Organic waste: Sometimes the ‘ain’t broke’ still needs a fix

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “no need to reinvent the wheel” are favored expressions of people who don’t like change.  And there seem to be a whole lot of  those folks making decisions about organic waste management.

But we’d all be riding around in horse-drawn carts tricked out with wooden wheels if several somebodies hadn’t ignored that advice, moving forward to reinvent and fix what wasn’t broke.

Yet, for some, devising an organics recovery program that makes perfect economic and environmental sense won’t be enough to ensure acceptance and adoption of new methods and technologies.  People will still resist unless highly motivated to change.

But a stronger education effort is not the key to success.

Effecting change on a municipal scale often means developing strategies that will alter deeply entrenched systems and the habits of millions of people.  And that requires much more than the typical public education program, because an estimated 70% of all managed change programs fail.

Whether the charge toward a more sustainable future is being led by a government office, community nonprofit, or dedicated crusader, overcoming “if it ain’t broke” attitudes takes an intentional, well-crafted effort with a loud voice and plenty of motivation. 

Education is not the first step

Unfortunately, too many change promoters put their faith in public education projects when, in fact, the typical education program is likely to flop.

Yes, all of those utility bill stuffers and refrigerator magnets are valuable tools.  But they are only effective after an individual has decided to embrace change.

To win converts, catalysts of voluntary societal shifts must have the motivational insights of B.F. Skinner, the creative audacity of Saul Alinsky, and the patience of Job.

The most successful transformations are achieved over a long period of time using small steps.

They take into account the many stages of change: awareness, consideration, decision, preparation, action, and maintenance.  And when good intentions start to slip, a little reinforcement may be required, as well.

Peoples is peoples

Doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about changing the mindset of a million homeowners, a department head, the town council, or a city’s waste contractor.  They’re all people, and people must first decide to make a change before change can happen.

And that’s where change psychology becomes an essential element in the toolbox of any proponent of change.

The challenge of change management is significant.  While the private sector is slightly more successful than the public, neither has a stellar record.

So when contemplating a program that not only requires the buy-in from politicians, government agencies, and the private sector, but also residents of their respective jurisdictions…

Well, let’s just say herding cats sounds like a walk in the park compared to that formidable task.

Who’s in charge? 

Effecting significant change at any level of government is tough.  One election can wipe out months or years of forward progress, triggering a game of musical chairs that can cause workflow disruptions and priority shifts throughout the organization.

And it doesn’t help that deeply entrenched systems and organizational structures can present even more formidable barriers.

For example, wastewater treatment residuals, food waste, and yard waste are all compostable.  Yet, municipal governments tend to manage these recyclables in different departments, sometimes, with little interdepartmental interaction.

The fate of sludge is determined by public works.  Solid waste oversees garbage.  Yard waste may be handed off to a contractor.

Recycling coordinators who have dedicated years to promoting recycling and backyard composting may lack the departmental muscle needed to rally troops, grab a bigger chunk of the budget, and lead the charge toward source separation and curbside collection.  

Departmental authority within state government can be just as convoluted.  While all organics can be and often are co-mingled and processed at the same composting facility, oversight may be divided up between multiple agencies resulting in requirements for multiple permits.

These are all examples of things that work, but really do need a fix.

How to move a mountain

Confucius said: “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

So no matter which departments, civic groups, or individuals decide to pick up the first rock that will (someday) lead to the shift of a mountain of organic waste from disposal to composting, they must be prepared for a long and sometimes arduous undertaking.

But just as important is the willingness of project leaders to –

  • Back burner traditional, education-centric approaches in favor of more successful tactics that include psychological motivations (popularity, peer pressure, etc.).
  • Form coalitions involving other groups with compatible missions to broaden and stabilize the initiative’s base. 
  • Allow the core of the program to be shaped by the community (as opposed to a top down dictate) to boost the project’s chances for success. 

The process in which a community considers and accepts change is much the same as an individual.  Awareness leads to contemplation and evaluation and, ultimately, a decision and correlating action.

Those tasked with the design and/or implementation of community outreach programs that require the change of long-held mindsets and habits may want to thumb through a book or two on the topic before committing thoughts to paper.

Another option is to bring in a change management specialist to help structure the campaign.

Like the old man who plants row after row of saplings for a forest he will never live to see, those seeking to change the status quo may move thousands of stones without making any real progress in shifting the mountain.  

But it’s a beginning, and that effort eases the workload for those who will follow.

The important thing is that someone decides to become an agent of change, to craft a different approach, to fix the ain’t broke, to work toward making organic waste management better.

For the town you call home, will that someone be you?

ASP composting – penny wise and dollar smart

There was a time in composting’s history when a method or technology based on anything more sophisticated than simple turning might have been considered risky and experimental.

A basic window operation was also cheap.  So choosing this low-tech option seemed like smart thing to do.  But that was long ago, and that penny wise start-up may now be a dollar foolish facility.

