Yes, we can build a composting facility for you

Do you want to build a composting facility?  Are you —

  • A private waste management company hauling 35,000 tons or more of biodegradable waste annually and paying more than the U.S. average tipping fee to dispose of that waste at a landfill,  WTE facility, or incinerator?
  • An AD system operator wanting to maximize the market potential of a low-value digestate?
  • A landfill owner hoping to extend the life of the landfill or trying to devise a strategy to meet the growing demand for food waste composting?
  • The utility director of a municipality currently hauling compostable waste to a commercial landfill or incinerator with service contracts expiring within the next few years?
  • A food processor with food waste and other biodegradables like DAF sludge and packaging waste (broken pallets, dirty cardboard, etc.) at multiple plants within 100 miles of a central location?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, building your own composting facility may offer cost and efficiency savings, as well as long-term pricing stability for the biodegradable fraction of any waste stream,  all while offering a real revenue opportunity from the sale of high-grade compost to plump up the bottom line.

We’re not talking about throwing some clay down in a cow pasture and calling it a composting operation. We’re discussing modern, advanced technology, high-rate facilities that can handle everything from yard waste to biosolids to food waste and biodegradable plastics with aplomb.

And if you’re currently paying high tipping fees or driving long miles to dispose of this material, owning your own composting plant may be just the ticket to price-hike independence and lower costs.

These indoor, industrial operations are weather independent, providing reliable, predictable throughput.  When coupled with a modern process and professional management, they will produce a high-grade compost product with real market value for high-end customers in the golf course, turfgrass, parks and rec, retail lawn and garden, and like industries.

One of the best things about modern, environmentally-secure composting operations is that they take up very little space compared to outdoor windrows.  Ten high-rate facilities can be built within the boundaries of one outdoor windrow operation with the same throughput.   

Because of their biofiltration systems, they can also be sited much closer to population centers than the old-fashioned variety.  Contained, encapsulated processing and aerated processing systems all but eliminate headaches like leachate, off-site odors, and failed tests as management issues. This high level of control also results in a very rapid degradation process, with primary processing completed in a matter of days.

When choosing a composting system vendor, look for a firm with deep experience and a string of financially and technically successful composting operations under its belt.  Companies like McGill (which both operates its own industrial facilities and designs facilities for others) offer a definite advantage over those without these credentials.

Decades of hands-on experience processing some of the most challenging organic waste from municipal, industrial, and agricultural streams will trump a design-only firm with no operating expertise.  

McGill’s design-build options also include operations management and product marketing.   Learn more about McGill’s DBO services here.

Attract professional composters to your city’s waste management table 

Composting high volumes of source-separated organics (SSO) is not for the faint of heart.  It takes skill, experience, and science to recycle one of the messiest urban waste streams.  But while composting done right doesn’t come cheap, it is possible to build modern composting infrastructure without public financing. 

Instead of bemoaning a lack of composting infrastructure and doing nothing about it, municipalities and regional authorities can set the stage for organics diversion.   

The result?  Some of the biggest and most experienced composting companies will compete for that business. This delivers a big win for the host community: 

  • No well-intentioned but flawed “solutions” from designers and technology providers with no knowledge of biochemistry and no hands-on experience in the day-to-day operation of industrial composting facilities.  
  • No major issues with regulatory permitting when other facilities of the same type are running successfully elsewhere. 
  • … and here’s the biggie – no public financing required if the population base within 40-60 miles is large enough and the local landfill tipping fees are at or above national averages.  A community/region of around 50,000 could generate a sufficient volume of organic waste to make commercial, high-rate composting economically viable.  (View: Estimating volumes for composting) Private ownership means private financing.  Public/private ownership can also result in private financing if the public entity brings enough to the table to make joint ownership attractive to the private entity.   

