Valuing preemption for composting facilities

Preemption is a term some may associate with computer operating systems or military engagements.  Preemptive design results in buildings capable of withstanding earthquakes and landscapes that trap and retain stormwater.  Preemption for composting facilities is all about using physical plant and technology, in conjunction with management protocols, to mitigate and/or eliminate causes of the most common problems plaguing composting operations like leachate, odors, and unsalable product.

Prevention is not the same as preemption.  Picking up a banana peel from the breakroom floor is prevention.  Banning bananas from the workplace is preemption.

For composting facilities, prevention is building berms to contain leachate.  Preemption is not generating any leachate.

Preemption makes composting facilities work better with fewer headaches.

There comes a point in many a composting facility operation where a low-end solution begins to cost more than one with a higher up-front investment.  Preemptive design is about eliminating the causes of composting’s biggest headaches so they never drain people and financial resources with repetitive, didn’t-have-to-happen problems.

Preemptive design focuses on expenditures and practices that will save money or make money in the long term:

  • Proper blending to achieve desired C:N ratios, as well as moisture, porosity and homogeneity goals, for the resulting admixture
  • A composting method that effects rapid degradation of target compounds
  • Containment strategies that eliminate the influence of weather on the process
  • Computerized monitoring and process control

When the preemption principle guides decisions instead of the initial price tag, a facility and its operations can rise far above the image of a heap in a cow pasture to become a bona fide manufacturing facility.

Preemption for composting facilities — short-term benefits vs. long-term financial stability

Legal expenses and regulatory fines resulting from chronic odor complaints, failure to control pathogens, protracted leachate issues and an inability to market poor quality products are costly.  Problems can quickly become major public relations nightmares, drain bank accounts and force facility closures.

When conducting a cost-benefit analysis of the many design and management options available to modern composting, it is critical that (1) the individual or company carrying out the analysis is very, very knowledgeable about composting operations of all types and (2) the analysis includes pros and cons of both short-term and long-term benefits related to financial stability.

Points to consider:

  • An agricultural tract may not be such a bargain when everything around it is designated for suburban development in the county’s long-range plan. Though decidedly unfair, it never matters that the composting facility was there first.  Investigate both the local long-range land use plan and regional growth projections as part of siting due diligence.
  • Windrow composting is waste management’s version of a mule and cart. It may be the right choice for some operations.  But the successful management of a wide variety of feedstocks ranging from very wet to very dry — at the same facility — often demands a higher level of control and a more robust process than this quaint-but-lumbering relic can deliver.  In composting, flexibility and reliability are directly related to profit potential, customer service and regulatory compliance.
  • A high price tag doesn’t guarantee facility success, either … and this is where the experience of the facility designer comes to the fore. One person with a decent shovel can turn a compost pile.  But time and volume relationships will determine whether that option is the smart choice, or if 2 people are needed, or a dozen windrow turners, or a forced aeration system that doesn’t need to be turned at all.  The same can be said for add-ons like conveyor systems and blending units.  Sometimes, a wheel loader works just as well, is easier to maintain, and costs less per ton processed.   Do the math with preemption as a key consideration.  Ask questions like:  if a loader goes down, how long does it take to get a loaner delivered to the site compared to the repair of a 300-foot conveyor?   If your chief pencil-pusher doesn’t have a background that will allow him/her to identify the types of money-syphoning expenses that plague composting operations, find one who does.
  • As hierarchies go, a tarp or tunnel may offer a higher level of processing security than an open-air operation. A permanent roof trumps fabric.  For highly-putrescible materials, encapsulated or in-vessel design contains process air for extraction through a biofilter.  Indoor off-loading and blending areas also facilitate extraction of “fragrant” air for scrubbing prior to release to atmosphere.  But containment offers numerous benefits beyond odor control.  Factor all advantages into that cost:benefit equation.

The balance sheet of a successful composting operation is made up of many intangible pluses and minuses, not just the easy-to-identify revenues and expenses.  Admittedly, valuing preemption for composting facilities can be challenging.  The most difficult expense to capture is the dollar value of something not attached to an actual invoice, like damage to a company’s reputation or the time and energy expended by salaried employees dealing with odor-related issues, unhappy regulators and dissatisfied compost customers.

Preemption is making sure what can go wrong won’t go wrong.  Batches composted in a highly-controlled environment rarely need to be reprocessed and deliver a product that’s consistent from batch to batch.   Extracting air from all active work zones for biofiltration, provided that biofilter is properly maintained, all but eliminates odors as a management concern.

Money not spent is just as important – sometimes, more so – than dollars expended.   Factor time and dollars saved into the decision-making process.

Feedstocks dictate process, site and facility design

While there are always exceptions to any rule, here are a couple of general truths in composting:

  • Processing dry materials or processing in an arid climate may preclude the need for high levels of containment or process control. A windrow facility can produce an acceptable end product, if properly managed.  While some might put yard waste in the OK category for an open air facility, a commercial processor – including mulch yards — may want to rethink that position, even if regulators do not.  Yard waste contains chemicals and pet fecal matter.  Some technologies are better at breaking down these types of contaminants than others.  To ensure the final product is safe and suitable for use everywhere and by everyone, utilizing EPA-approved 503 standards when processing yard waste might be a preemptive course of action.
  • Generally, wet materials do best with an aerated process. For the aerobic microbes responsible for biodegradation to prosper, feedstocks with a high-moisture content (food waste, DAF sludge, digestate, etc.) need to be dried until moisture levels fall within an acceptable range for microbial viability and proliferation.  An aerated process removes moisture effectively and quickly.  The trick is to keep moisture within an ideal  range and not allow the batch to dry out.  This is where blending and automated monitoring can become preemptive mechanisms, ensuring well-composted batches that consistently meet regulatory and customer standards without the need for constant manual monitoring or reprocessing.