Nowadays, the outdoor windrow is composting’s equivalent of a pedal car trying to keep up on a highway populated with Teslas.

And as for the price tag, by the time the owner wastes an inordinate amount of time and money battling –

  • flies,
  • leachate,
  • failed lab tests,
  • equipment issues,
  • Mother Nature,
  • and a mountain of unsellable or low value product,

…that bare-bones facility doesn’t look like such a bargain.

Time-tested, proven technologies now exist that best the outdoor window in almost every production category, delivering rapid, predictable processing and high compost quality.  

Save time.  Save money.  Generate significant dollars from the sale of compost products.  What’s not to like about ASP composting? 

Yet, the majority of all composting operations in the US are still outdoor and low tech.  Nearly 60% are yard waste only facilities.  Not food waste and yard waste.  Not biosolids and yard waste.  Just yard waste.

They may have been cheap to build, but they’re not designed or equipped to handle the modern urban waste stream.  They’re not generating maximum revenues for their owners.  In short, those beleaguered owners are leaving money on the table.

When a region is not composting all of its organics (W/WTP sludge, FOG, food waste, yard waste, etc.) and professionally marketing a quality compost, it could be spending too much for multiple organic management and disposal systems, too.

To be at their most efficient and cost effective, public, private, and nonprofit operations can reduce costs and improve revenue generation by upgrading that tired, under-performing windrow system. 

And even if your windrow operation is chugging along without major headaches, it is possible to add more dollars to the bottom line while whittling away at operating costs.

Step 1 – Upgrade to ASP

Outdoor windrow composting is such a cheap and easy way to get started in the business.

But it’s only that – a start.

At some point, anyone who is serious about taking on a feedstock stream that includes high-moisture and/or highly-putrescible organics will want to consider a faster, more predictable technology for converting waste into a salable product.  And that often points to some sort of aerated static pile (ASP) system.

ASP composting is not one size fits all.  These systems can use fans to pull or push air through a compost pile.  Some might passively aerate by embedding perforated piping in the composting mass to improve air flow.

This natural or forced movement of air replaces the windrow turner.  Aeration speeds up biodegradation by keeping the microbes happy, creating and maintaining ideal oxygen and temperature levels within the composting environment.

When feedstocks are properly blended, ASP also ensures even degradation rates throughout the composting mass, making the process (including throughput rates) more predictable.

The same air movement also removes excess moisture, eliminating leachate issues, too.

Process control options range from manual to fully computerized temperature logging and aeration management.

Converting to ASP composting is one of those expansion activities that can be completed incrementally as time and budget permit.

Set up a test unit, tweak until everything is right for your operation, then build out the system.

Step 2 – Eliminate weather as a process influence

Unless you are operating in a perfect-for-composting climate, sooner or later you’ll want to put yourself in control of your process, not Mother Nature.

Yes, we are talking covers, enclosures, buildings, encapsulation … anything that will lessen weather’s influence over the process and the product.

The more control a manufacturer can have over the composting environment, the greater the potential for the production of top quality, high-value compost.

Make note of the fact that we used the word “potential,” because humans can manage to muck up just about anything.  In truth, most problems at composting operations of any type are the result of human failure, not design or technology issues.

Therefore, each preemptive design or operational choice that removes both weather and the human factor from any composting phase takes the entire process one step closer to reliable perfection.

This means stationary piping and fans beat a windrow turner, a building is better than open air, automated monitoring and airflow control is superior to manual thermometer readings and passive aeration.  

And as the processing environment becomes tighter and more secure, compost quality improves.  So does a manager’s ability to predict and control throughput.  Composting becomes a true manufacturing process.

Who should consider ASP?

These days, it’s possible to find aeration features on home composting units.  So it would seem composting projects of all sizes and descriptions can benefit from ASP augmentation.

From the 3-cubic-yard pile at the community garden to a 100,000 TPY super-sized facility, ASP could make sense for your operation if you want to –

  • Simplify the system,
  • Take the guesswork out of processing,
  • Reduce management time/labor costs,
  • Reduce equipment acquisition and maintenance costs,
  • Cut space requirements or process more in the same footprint,
  • Add biofiltration,
  • Minimize nuisance issues and complaints,
  • Improve compost quality, and/or
  • Improve environmental protection.

If a community project has a cadre of volunteers showing up every few days, turning shovels in hand, ASP could spoil all the fun.  But if the project coordinator finds him/herself standing there all alone on turning day, contemplating the purchase of a skid steer loader to help with the heavy lifting?  ASP could get the job done at a fraction of the cost.

An outdoor windrow operation may be able to accommodate a few small loads of food waste every week.  But what happens in a few years when that volume turns into several loads day, then several loads an hour?

And consider the “perfect” windrow composting site.  Years ago, it was sitting in the middle of nowhere surrounded by cows and cornfields.  But today, owners of those facilities may see the roofs of yet another new housing development peeking through the trees.

