle size, good porosity, no clumps or marbling of feedstocks.  
  3. Maintain a desirable moisture level throughout primary processing.  Don’t expose the composting mass to weather or allow it to dry out.  Add moisture, as needed.   Learn more about composting moisture levels.
  4. Keep air moving through the pile.  This allows microbes to breathe and removes excess heat.  Invest in a temperature probe and adjust air flow to maintain ideal temperatures.       

Master these basics to make compost fast.

What is a composting facility package plant?

In the water/wastewater treatment and composting industries, a package plant typically refers to a small, prefabricated unit dropped on-site, ready to connect to the larger system.  A McGill composting facility package plant is different.

Since McGill doesn’t build small facilities, its “package” is actually a set of blueprints and specifications for an industrial composting plant pre-engineered to meet the specific environmental containment, throughput, and feedstock requirements of the owner.

Actual construction may include prefab and off-the-shelf components, but there is likely iron going up at the site and concrete to pour, too.

While the owner is still responsible for site-specific engineering,  all other aspects – structure, process, operating procedures, etc. — are provided with the package.  Initial crew training and start-up supervision is included, too.

Pre-engineered McGill facilities ensure efficient, economical operations because they are designed by folks who have been successfully building and running trouble-free, 100,000+ TPY commercial plants for nearly 30 years.      

Does composting release CO2?

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the composting mass are classified as biogenic. This means the same amount of gas is emitted during decomposition whether the organic material is composted or degrades in a natural setting.  Therefore, these emissions are considered carbon-neutral.

Compared to waste management alternatives, it’s the best of the bunch.

Other emissions sources, however, like those from equipment operation,  do add to the size of a composting facility’s environmental footprint.  These are nonbiogenic, a.k.a. anthropogenic, emissions.

This factsheet provides a good topic overview that includes values for helping composting operations with emissions calculations.

 

Commercial vs. industrial composting:  are they the same? 

Commercial vs. industrial composting — no, they are not the same, though the terms may be used interchangeably on the web.  But one word has to do with the money trail and the type of organization that owns the facility.  The other is linked to operational scale and/or manufacturing approach. 

A government-owned operation is not commercial, but it could be industrial in scale. It could also be operated like a commercial facility with a similar structure and profitability goals. 

A privately-owned facility would be commercial but might not have any claim to industrial.  A small facility owned by a nonprofit may be neither.   Big, modern compost manufacturing plants may be both. 

What makes a composting operation commercial? 

A “commercial” facility infers ownership by an individual, partnership or corporation, with profits accruing to the benefit of the owners’/shareholders’ bank accounts.  “Commercial” doesn’t have anything to do with the processing method in use, facility design, throughput, technologies, or manufacturing systems. 

Composting operations owned by municipalities, counties, nonprofit organizations and the like are not commercial, because any profits realized go back into communal coffers to subsidize operations or fund other projects related to their respective missions. 

Government-owned plants are “public-sector” operations, while commercial facilities are “private-sector” operations.  Generally, nonprofits or not-for-profit entities are citizen groups and may also be referred to as non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Sometimes, an NGO may be established by individuals representing governments or agencies.  Like public-sector projects, composting facilities owned by NGOs could look very much like a commercial operation, complete with a revenue stream. 

How big is industrial scale? 

“Industrial” is a relative term, most often associated with factories and manufacturing.  In the 21st century, manufacturing infers mass production, big equipment, automation, systems, and uniformity.  Ergo, industrial scale infers a facility size that would require these things to improve efficiencies and revenues. 

When it comes to commercial and industrial composting, how big does the operation have to be to earn the designation of industrial scale?  How big is big? 

Again, it’s a relative term.  When doing research for this post, one of the findings was this article written in the mid-1990s that classified a 100-tons-per-year operation as industrial.   

Compared to the backyard compost pile, 100 tons is a big number.  But the average throughput of a composting operation in the U.S. is now approaching 4,500 tons per year.  There are 194 facilities processing more than 30,000 tons per year, some in the 100,000-plus category.   

It may be time to add one or two more zeros to the “industrial scale” definition of 1996. 

Still, size is only one indicator of an industrial facility.  But other adjectives that might be used to provide clarity are also quite subjective. 

Commercial vs. industrial composting — is “manufacturing” the key? 

The original definition of manufacturing (manu factum in Latin) literally translates to “made by hand.”  Today’s dictionaries typically describe manufacturing as making something manually or using machines.  But for most folks, the word conjures images of big buildings, lots of machinery, and cookie cutter output. 

Yet, no matter the variations in definition, one thing is clear — when applied to the manufacture of goods in the modern era, making something in an industrial setting requires production through a system that typically includes assembly lines, division of labor, a quality control program, and a sales network to move products out into the marketplace. 

Potato, Potahto 

Does it really matter whether a composting facility is commercial or not?  Industrial or not? 

The important thing is for composting operations of every description to make good compost.  How they do it or where the money goes is secondary and may not even be on a customer’s radar. 

