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?

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.

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.

Home-compostable – bane or boon for the industry?

Compost certifications can be a bit of a muddle, especially for consumers.  Will this newest category help clear things up?

There is a new kid on the certifications block.  It’s called home-compostable” and has arrived in many parts of the world.  

Products based on this standard include next-gen bio-based films and resins manufactured with processes that will allow these types of plastics to degrade in the typical home composting environment.

The US has yet to develop a certification for this new compostables category.  However, the products themselves (carrying European and other certification logos) are available online and at some brick and mortar retailers.

And just this past April, scientists at a US-based lab announced a related breakthrough in its own project.  It’s a plastic that can completely disintegrate, even in the wild, without fouling soil, air, or water.  Cambridge just announced the development of a home-compostable resin, too.  

With the increasing availability of universally-compostable materials comes the promise of clarity for individuals and businesses hoping to divert more organics away from landfills and incinerators.

Should the industry care about home-compostable?

Let’s give this one a resounding yes.  If an item can compost at home, it should compost in most professionally-managed operations, too – big or small, municipal or commercial, indoor or outdoor, basic or advanced technology.

Home-compostable sets the stage for more successful municipal and commercial composting efforts when the most common bio-plastics can be composted almost anywhere by almost anyone.  No need for consumers to read the fine print as long as an item carries a big “compostable” label.

This paves the way for increased flows of food waste streams from non-composting households, restaurants, and other commercial and institutional entities – good news for composting’s existing infrastructure.

Thanks to science, objectives like universal compostability and disappearing plastic bags hover brightly on the horizon.

Even the US military is getting excited about the potential of this new breed of plastic.

But wait, there’s more

New plastics aren’t the only developments casting a warm glow over composting.

Advances in optical sorting technologies now facilitate the separation of waste streams into individual components.  Once widely adopted, these types of developments should increase capture rates of everything from plastics to fibers to organics.

The ability to utilize technology to separate wheat from chaff at all stages of resource recovery can positively impact everything from source separation to MRF management to anaerobic digestion.

Along the way, composting benefits, too, as the recipient of higher processing volumes and lower contamination of the organics stream. 

When some are starting to ban compostable plastics, the introduction of universally compostable resins is more than timely.

Emphasis on consumer-friendly labeling, alluring consumer incentives, and the modernization of the recycling/composting industries are keys to maximizing resource recovery, creating efficiencies, and fostering true circular economies for organics.

Throwing up one’s hands and abandoning the recycling of any material is no solution, especially when new products and technologies are waiting just around the corner.

What can I compost?

Can I compost bread?  Can I compost corncobs?  Can I compost leather gloves?  In a perfect world and under ideal conditions, the answer to all of the above is yes.  Unfortunately, this world is far from perfect, so that yes can be followed by a long string of asterisks.

One of the most common questions asked by those new to composting is “what can I compost?”

In truth, anything derived from plant or animal matter will biodegrade … eventually.  But time, temperature, and a slew of other variables will impact the practicality of choosing composting as a recycling method for any given material.

Generally, the home composter will do just fine using a tight, easy-to-turn vessel that contains excess liquid and deters marauders.  

Any mesh, drainage holes, or air vents in the composting unit should be 1/4 inch or less if deterring mice and the snakes that follow them is a priority.

With this type of composter, almost any kind of food waste (except meats and dairy) can be used as a feedstock.  Tear or chop big/dense leftovers like chunks of bread and corncobs into smaller pieces to expose more surface area to feasting microbes.  This helps all of the food waste degrade at a similar rate.

As for those gloves, while leather is compostable, so many manufactured products these days are processed, treated, or coated with chemicals that the leather might not be compost-friendly for the home compost pile.

Unless the manufacturer says an item is compostable in a home system and proves it with certification from a legitimate third-party, don’t put it in your compost pile.

Read the certification information carefully.  A lot of so-called “compostables” available in the marketplace cannot be composted where processes are simply not sufficiently robust to break down the material – and that would include nearly all residential composting efforts, as well as some city-owned and commercial operations.

Only a few US facilities use designs and/or technologies that can handle the full range of urban organic wastes.  (McGill is one of them.)

Good prep = rapid biodegradation

Chopping and shredding is something every large composting facility does to create a uniform particle size prior to composting.