Like it or not, populations are growing and more folks now live in metro areas than rural.  Urbanites are spilling out into the countryside.

Why wait for the inevitable nuisance complaints to start rolling in when you can easily reduce the active footprint and increase vegetated perimeter buffers to keep your operation off your new neighbors’ radar?

Get yourself a kick-ASP system

With ASP composting comes serious control over the composting process.  The delivery of air to the composting mass makes it ideal for processing high-moisture feedstocks like food waste.

But there are many options that should be considered before settling on the specific elements of an ASP composting unit.

Because no single system is right for everyone, matching the system to the operation ensures those improvements will meet processing goals without overspending.

For a small, low throughput project, a good USCC workshop might be all that’s needed to set the owner on the path to success.  But for anything larger, a knowledgeable consultant or system designer could be a valuable member of the conversion team.

But a few words of caution:

In the early days of the composting industry, there were a handful of notorious examples of facility failures triggered by a lack of composting knowledge on the part of the design firm.

Composting is a biological process, and everything – including the engineering – must support the biology.  Do not engage a consultant or designer without a number of successful ASP composting projects under his or her belt. 

There’s an ASP composting system for every budget

Upgrading to ASP processing needn’t be an expensive proposition.  In fact, at $2000-$10,000 a pile, installing fans and piping could be one of the most cost-effective decisions you’ll ever make for your composting operation.

Converting will also dramatically reduce the size of the facility.  McGill estimates its plants can process 10 times the volume of an outdoor windrow operation within the same size footprint.

The numbers for your facility may vary, of course, depending on factors like the specific aeration technology and monitoring system, level of process containment, etc.

But with that extra space, an owner can intake more material, add an anaerobic digestion unit at the head of the plant, install a small solar farm, or simply expand its perimeter buffers.

It’s hard to find a downside to ASP composting systems.  They’re penny wise and dollar smart, the best choice for operations ready to take on the challenge of today’s urban organics.

Still wooing only low-end compost markets?

Years ago, when composting as a service was still in its infancy, “compost markets” could be summed up by one word – agriculture.  It seemed the logical market for a product that, admittedly, was not always top quality and needed to be used far away from sensitive noses.

Farmers appreciated this free or low-priced amendment that boosted yields, lowered input costs, and increased profits.

Fortunately, the composting industry has matured.  Many facilities are now turning out high quality product.  But there may still be too much marketing (and public policymaking) energy devoted to agriculture when much more lucrative sales opportunities are ignored.  Yet these soil-centric markets are in dire need of compost, too.

It’s not just for farmers anymore

Despite industry efforts to spread the word about compost use beyond the farm, there still seem to be too many people in high places (a.k.a. senior managers and other decision-makers) who don’t understand what compost can do for urban and suburban soils.

And if the composter doesn’t keep hacking through the jungle of the Compost Clueless, no one else is going to grasp the wide range of applications for this product, either.

In the US, there are about 250 million crop acres.  But the number one irrigated “crop” is not corn or wheat.  In fact, it’s not even farm grown or included in that acreage number.

Across America spread 40 million acres of watered grass covering suburban lawns, golf courses, parks, and other greenspaces.

That’s approximately 2% of the continental land mass and an area about the size of the state of Florida.

Each of those acres would require far fewer irrigation gallons each season if there were some compost under foot.

But wait, there’s more

And let’s not forget the millions of non-irrigated acres of –

  • Roadsides – over 4 million miles of public highways in the US.  If we calculate just a minimum 10 feet x two shoulders for each of those miles, we arrive at 9.7 million acres.  That number certainly represents a conservative estimate since it does not take into account the wider greenspaces along interstates and other main thoroughfares, rest areas, vegetated medians, etc.
  • Lawns – about 10 million acres of them in the US (includes irrigated acres).
  • Parks – 84 million acres of national parks, 14 million acres of state parks,  11.5 million acres in city parks.  Rough estimate: 110 million acres.  We couldn’t find an average acreage number for county parks, but there must be a lot of them.  Admittedly, some parkland is water or rock, not trees, turfgrass, planting beds, or other candidates for compost application.
  • Athletic fields – 700,000 averaging roughly 1.4 acres per playing surface for an additional 980,000 acres.

By the time we add in other unknown green acres like churches, hospitals, schools, and business park campuses, the potential of these markets promises to rival or surpass agriculture in both total acreage and revenue potential.

These are all markets that take pride in the quality of their respective green spaces.  They value and are willing to pay for products that deliver results.  And every square foot and acre under management will look and perform better when that soil is amended with compost.

Time for a broader focus for compost markets

By taking in the big picture, it becomes clear that at least some of the organic waste stream should stay where it was generated – in the urban area. 

When 80 percent of the population is urban, and both the number of farms and farm acreage shrinks a little more each year, does it really make sense to expect agriculture to manage and absorb what could become billions of tons of compostable waste from cities?