A “commercial” facility may still imply private-sector ownership, but if public-sector owners are serious about their responsibilities to taxpayers, they’ll design, operate, and generate revenue from compost sales like the privately-owned. 

Protecting the integrity of the process and quality of the finished compost matters.  Hiring experienced, qualified compost facility operators matters.  Practicing preemption when it comes to the environment and preventing deterioration of the quality of life for the host community matters.  Providing stellar service to both intake and compost sales customers matters. 

These are the indicators of a successful composting operation, whether commercial or not, industrial scale or not.  At the end of the day, professional and profitable are among the most important descriptors for any composting facility. 

LEARN MORE: 

Compost is soil’s superhero

Sure, compost adds nutrients. But that might be this soil amendment’s least important function. 

Quite often, articles will mention compost as a replacement for some or all of the nutrients that might be provided to plants through applications of synthetic (man-made) fertilizers.   

That’s certainly true.  Compost delivers the macronutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK), plus a slew of plant-essential micronutrients that are missing from most synthesized fertilizer products.  Compost provides plants with a wholesome, well-rounded meal, not the nutritional equivalent of junk food. 

But what these fertilizer-focused articles rarely mention is the fact that the real value in compost use is not related to feeding plants, but to feeding soil … and soil does require a wholesome diet to function as a true soil and not a dead substrate. 

Compost feeds soil

Providing plant nutrients is just one of many soil functions.  Worms and other creatures that live in healthy soils help to physically break down food sources, then microbes take over to convert that food into plant-available form. 

Both physical and microbial conversion depend on a soil environment that can support those lifeforms.  If the soil is chronically too wet, too dry, too compacted  yada, yada  then it can’t support a healthy soil ecosystem.  That plot of ground may not be soil at all, but lifeless dirt. 

To countermand the impacts of human activity, disturbed soils require regular program of replenishment that includes organic matter and microbes.  Compost provides both.  Compost feeds soil.

Then, when it rains, soil retains that water, reducing runoff.  When runoff is reduced, so is erosion, sedimentation, and water pollution.  Because soil microbial activity also degrades pollutants, any stormwater that does run off is cleaner.  

That same microbial activity can help neutralize some soil-borne diseases, too. 

Improving plant nutrition, aiding in disease control, reducing water pollution, and retaining water are all important soil functions. 

But wait, there’s more. 

Compost as a carbon sink 

The build-up of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere is cause for concern.  As more greenhouse gases flood the atmosphere, temperatures increase. 

This rise in global temperatures influences many things, erratic and extreme weather being one of the most visible.  Subsequent climate shifts can impact people, crops, and livestock for hundreds of years. 

When used to amend soils, compost sequesters carbon.  This means the soil will act as a carbon “sink,” capturing and holding carbon in stasis – but only as long as the soil remains undisturbed.  When the soil is tilled, that carbon is released. 

Extensive use of compost for perennial crops and other long-term application(grasslands, tree farms, utility easements, etc.) can positively impact atmospheric conditions by reducing greenhouse gases.   

At the same time, the addition of compost rebuilds a topsoil layer that has been eroded or scraped away by farming, development, and other human activity.  Since topsoil loss has been identified as a significant threat to planetary health, second only to population growthits restoration is a global priority.   

At a time when nearly a third of the world’s arable land has become unproductive in just a few decades, compost really can be that superhero swooping in to save topsoil, save water, save the atmosphere, and save the planet. 

Comparing costs per gallon retained 

Soil amendment is one of the least expensive ways to collect and manage stormwater 

Manage water where it falls.” 

This sound advice is the foundation of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s Regional Green Infrastructure Plana program that identified soil amendment as one of the least expensive ways to manage stormwater.  At 28 cents per gallon, improving soil is second only to native plantings in lowest cost per gallon retained. 

Green roofs?  $4.72 per gallon.  Those fancy-schmancy deep storage tunnels?  $2.42 per gallon.  At $1.59 per gallon, even pretty little rain gardens cost more than five times that of simple soil amendment. 

Milwaukee is not alone in promoting soil amendment as a first line of defense for stormwater management  For example: 

  • Denver and GreenleyColorado, require compost use for new landscaping, as does Leander, Texas. 
  • Some state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) now routinely specify compost.  A few years ago, the Texas DOT said it was the largest single market for compost in the U.S. 

In an urban environment, opportunities for soil amendment abound.  City parks, athletic fields, planters, urban lawns, highway medians and easements, foundation backfill – anywhere there’s soil, there’s opportunity for inexpensive water retention. 

Every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter (SOM) content adds an additional 16,000 gallons of water-holding capacity per acre foot.  A site managed to maintain soil organic matter at only 2 percent can hold all the water of a typical rain event (1 inch or less), which is 27,154 gallons per acre.     

In fact, at 5 percent SOM, the soil can retain the water equivalent of nearly 3-inches of rainfall.  In some regions, this equal95 percent of all storm events. 

Soil amendment may not solve all rainfall issues, especially in downtown areas.  But managing water where it falls can be the most sensible, efficient, environmentally- and economically-prudent strategy for “first line of defense” stormwater management.