These plants also mix thoroughly, ensure adequate airflow throughout the composting mass, and make certain the blend is neither too wet nor too dry.  

They also screen the compost post-processing to break up clumps and sift out any bigger, partially composted materials.  These are re-blended and added to a new composting pile to complete their decomposition.

The closer the home compost-maker can come to emulating these management practices (which are all about process control), the faster the rate of decomposition and higher the rate of composting success … even when breaking down tough ingredients.

That’s why modern, high-rate composting operations can handle things like biodegradable plastics and petroleum hydrocarbons when the home compost pile struggles with corncobs.

Don’t try this at home

While most things can be successfully composted at home, meat and dairy, along with the cooking juices and fats-oils-grease (FOG) in which they were prepared, cannot.

These types of foods will harbor pathogens, and the typical home composting effort will not reach the kill point temperatures required to neutralize them.

Pet waste falls into the same category.

However, small amounts of plant-based oils – provided they were not used to cook meats or dairy – can be composted at home.

We are talking about the salad dressing swimming with the leftover lettuce at the bottom of the serving bowl or the spritz of olive oil coating those uneaten air-fried veggies – not the 3 gallons of waste oil from the turkey fryer.

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do with banned FOG except pour it into a non-recyclable container and toss it into the trash.  It won’t compost in the anaerobic environment of a landfill, but it won’t clog your pipes, septic system, or sewer lines, either.

In other words, never ever pour fats, oils, or grease down the kitchen sink.  And – no – a hot water chaser will not make the gunk magically disappear from your piping system.

The good news is FOG will compost at a facility using a good, commercial process.

In fact, commercial kitchens routinely send grease trap waste to composting facilities.  If your community doesn’t have a composting operation that can handle this type of food waste, perhaps it’s time to give the folks at City Hall a nudge.  

READ MORE:

This post also includes information on reducing the amount of FOG going to the landfill or sewer system from your kitchen.

If the package says compostable, proceed with caution

There are a growing number of products making compostability claims.  But, sadly, the word “compostable” on the package is not a guarantee.

In an age when anyone can claim almost anything about a product and get away with it, fake certifications – imaginary marks and logos that manufacturers hope consumers will think are certifications – abound.  

While products can obtain third-party certification for compostability, there is no legal requirement that they have this certification before claiming their product is “compostable.”

According to the Federal Trade Commission website, advertising must be “truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.”

But somewhere along the way, the FTC seems to have changed the definition of the words “truth in advertising” without informing the public.

White glue is used instead of milk in cereal commercials, the fast food burger from the local drive-thru is half the size of its TV counterpart, and greenwashing has become a favored tool of unscrupulous manufacturers.

Saying a product is compostable is not the same as having that product certified as such by a legitimate certification agency.  Having someone on the manufacturer’s staff “verify” the product meets a specific ASTM standard is not the same as third-party certification.

In this day and age of lax FTC oversight over advertising language, consumers need to be extra cautious about compost–related claims.

Caveat emptor … is that seal legit?

Beware of manufacturers who make up their own “compostable” logos to fool the public into thinking their product has been vetted by a real certification entity.

When in doubt, pull out your phone and look them up before adding the package to your shopping cart.

Seals on the package should indicate testing and certification from legitimate third-party agencies like the Biodegradable Products Institute  and OK Compost.

A manufacturer certifying with a bona fide agency will be proud of that association and name the certifier on the product, in its shopping site product descriptions, and/or on its own website.

If that info is missing, give the item and manufacturer a pass.

Can your community compost compostables?

If you are not 100% sure your community is served by a high-rate composting operation that accepts compostable plastic, don’t buy “compostable” at all.

Even cardboard or paper products can be lined or coated with a bio-resin that requires an advanced composting process for biodegradation.

You won’t be able to compost the item or packaging at home, and it can’t be recycled any other way.  In fact, if a bioplastic gets tossed into the wrong bin, a compostable plastic is a contaminant for recyclers of traditional plastic.

Check out your city or county website or contact the local recycling coordinator to find out exactly what materials can or cannot be composted in your community.

Does composting need a puppetmaster?

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

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

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

Numbers tell a sorry tale

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

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

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

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

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

Enter new models for resource recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working toward the win-win

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

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

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

Can I sell my backyard compost?