Managing the bulk of organic waste where it is generated would not deprive agriculture of composting feedstocks.  In fact, some agricultural regions are already dealing with more farm generated organic waste than they can successfully handle without raising environmental red flags.

Manure and effluent, bedding, spoiled feed and hay, harvest waste – it’s all compostable.

Currently, most livestock mortality is incinerated, buried, or rendered.  Couldn’t some of that waste be diverted to composting, too?  

Urban compost markets are the future

By throwing emerging compost markets like urban gardens, rain gardens, green roofs, and vertical farms into the greenspace mix, compost manufacturers have ample opportunity to expand distribution channels.  They can do it without schlepping feedstocks out to remote farming communities for composting and then trucking it all back to town for end use. 

The positive impact on transportation costs and greenhouse gas generation cannot be ignored, either.

But fair warning:  Close-to-the-city composting for high volumes of food waste and other challenging streams does require thoughtful siting, secure processing environments, and active process management.  

Top dollar sales depend on high product quality and sophisticated marketing efforts.  Low quality product, a stack of flyers, and a sign on the gate just aren’t going to cut it when you’re trying to slice yourself a piece of a multi-billion dollar pie.

Compost has many uses.  Agriculture is certainly one of them.  But so is stormwater management and turfgrass management and long-term carbon storage.

Farmers will continue to be important customers for compost products.  But they needn’t be your one and only.

Don’t put an artificial cap on revenue potential by restricting your operation to the production and sale of agricultural products.  

There oughta be a law

California has wrapped up a parcel of bills that will, among other things, stop manufacturers from placing recycling/compostable symbols on products that are not recyclable/compostable in that state.

They will also stop folks from claiming recycling for plastics shipped offshore where they end up in incinerators and landfills.

Tricksy labeling, sleight of hand “recycling” – the sad fact is that these practices were/are so pervasive that legislators had to craft new laws to stop them.

Unfortunately, not all composting-related bills are meeting with the same good fortune.

Most in the composting community viewed the Compost Act as a step in the right direction.  But recent reports indicate no one will be popping corks on the bubbly in celebration of this composting law this year.

Composting law highlights

If you haven’t read either the House (HB4443) or Senate (S2388) versions, here are some of the key points:

  • $200 million is designated for each year through 2032 for composting grants and loan guarantees with a per project max of $5 million.
  • Almost any type of government, institutional, or non-profit entity may apply, plus farmers and ranchers.  However, unlike that particular category of business owners, all other for-profits are excluded.  Fortunately, those folks can participate as part of a collaboration with approved applicant types.
  • A specific target is food waste, especially where it is being generated in significant amounts in an area with low composting capacity.
  • All sorts of composting-related projects will be considered, including collection and marketing.
  • Organics must be source separated; no mixed MSW.  
  • Only proven designs and technologies will be considered.

The percentage of bills passed compared to the total number of bills introduced in each legislative session is in the single digits.  So, the current bill’s status might be considered typical. 

But at least this year’s activity has presented more opportunities for dialogue about compost and composting in high places.  And it appears this type of communication is very much needed.

Right hand, meet left hand

As pointed out in this BioCycle article by Dr. Sally Brown, lack of awareness can get in the way of compost use by government agencies.

For example, compost has been found to be beneficial in the stabilization and restoration of soils damaged by wildfires.  However, while the composting industry is well aware of compost’s magical soil-healing powers, it seems to be news to the US Forest Service.

Little research has been done in this area, so the department might have an excuse for their lack of awareness.

But, come on, folks.  The Forest Service is part of the US Department of Agriculture.  Surely someone in the USDA could have put two and two together by now and sent the Forest Service a memo about compost?

Must it take a literal act of Congress and a $2 billion carrot to get more people to wake up to the amazing benefits of compost use?

Apparently so.

The disappointing number of Compost Clueless in high places also serves as a reminder to the industry.  There’s still much work to be done.  And the current stack of circular economy bills are just early mile markers on the road to true sustainability for organics.

Before starting a composting business, do your homework

Composting beyond the backyard is no project for a novice.  But anyone can earn some basic composting business chops through research.  The goal is to answer the big questions before spending a dime on formal development activities.

Starting a composting business can be a challenge, and we’ve all seen what can happen when things go wrong.  A composting facility may shut down after only a handful of years.  Another still struggles with financial or regulatory issues a decade after start-up. 

These types of troubles can be signs of insufficient fact-finding in the early days of project development. In other words:

Someone didn’t do enough homework.

As a result, design or technology choices were not a good match for the feedstocks or location.  Or the volume of available organics was too small to support the operation. Perhaps the wrong people were hired.  Maybe the marketing program did not attract the right customers.  Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

The fun stuff comes last, not first

It’s all too common for new business owners to get caught up in the glitzy excitement of branding, brochures, and websites.  But these activities should come much later in the development process, especially when starting a composting business.