But what about – 

  • Facility failure?  Structure the contract to include an option for public takeover should the owner fail to make a success of the project.  
  • Odors?  No matter the technology choice, most climates will require an indoor operation with a good biofiltration system — combined with preventive/preemptive management practices — to solve the odor problems associated with composting putrescibles.  Consider containment, collection, and treatment of air from all active work zones — off-loading to curing.  Typically, if the product has been properly composted and cured, it can be stored outdoors.  However, to preserve product quality, some manufacturers may opt for covered storage here, as well. 
  • Leachate?  Correct blending and indoor processing all but eliminate leachate as a management headache.  But do require RFP respondents to address the issue in their respective proposals. 
  • Product stockpiles?  Make sure the successful respondent has a proven track record in marketing compost in similar markets.  Just remember the sale of soil products tends to be seasonal.  Suitable acreage for large stockpiles must be included in the site plan.  Those stockpiles should dwindle significantly during the planting season(s).  But as a safety net, require a provision for distribution of volumes exceeding market demand after a reasonable market development period. 

Foster and promote compost use 

Composting is efficient, cost-effective, and the only technology offering true sustainability for biodegradable waste.  Returning organic matter to the soil to complete the recycling loop is what makes composting and compost use a sustainable system.   

But policymakers tend to get so caught up in the diversion of organics that they neglect correlating mandates for compost use. 

Compost isn’t just for farmers.  A quality compost can be used by anyone, anywhere – even urban/suburban areas: 

  • Lawns, gardens, and greenspace 
  • Parks, sports fields, and other recreation areas
  • Roadside and rest stops
  • Utility easements and rights-of-way
  • Rainwater catchment zones and pathways 

Parallel to composting infrastructure development, craft internal and external guidelines, policies, and programs to encourage regionwide compost use.   This will not only help build a product market, but also reap financial benefits to the municipality in the form of reduced costs related to stormwater management, synthetic fertilizer use, etc.  

What is a composting facility package plant?

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

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

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

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

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

Making sense of research data

Evaluating organic waste management options and cost comparisons

When personal expertise is lacking, people place their trust in experts to facilitate decisions about everything from home additions to medical care.  Governing boards are no different.  They rely on the knowledge of utility directors, staff engineers, and consultants to help them make informed decisions.

But when presented with an avalanche of numbers – from scientific data to cost and operating projections – how do members of city councils and county commissions know if the information contained in that mountain of reports is accurate and unbiased?  How do they know they’re comparing apples to apples and not apples to oranges?

Placing value on studies specific to waste management can be complex.  One report might compare landfilling, incineration, and anaerobic digestion, but leave composting out of the mix.  Another may include composting, but base assumptions on an antiquated window system and not a modern, high-rate technology.  Research could unearth reports about a costly public project but never discover a more efficient, cost-effective commercial system.

This is not to suggest such errors or omissions are intentional.  Sometimes, it’s simply a case of “you don’t know what you don’t know.”  But when combined with the fact that detailed financial or operational data from private-sector owners is rarely made available in public spaces, one begins to understand the difficulty in obtaining good data on which to base conclusions and recommendations when doing composting cost comparisons.

The takeaway?  Assume all research is flawed in some way.  No one knows everything there is to know about every subject.  But there are a handful of questions that members of city councils and town boards can ask to help clarify reported numbers, level the playing field, and present a more accurate picture of construction and operational realities.

Who paid for the research?

Perhaps the most significant influence on any research project is the entity that foots the bill.  Even university research is funded by someone … and it may not be the university.  Non-profits may fund research, but they rely on the support of donors.  Government agencies can be funders, but governments are run by politicians.  When the private sector funds studies, the results may never see the light of day if unfavorable to the funding entity.  Student work may not be funded, but it’s still student work.

Was the research scientifically sound?

Some “research” may not be new research at all, but assumptions or conclusions based on a literature review that includes outdated or invalid findings.  Investigations may have been conducted in a manner that does not reflect “good science,” including a lack of statistically-representative sampling.  Some findings are more opinion poll than science.  But when sifting through millions of scientific papers for data, researchers won’t always pick up on these types of flaws.