From time to time, a backyard composting enthusiast poses the question: Can I sell my backyard compost?  Unfortunately, the answer is complicated.  Switching from the backyard to the commercial world is like shifting the preparation of a plate of spaghetti from a home kitchen to a 120-seat Italian restaurant – even if you only want to sell one or two plates.

Rising interest in food waste diversion causes entrepreneurial spirits to think about starting a composting facility.  That’s great news and deserves encouragement. There is plenty of room at the table for composting operations of every size, including the backyard variety. 

Some pulling up a chair will come with little to no experience running a business, composting at scale, or managing wastes of any description.  On one hand, that is a good thing for the composting industry as a whole.  Fresh ideas and a non-jaded outlook (mixed with a dollop of desperation, naïveté, and plain dumb luck) drive progress.

But the budding entrepreneur must accept the fact that when money changes hands, the small-scale/backyard composter crosses over into the commercial composting world, one that is tightly regulated.

Fortunately, many states have exemptions or lighter “regs” for low-volume projects.  But that’s not the same as no regulation.   To find out more about regulations in your state, here is a list, compiled by the U.S. Composting Council.

If you are thinking about a for-profit or non-profit composting-related business, or even a public project, taking the time to do a little research before the planning process begins is the smartest and most economical first step any new business endeavor can take.

Can I sell my backyard compost?

There are many factors to consider before answering that all-important question.  Some are related to rules and regulations.  Others have to do with running a business.

Knowing the answers to questions like these can make the difference between success or failure:

  • If considering a door-to-door food waste collection and composting service,  what are similar companies charging in cities like yours?  What is the average size of their customer base?  What percent of the households that meet the identified customer profile (age, income, etc.) use the service?  How does your community compare and will you have the possibility of gaining enough customers to make your business profitable?  How are they marketing the service to potential customers? Talk to the local recycling coordinator.  Is s/he aware of any similar companies operating or considering start-up in your locale?
  • If you plan to intake waste from other household or businesses, most privately-owned composting facilities rely on tipping fees to support compost production, not compost sales.  Do you know the average tipping fee in your region?  Who are your biggest competitors for composting feedstocks?  What other competing companies or technologies are thinking about moving into your market?  A chat with your city or county business development specialist could be insightful.
  • What are the high, low, and average wholesale and retail prices for a cubic yard of compost in your targeted service area?  What about bagged products?  Will customers expect auxiliary services like delivery or spreading?  
  • Have you read all of the regulations, zoning ordinances, and building codes that will impact your operation?  Check in with the local planning department and correlating state agencies to determine if there are any changes in the works.  
  • Do you know where the high growth areas are in your region?  There is nothing worse for a composter than to open a remote facility only to find the land around it being gobbled up by housing developments a few years later.
  • Your annual reports to the state, including names of customers and volumes processed, as well as copies of your permit and any related violations, will probably be made available to the general public online or on request.  As a result, potential anchor accounts — large corporations, municipalities and commercial entities — may wait a few years before doing business with you.  They want to know the way you operate, the dependability of your service, and your efforts to protect the environment and local community are above reproach and will not negatively damage their own reputations by association.  Obviously, this can have a major impact during the initial years of operation.
  • First-time business owners may underestimate expenses and overestimate revenues.  Talk to people who actually operate composting facilities before developing financial projections.  Look for tradeshows, conferences, and other networking opportunities that will allow you to meet and learn from folks who have spent time in the trenches.
  • If you do plan to open a facility of any significant size, there are only a handful of engineering firms and technology providers with extensive experience in designing successful composting facilities.  Choose a designer with a resume that includes multiple, long-term composting operations with no technology/design-related problems.  

As with any business start-up, be prepared for long days and short nights.  The owner of a successful composting operation must not only know how to make good compost, but also keep the books, hire and manage employees, promote the business, and keep customers, regulators, and neighbors happy.

Until the business grows to the point where it can support others in managerial positions, the full weight of those jobs is carried on the shoulders of the owner.

More time will be spent on matters unrelated to compost production than on making compost.  Knowing how to make good compost will not be enough.  Before taking the plunge, be sure you have the drive, stamina, and desire to devote such a large portion of your day to shepherding a new business.