Those things are the equivalent of color choices for a new home’s exterior paint or the posies that line the sidewalk.  Such blandishments are designed to set the stage, appeal to a certain type of buyer, make a statement.

However, if the plumbing and electrical systems were not designed and installed correctly, if the wall studs are spaced too far apart, if the floor joists are too small to carry the load… Well, suffice it to say that building is in trouble, no matter how pretty it looks from the street.

Even then, all that loveliness could be totally wasted if your targeted buyer prefers a different architectural style, color palette, or lot size.

Research helps a business owner build an operation that will stand the test of time and attract the right customer.  And in this regard, starting a composting business is no different than any other.

At each step in the development process, research provides the stability and confidence a composting business needs to take it to the next level:

  • Volumes and types of wastes to be processed influence technology choice. 
  • Technology plus composting regulations plus projected processing volumes/types form the foundation for facility design. 
  • Facility design determines site requirements, as well as construction and operating costs.  
  • Site location shapes market boundaries for both intake and compost sales.  
  • Market boundaries delineate the customer base.  
  • The customer base dictates specifics of the marketing program.

Full facility development — from preliminary assessments to permitting to start-up — can take many months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Investing a few days in armchair research before the launch of formal development activities can prevent crippling missteps.

During this process you will want to look for or figure out things like:

(1) Your probable service area

It’s not unusual to find similar business or residential types clustered together throughout a metropolitan area. Identify those concentration zones that match your intended customer base.

Do this long before you go shopping for a site so you can see where major waste generators (and competitors) are located.  Transportation costs can greatly influence a prospective customer’s waste management decisions and/or your profit margins.

For example, if you hope to find a niche providing residential food waste collection services, you’ll be looking for households in higher-income ZIP Codes.  These addresses have the income to pay a premium for separate food waste recycling.   Neighborhoods with younger residents are more likely to support composting than those filled with retirees, too.

How do we know that?  Internet research.

Now, when the time comes to choose a site, you can narrow your search to locations that will give you a competitive advantage.

By targeting specific areas, you will also be able to extrapolate things like the actual number of households, grocery stores, restaurants, or other entities generating the wastes you hope to capture.  This count will serve as the foundation for –

(2) Waste volume guesstimates 

Continuing with the previous example, let’s assume half the households in those higher income ZIP Codes (as suggested by one study) want to compost food waste. Each household generates 8.7 pounds of food waste a week (suggested by another study).  Simple arithmetic will tell you if there are enough target households in your to defined service area to support your business:  # total high income households / 2 x 8.7 = estimated pounds per week x your proposed charge per pound = projected weekly gross revenue.

This calculation tells you two things: (1) The total volumes you can expect to process if all goes according to plan and (2) how much you will gross, whether charging by the household or by the pound.

Just know the statistics you find on the internet are ballpark figures.  They only provide a frame of reference for the purpose of assessing project viability.  These numbers are soft and pliable and need to be firmed up as the business gains actual operational insight.

Because, in truth, only one or two out of a hundred households are likely to subscribe to your service after your initial marketing effort.  That’s considered normal in the wider world of marketing.  It’s a reality that must be considered during all financial planning.

So don’t be surprised if the answer to all that viability arithmetic is no.  Sometimes, a business concept can be a good one.  But there just aren’t enough prospective customers in a specific locale to make the business profitable. 

Don’t assume too much or too often

Every new business has to make assumptions.  But without facts to back them up, assumptions are only wishful thoughts.

For example:  If the focus is supermarkets, and there are a dozen in the targeted service area, do not assume all 12 will jump at the opportunity to send their food waste to composting.

The separation of food waste could require changes to internal systems.  Maybe there’s no space out back for another dumpster.  Diversion might necessitate alterations to corporate policy.

Or, like one disappointed composting wannabe discovered, all of that food waste might be contracted to pig farmers.

Zoning laws, HOA rules, access issues, and many more hurdles can stand between a composter and a business opportunity.  A city might even have flow control laws/policies in place that prevent newcomers from competing against contract-protected waste haulers.

Dig deep.  Cover all bases.  Then decide if your project is a No or Go.

It’s better to be disappointed when an idea is only on paper than after investing in the development of a business concept with little chance for success.

Don’t give up

This is not to suggest that giving an “abandon ship” order is the right thing to do.  When the numbers aren’t adding up, carefully analyze your initial concept.  Starting a composting business sometimes requires creativity.

Could you shave some costs?  Delay a purchase?  Start smaller and grow into the Grand Plan?  Partner with civic clubs or homeowners associations?  Focus on commercial waste generators instead of residential?

When all roads lead to Rome, choosing a scenic route can be much more enjoyable and less stressful than taking the expressway.  When starting a composting business, you could find your business niche by choosing a less-traveled path.

But to avoid wandering aimlessly in the wilderness, map your path using good, solid research.

Is your composting program stuck in a rut?