Also know statistics can be presented in a manner that makes differences look more (or less) important than they really are.  (See an example in this SlideShare title:  Apples and oranges: comparing waste management technologies)

How old is the research data?

Unfortunately, it’s all too common to discover a case built on multiple levels of citations that eventually trickle down to data or conclusions that may not reflect present day realities.  Knowing the date and technological sophistication of the original study will help decision-makers evaluate the value/validity of the conclusions and recommendations included in the consultant’s report.

Don’t accept a current date on a citation at face value.  Follow the citation trail to the date and circumstances of the original research.

Is data based on full-scale operations using current technologies?

Was the data based on bench scale, pilot scale, field scale, or full scale?  Conclusions reached during early stages of product or system development can fail to “scale up” successfully.   Investigations based on dinosaur technologies of 20 or 30 years ago exclude advancements and enhancements made in recent years, distorting findings.

For composting specifically, ensure that systems and technologies are apples-to-apples comparisons using the most current data available.  If evaluating high-rate systems, include successful private-sector facilities, too, not just municipal.   Net expense and revenue values per ton processed can vary widely between different types of operations.

Using old data and processing systems for dollar comparisons could greatly skew conclusions when comparing composting to other waste management technologies.

Sometimes, imperfect is the only data available for composting cost comparisons

When conducting research in a field like composting, where meaningful research is scant, at best, the imperfect may be all there is.  Knowing and accepting this reality, proactively seeking out the most accurate information, and evaluating results based on a variety of studies and viewpoints can only help decision-makers make better choices for their respective communities.

Read the article:  Valuing composting as an infrastructure investment

3 questions to ask before choosing a composting system

When evaluating choices for organics diversion, system cost tends to be a major influence in whittling down the available options.  But is capital investment a good indicator of true costs over the decades of composting facility operation?

There are many questions decision-makers need to ask before choosing a composting system.  But judging by the number of lackluster operations in existence, here are 3 biggies that don’t get asked nearly enough:

Co-mingled vs. source-separation — do you want to sell this compost?

At first glance, co-mingling organics with either the total municipal solid waste stream or with other recyclables for central separation (either pre- or post-composting) looks like a no-brainer.  No extra collections or special trucks.  No expensive outreach and education programs.

But co-mingling doesn’t work if the ultimate goal is the production of a salable compost product.  Contamination can be so high, it’s almost impossible to sell the stuff.  Sometimes, farmers won’t even take it for free.

Co-mingled may be acceptable if the objective is to dry organics prior to incineration/WTE, but destroying organic matter does nothing to increase rain infiltration across the region, store carbon, reduce reliance on synthetic chemicals or cut erosion.

But to derive the most benefit from compost use, compost manufacture must result in a high-quality product.  That means source-separation supported by a good education and enforcement program.

Does the management plan include a professional sales effort to maximize the dollar value of the compost?

An inferior compost brings in little to no revenue to offset production costs.  But a quality product, supported by a professional sales effort, can net top dollar.

The first step to getting top dollar value from product sales is to manufacture compost that falls into the premium class – dark, nutrient-rich, even-textured and odor-free.  Every manufacturing dollar spent improving an agricultural-grade product can return additional dollars in compost sales to high-value markets like landscaping, turfgrass management and stormwater management.

Before choosing a composting system, make sure that technology is capable of producing quality compost.

But that manufacturing effort will be wasted if the operation lacks a professional sales program designed and run by experienced marketers and sales pros.  Mounting an effective sales effort requires both premium product and premium people.

Hiring experienced sales pros pays off.  If faced with the choice between someone who knows compost but lacks sales experience and a sales pro with a good track record but no composting background, choose the sales pro to lead the team and put him/her in charge of the compost guru.

Why?  The right pro will be able to learn what s/he needs to structure a program and move product.  The compost person may or may not have what it takes to be successful in sales.   But working for and learning from a seasoned pro will make that compost expert the best salesperson s/he can be, generating maximum revenue for the operation.