Traditionally, education designed to alter behaviors has focused on attitude adjustment.  But the primary motivators of modern societies suggest a composting program might be more successful if proponents tried psychologically-based persuasions, instead.

Is your community’s composting program stuck in the mud?  We humans do seem to like our ruts, contentedly wallowing in an ever-deepening track even as it fills with muck and water.

Most of us are slow to adapt and adopt, even when newer options offer advantages (including cost) over existing practices or models.  In fact, psychologists say humans need to see at least twice the benefit to abandon the status quo and try something new.

Understanding the psychology behind decision-making may not simplify the task, but it can help pro-composting activists build stronger cases for a better composting program with both decision-makers and the community at large.

Enter the field of behavioral economics

At its best, behavioral economics uses human nature to encourage people to make better choices.

One example is positioning the preferred option as the “default” and requiring the individual to take action to “opt out” of the most cost-effective and/or environmentally-preferred service.  It is a tactic that works and works well.  In fact, some suggest psychological/behavioral agents of change are more effective than those using education to shift attitudes.  

Behavior analysts say little “nudges” like better signage, different lids, or repositioning trash and composting bins can increase recycling rates and improve a composting program without punitive or costly measures. (This report contains examples of behavioral change strategies that might be suitable for your composting program.)

Unfortunately, like so many other avenues of research, behavioral studies specific to composting are sorely lacking.  But we can see the strength of psychological and behavioral persuasion all around us.

Using the power of peer pressure

Consider the power of peer pressure and social media “influencers.”  Even though everyone knows influencers – those with a high number of followers on LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. –  may have been paid big bucks to plug a specific product or service, using influencers is still a successful tool for marketers.  

Why?  Because people listen to people they like and trust.  We also embrace the popular, a phenomenon known as “the bandwagon effect.”

So, the obvious question is:  How can the industry make composting more popular?

If we are to believe current thinking, it’s no longer enough to simply stand by and wait for the cream (i.e., composting) to rise to the top.  In today’s world, distribution is king.

When reminders are visible, numerous, and frequent, people tend to be more mindful and more willing to try something new … especially if their favorite people are doing it, too.

For an example of what one West Coast city tried to deliver a message, check out this composting food waste campaign targeting foodies.

How do your community’s efforts compare?

Even during Compost Awareness Week, were your town’s busiest thoroughfares lined with big, eye-catching reminders or did you settle for a press release and a smattering of ICAW posters hung in obscure places? 

Combating the convenience factor

Disposable diapers are the third highest consumer item landfilled, with 95% of mothers using disposable instead of cloth.  Each year, Americans spend more on paper towels than the rest of the world combined.  

About 1/3 of the population eats fast food every day – and that number is rising, too. And while the tons of MSW diverted to composting/recycling are inching up, so are total waste generation volumes.

Obviously, the U.S. is a nation that likes its convenience.

Convenience is a driving force behind the growth of e-commerce.  And almost all of us, at one time or another, have opted out of something simply because it wasn’t convenient.

Whether trying to introduce composting to a household, a school, a business, or a city, success will rest on a foundation that recognizes human nature and focuses on convenience.

When drop locations can only be reached by traveling an hour through heavy traffic (true story), they won’t be used.  

Compare this to one high-rise where a simple change – pulling all the bins from the ground floor and dividing them up so there were bins each floor – increased composting rates by 70%.

If distribution is king for spreading the word and increasing popularity, convenience is king for facilitating action.

Reward spurs action

Reward is a powerful human motivator.   Money, a gold medal, 1000 likes, a chocolate chip cookie – people will do just about anything if the reward is right.

While the EPA does not include backyard composting in its collection of MSW statistics, one survey suggests the number of households with a compost pile in the backyard may be quite low.  

The sort-of-good news is that a comfortable majority of Americans now favor composting.  Unfortunately, most of those same folks say they are not willing to make composting happen if it’s not convenient.  They aren’t willing to pay more for it, either.

As a motivator, it seems the reward of a healthier environment will struggle to overcome inconvenience and higher cost.

So, where does that leave composting?  What reward must be dangled before a reluctant public?

While communities wrestle with these heady questions, there’s one more influence that could be the factor that finally pulls all organics out of the disposal rut.

Changing of the guard

Senior managers and decision-makers in both the public and private sectors are edging toward and into retirement.

For the first time in history, the people moving into and advising those offices belong to a generation of kids who probably studied composting in elementary school, learned about environmental issues throughout their K-12 education, and witnessed Earth Day celebrations every year of their collective lives.

An article in Waste Advantage magazine says 43% of Millennials and Gen-Zers already compost.  And whether they compost or not, more than half of Americans are now millennials or younger – age groups that understand what composting is and what compost use can do for soil.

If recent Compost Clueless statements made by high profile individuals are any indication, the same cannot be said for the old guard.  So this particular period of transition could usher in a time of historic change that finally sees common sense triumph over convenience for organic waste management.

A composting gardener’s best friend is … a chicken

Puppy dogs, move over.  In the garden, a human’s best friend is a bird.

It’s good to have a gardening friend, especially one who can help with the composting, and weeding, and bug patrol – and still have the energy to provide an egg for breakfast most mornings.  We’re talking, of course, about a feathered friend, the chicken.

While most folks’ only acquaintance with the bird stems from its exalted position on the dinner plate, the live fowl can provide many years of dedicated service in the garden with minimal time or dollar investment.

The chicken as composting assistant

Chickens love to dig and scratch in the dirt.  That’s where they forage for food.

So if you toss veggie scraps in their pen or turn them loose on your compost pile, you may never have to turn that pile again.

Of course, their efforts won’t be nearly as neat as your own.  But if a commercial composting operation can use chickens to turn, so can you.

Can’t stand a messy compost pile?  Simply reshape the mound or windrow when they’ve eaten their fill.

Alternatively, sheet compost in the garden by spreading vegetable scraps out on unplanted rows or beds.  Their scratching will quickly turn that garbage into black gold.

The same action will help  to spread and incorporate compost you buy, too.

Put chickens on bug and weed patrol

You don’t want chickens scratching around in newly seeded rows or recent transplants.  But you can use them as biological bug zappers when plants mature.

Let a couple of chickens loose among the established rows each evening about an hour before nightfall.  You’ll never see another hornworm on the tomatoes again.  In fact, a host of creepy crawlers will disappear.

If chickens patrol the garden on a regular basis, weeds won’t be as big of a problem, either.  All of that scratching clears out emerging grass and weeds.

The chickens will return to the roost on their own before dark.  It may be necessary, however, for you to watchdog your helpers while they feed.  Hawks and other marauders consider chickens to be a tasty treat.

Restricting their time in the garden to about an hour each day will also limit their destructive powers.


Chickens are social creatures, so you need to have at least two.   But avoid roosters unless you want to go into the poultry business or harvest lots of chickens for your own table.

Sans rooster, a hen will lay an unfertilized egg every day or so throughout their adult lives, living for 5-10 years on average, depending on breed and living conditions.

With only hens, you and your neighbors won’t have to tolerate any irritating crowing at odd hours, either.

Once you’ve had some time to evaluate the capabilities of two hens, then you can decide if you need to add more chickens to your composting and gardening power team.

Be aware, however, that hens take a little time off from their egg laying duties during the winter months unless you artificially create more favorable lighting conditions.

How to pick a chick 

First, research zoning regulations and/or HOA rules to make sure you are permitted to have chickens on your property.

Then, seek out a layer operation in the region and source your hens from there.  A small, organic farm could be ideal, since they are likely raising heritage breed chickens.

The eggs from heritage hens may look and taste much the same as those produced by their conventionally-grown sisters.  But the plumage of a Rhode Island Red, Dominicker, or other older breeds can be much more colorful than production hens and provide extra protection against airborne predators.

Other traits can make one breed preferable over another, too, depending on an owner’s objectives.

Commercial egg producers will cull layers (battery hens) when they reach 1-3 years of age because egg production slows over time.  That’s when/why a farmer might be willing to sell a few birds.

Considering there are about 325 million layers in the US, the loss of one egg per week per hen is a big deal for a commercial producer.  But these older ladies will do just fine for a backyard flock.

You can also find chickens for sale at country auctions and online.  There are backyard chicken groups on the popular social sites, too.

But a few words of caution:

Unless you plan to go into the chicken business, don’t be tempted to buy peeps.  Yes, they’re cute, little balls of fluff.  But if you don’t want roosters, know that even the specialists hired by professional poultry producers to help them distinguish the gender of hatchlings sometimes get it wrong.

Buying an adult bird eliminates the guesswork and prevents your yard from being overtaken by too many chickens.

Also know that even hens make noise.  They’re not nearly as irritating as roosters, but they’re not silent during the day as they go about their scratching and egg laying.

Fortunately, they are quiet at night unless something disturbs their slumber.

Managing your garden helpers

Too many chickens can destroy a yard or garden.  That’s why you’ll probably want to start with only two.  You can always add more later.

Build or buy a secure chicken house or coop.  You don’t want rats and mice getting in because snakes will follow the rodents.  Mice can squeeze through a ¼-inch gap, so build it tight.  

Don’t forget to cover all chicken runs with wire mesh or other protective cover to keep your helpers safe.

As for food, chickens are domestic creatures, not bred for living in the wild.  They will likely need supplemental feed even if they are allowed to forage all day, especially in the winter.

Treat them well, keep ’em fed and watered, and those hens will reward you with well-turned compost, a bugless garden, and free eggs for many years to come.

Compost is the perfect companion for lazy gardeners

Whether you lack time, interest, or energy, compost can be the one product that gives you the garden of your dreams without a whole lot of effort.