Does the analyst’s cost:benefit considerations include the advantages of regional compost use?

Irresponsible soil management practices carry a cost.  Options for highest and best use for compost regionwide should be factors in the cost:benefit evaluation.

Analysists need to ask questions like:

  • If raising soil organic matter eliminates runoff and sedimentation from a typical rain event (1 inch or less), what impact would the use of a quality compost have on the region?
  • How could compost use influence current municipal costs to manage stormwater or treat contaminated drinking water sources?
  • What would be the savings to local farmers if they could cut their fertilizer bills in half?
  • Since compost reduces chemical use and the severity of impact injuries on playing fields, how would this influence things like maintenance budgets, player downtime and medical bills for athletic and recreation venues?

Use of compost in a region can have significant positive impact on costs for stormwater management, synthetic fertilizer and pesticide reduction, water treatment costs and much more.   Costs, cost savings and avoided costs should be discussed and considered when weighing pros and cons for a proposed project.

Decision-makers who look only at trees instead of the forest may be doing their communities a great disservice.  When reviewing analyses and recommendations prepared by staff or consultants, be sure those reports take in the big picture, not just impacts to waste management.

Preemption vs prevention:  Choosing higher standards for composting facilities

Preemption vs. prevention — do you know the difference?  From odors to leachate to low-value products, at almost every stage of facility development and operation is a preemptive choice that will greatly mitigate or eliminate the most problematic issues plaguing composting operations.

First, understand that preemption is not the same as prevention.  Prevention is picking up a banana peel before someone slips on it.  Preemption is not buying the banana in the first place.  Prevention is building berms at composting facilities to contain leachate.  Preemption is combining design, technology, and management to make sure no leachate is generated.

From siting to intake to final product storage, there are preemptive choices that provide superior protections and efficiencies over more traditional options.

Admittedly, preemptive siting and design options tend to have higher up-front costs.  But building and operating according to the preemption principle can result in composting facilities that work better with fewer headaches, lower operating costs and higher revenue.

Conversely, a low-end approach can ultimately cost more when factoring revenue loss, increased expenses, reduced throughput, failed tests, poor product quality, regulatory headaches and public relations problems into the design and management equation.

Preemption vs. prevention for site selection

In the case of composting facilities and their neighbors, it is distance that makes the heart grow fonder.  Regulated buffers are minimums, not the ideal.  As a preemptive measure, put the largest buffers possible between active work zones and property boundaries.

Use vegetation, including vegetated berms, to shield operations.  In addition to visual camouflage, well-designed and strategically-placed vegetation and woodland buffers also contribute to noise and odor abatement.

Preemption vs. prevention for odor mitigation

There’s no way to sugar-coat the truth:  Composting facilities are in the business of recycling putrescibles.  The root of the word putrescibles is putrid.  Ergo, facility management can be problematic if the facility has not been designed to tackle odor generation from the get-go.

Odors are generated during biodegradation by anaerobic (without air) microbes.  Typically, this means conditions within the feedstock pile or composting mass are too wet to support aerobic (with air) microbial populations.

The whole point of composting is to create an environment that will encourage the proliferation of the specific aerobic populations responsible for rapid breakdown of complex compounds and neutralization of odors.

That means getting especially odorous feedstocks into blending ASAP and keeping air flowing continuously — in the right amount– throughout processing and curing.  Most of the composting facilities in existence today do not have that capability, because they rely on periodic mechanical turning to aerate the pile.  Advanced composting methods will use some form of automated temperature feedback system to moderate temperatures and keep the piles aerated 365/24/7.

While not impossible, open air composting using any method will have a devil of a time creating and maintaining aerobic conditions if the climate is anything other than arid.  Rain falling on an exposed composting pile can give anaerobes the competitive edge, encouraging the rebloom of pathogens and allowing odor regeneration.