You don’t want to spend the day putzin’ around with the bees, burning your nose to a crisp, or giving your knees a workout from which they may never recover.  You just want a few fresh veggies for the table and a petunia or two.

Well, darlin’, we have the perfect garden companion for you.

It’s called compost.

Put it in the ground, a container, or a garden sock.

Use it to build the soil, retain moisture, and deter nuisances like pests, diseases, and weeds.

Rely on it for conventional, regenerative, organic, sustainable, hydroponic, biointensive, or permaculture growing systems.

Shovel, rake, till, or plow it in … or simply sprinkle on top of the soil.

Layer it on thick enough, and it will serve as a root-cooling mulch, too.

Apply in the spring, mid-season, or fall.

One product, added to the soil once or twice a year, is all most home gardens will ever need.

Composting done right is not one size fits all

Environmental footprints are as varied in size and weight as the people and entities who leave the impressions.  

Companies like McGill recycle compostables for some of the largest waste generators in the country.  So why do we support community-scale and backyard composting?  Because composting done right is not one size fits all.  No single composting option is right for all organic waste streams.

In an ideal world, every business, institution, and household would have a composting operation of some description on the property.  The resulting compost would be reused nearby – on site, local urban garden, public greenspace, etc.

But while some folks would do a stellar job of converting that waste into a beautiful soil amendment, others would not.  Just imagine the resulting mountain of nuisance complaints and serious public health issues.

There is no cookie-cutter for composting done right 

The next best thing seems to be our present system of allowing property owners and communities with the ability and inclination to compost to do so, trusting the management of the remainder to big, professional outfits like McGill.

It’s a system that matches the size and type of the waste stream to the capabilities of the processor.  

Everyone gets to wear shoes that fit while making their footsteps on Planet Earth just little bit lighter.

But it’s important for the developers of these facilities – from backyard to industrial – to match facility design and process to the waste stream and site location.

Without ruffling a single neighborhood feather, a suburban homestead sitting on a couple of acres might build a simple slat/pallet enclosure. Folks could throw up a ring of wire mesh in the corner of the property and compost there.

But the same household, composting in a more congested setting, could trigger an avalanche of community complaints about mice, flies, and smells.  Here, a fully-enclosed gizmo like a tumbler might make more sense.

An urban food waste collection service composting well beyond city limits may do just fine with an outdoor windrow operation.  But placing that facility on an urban farm, surrounded by homes and/or businesses, could be a mistake.

For an industrial-sized plant sited in a manufacturing park, full enclosure and high-rate systems are probably mandatory.  But at a far-off landfill, that same waste stream might be successfully processed using a well-managed windrow.

Numbers don’t guarantee a good fit

Most are aware of the problems associated with buying shoes and other wearables strictly by a number.

One manufacturer’s size 8 could mirror another’s size 12 measurements.  A size 10 boot might be fine in length, but chafe at the calf.

So it is impossible to use numbers like processing tonnages or acreage as sole determinants when wrestling with a composting system match-up.

A general location might look good on paper, but when the only available sites in the area are public relations and regulatory disasters waiting to happen, the fit is all wrong. 

Outdoor windrows are cheap.  But urban waste streams demand tighter environmental control and facilities that don’t require large swaths of expensive real estate.

Obviously, composting done right is not one size fits all or even one size fits most.

Contemplating a backyard composting effort?  Urban farm project?  Municipal facility?  Choose a site, design, and process that matches the waste stream.

Wetter waste streams (like food waste) require more sophisticated processes and tighter environmental control than dry feedstocks.  High-volume composters need indoor facilities and/or lots of acres with well-vegetated buffers to provide out of sight, out of mind assurance.

Composting done right is always a better fit for everyone than composting done wrong.

It’s never too late to start a garden

If you could spell procrastinator before anyone else in your class had ever heard the word … 

You fully intended to start a garden by seeding tomatoes in February for spring transplanting.  But the packet of seeds is still sitting on top of the microwave.

The little 4×8 patch of lawn you painstakingly cleared and double dug on that blustery cold day in early March hasn’t been touched since and has already been reclaimed by centipede grass.

Yes, procrastination has struck again, this time, derailing those plans for a summer garden.

But as the saying goes, ’tis better late than never.  More to the point, there’s still plenty of time to plant and harvest.

It’s okay to start a garden now

Even growers who managed to seed those early crops will be busy through the summer months sowing for fall 2021 or early spring 2022 harvests.

In more temperate climes (zone 7-13), it’s possible to grow year-round, though some plants may need a little shade during the hottest months.

With the help of things like cold frames and row covers, points north may be able to extend their growing season, too – without investing in greenhouses.

The Internet abounds with schedules and crop suggestions to kickstart your garden regardless of the calendar page.

Other good resources for information about what to plant in your area – and when – include your local Cooperative Extension office, as well as farm supply stores and garden centers.

Whenever you plant, don’t forget the compost.  It can be used above or below ground almost any time of year. Don’t start a garden without it.