Moving an operation totally indoors will also allow the capture of emissions from all work zones,  including off-loading and blending, as well as facilitate the extraction of stale air from processing bays.

Once collected, this air can be channeled through a biofilter prior to venting.

Choosing an indoor facility with biofiltration is an example of preemptive design.

Preemption vs. prevention for leachate management

Leachate may be generated by rain failing on unprotected piles or the draining of excess moisture from wet feedstocks.  Leachate is the dark “liquor” that pools in open composting yards, contributing to odor generation and the proliferation of flies.

Berms, piping and collection pits are tools used in composting to channel and contain leachate.

The goal of these preventative measures is to capture leachate before it escapes property boundaries or runs into surface waters.  The leachate can then be treated onsite, reused during blending to wet dry feedstocks or piped to a wastewater treatment facility.

Immediate blending of wet feedstocks with the appropriate types/amounts of dry amendment, along with the prevention of rain infiltration, will all but eliminate leachate as a management issue.  Minor seepage from standing piles can be absorbed by dusting puddles with dry compost, which is then returned to the head of the plant for reblending.

Proper blending is an example of preemptive management.  Taking steps to prevent rain from coming in contact with feedstocks and compost piles is an example of preemptive design.

Preemption vs. prevention for product value

Product value is based on multiple influences including feedstock selection, blending, processing and, finally, storage.

Preemption plays a role in feedstock selection by sourcing the best ingredients and avoiding those that add little to the final product or, even worse, lower the value.

Blending to produce a homogeneous mix without marbling or clumps results in an admixture that exposes all raw materials to beneficial microbes and facilitates even air flow throughout the composting mass.

Covering product during processing and long-term storage ensures high market value and maximum revenue from product sales to high-end users like landscapers, athletic field managers, golf course superintendents and landscape supply retailers.

Failure to establish a professional marketing and sales program can result in large piles of unsold product or sale of product below market value.  Hiring experienced sales professionals can make a difference in the overall efficiency and profitability of an operation.

All of these are examples of preemptive management practices.  None are linked to a specific facility design or composting technology.

Every composting operation can practice preemptive management.

Rising steam is evidence of a biological "sludge dryer" at work.

Rising water vapor is evidence of a biological “sludge dryer” at work.

In an era of ever-tightening fiscal belts, water management infrastructure is aging.

When the old sludge dryer can’t keep up, people in charge of sewage treatment systems start to look at options.

Make-do strategies may work for some municipal services,  but wastewater isn’t one of them.  A Tuesday without a yard waste pickup isn’t quite the same as a Tuesday without functioning toilets, is it?

But using energy-intensive technologies to drive water out of sludge is expensive.  And when it comes time to replace/upgrade, traditional drying solutions may no longer be the best.

In an eco-sensitive world, energy-intensive dryers are no longer viewed as good options.   Drying beds offer a low-energy alternative.   But beds are only practical where time and space abundant.

A new era and a new kind of sludge dryer

Sludge dryers have been around a long time.  But like cesspools and unlined landfills, the “old ways” are disappearing. Antiquated methods are giving way to more efficient options.  Switching to a biological sludge dryer is one of them.

Biological drying (or biodrying) is also a heat-based technology.  But in this case, the heat is “free,” generated by the enzymatic activity of feeding microbes.

Yes, the fans that maintain the microbial environment need energy.  But those fans aren’t generating and pumping heat. They’re only moving air.   That makes both installation and operating costs very attractive compared to other systems.

The same bio-technology can dry sludge and reduce mass.  Production of an EPA Class A Exceptional Quality (EQ) compost is optional. When managed to meet VAR/PFRP goals, biological drying can also eliminate liming.

The result is volume and weight reduction, plus a “less objectionable” residual. Generators can continue existing land application or landfill programs. Or the processing goal can be production of a market-grade product.

Pre-disposal, biological dryers offer reductions in transportation volumes and tipping fees.

When augmenting incineration facilities, bio-drying can positively impact those operating costs, too.