Sometimes, it is more profitable to reject a feedstock than to accept it, especially if that rejection results in shorter processing times or a higher quality compost.

But when a difficult feedstock offers too much income to ignore, when high-value end use markets clamor for quality products, preemption calls for a process that can handle tough residuals and by-products in a manner that is not only efficient and economical, but also effective and compliant while offering:

  • Rapid throughput
  • Robust microbial activity
  • Ease of operation
  • No leachate
  • Odor management
  • Quality compost

Regulations may make it possible to throw down a layer of clay in an open field and call it a composting facility.  But the realities of modern, high-volume organics recycling demand more.  Too often, novice designers and first-time facility owners make the mistake of equating regulatory standards with design and operational goals.  Preemption for composting facilities requires more.

Composting’s history is littered with examples of facilities – some of them very expensive – that met all regulatory standards for design and process but failed miserably as composting operations.

That’s because regulatory requirements are merely a starting point, not the end goal.  Regulators do not have the same objectives as composting facility operators, especially operators in the private sector.    There are still many states that allow all types of materials to be processed in open air environments, but that doesn’t mean a commercial composting operation is smart to do so.

Regulations are minimums, not optimums.   This is a critical distinction for private-sector owners wanting to maximize profits, municipal owners hoping to lift the financial burden of operations from the backs of taxpayers and non-profit owners looking for self-perpetuating funding opportunities.

Recognizing the difference between minimums and optimums is the fulcrum balancing success or failure.  Preemption, preemption, preemption is the mantra of successful, high-volume composting operations.

Operating procedures dictate product quality and nuisance abatement

Any bona fide composting process can generate a quality compost if managed with premium product as the processing goal. Any facility can avoid the most common nuisance complaints if properly designed and managed.  The process need not be sophisticated.  The facility doesn’t have to carry a multi-million-dollar price tag.

That’s not to say even the best composting operations won’t experience a burp or hiccup now and then.  Composting deals with the management of living, breathing organisms that are no more immune to the occasional digestive upset than humans.  The difference between a well-managed operation and an embarrassment to the industry is intention, attention and intervention:

  • Intention in design and operations, ensuring all aspects of the facility meet or exceed regulatory, community and customer standards.
  • Attention – constant and resolute — to all factors influencing the attainment of that goal.
  • Intervention when best laid plans and practices fail (and they will), taking immediate steps to mitigate and correct before a minor problem morphs into disastrous proportions.

Limited space and feedstocks that are inappropriate for the composting method and/or physical plant show a lack of preemptive thinking.  If the owner/manager plans to boost revenues by accepting feedstocks not suited to the current facility’s capabilities, moving forward before making needed modifications is putting the cart before the horse.

Preemption dictates upgrades before the first load rolls through the gates.

As temporary measures, tarps, an outdoor aerated pad, gradual volume ramp-up, etc. can ensure income and compliance until more permanent facility updates can be made.  But upgrade planning must consider all impacts.

Assuming the facility and process were selected and properly designed for the volumes and materials being processed, problems like inferior product, nuisance complaints and regulatory woes are almost always the fault of management, not the physical plant or composting methodology.

Space and labor requirements usually make it to every owner’s feedstock evaluation checklist.  But leachate and odor mitigation, degradation rate, product quality and other factors can add expenses or reduce income potential, making even the most lucrative contract unattractive in the long-term.

It pays to consider all impacts to the operation, not just the obvious.

Product quality dictates feedstocks and process

A facility intending to manufacture product for high-end markets will select technologies, designs and protocols that result in premium compost.  It will —

  • Reject feedstocks that negatively impact product marketability or segregate those materials from the primary stream, manufacturing a second, low-grade product.
  • Choose a process that can efficiently and effectively degrade target compounds in a manner that ensures the final product will meet or exceed both regulatory and customer expectations.
  • Store finished product under cover to maintain quality.

Preemption requires a full circle, wholistic approach to facility design and operation.   Each stage, in both process and practice, is an integrated part of the whole.

Placing process selection and compost quality high in the decision-making hierarchy is an act of preemption.  The important thing is to know what impact any single feedstock has or will have on the total operation – time, vectors, product quality, etc. — and what changes or modifications will be required to maximize process efficiency and manufacture product that consistently meets the quality expectations of the marketplace.

Valuing the preemption payoff

Dollars not spent are always difficult to estimate.  But for a true picture of the operation, those ambiguous dollars must be identified, quantified and factored into the profit/loss calculation.

Once all impacts to the bottom line are determined, investing in a more advanced process or moving the operation indoors may make more economic sense than more rudimentary options.

And when assigning values, never overlook reputation.   High-volume waste generators, the financial foundation of a commercial composting operation, are often big corporations and large municipalities that won’t want their names and reputations associated with a floundering organics recycling contractor with regulatory and PR problems.

If hoping to capture a share of the high-volume organics recycling market, strive for a profitable operation with minimal surprises.  To establish and safeguard a stellar reputation, embrace preemption for composting facilities as a design and operations Best Management Practice:

  • Site sensibly and design with an eye toward future development in the host community
  • Off-load odiferous materials, including liquids, inside a building equipped with biofiltration
  • Contain and rapidly neutralize the inherent odors of raw feedstocks with immediate blending or other odor-mitigation
  • Use dry compost as an absorbent to wick up any seepage in blending or processing zones
  • Establish conditions for free air flow through the composting mass with a homogeneous and porous feedstock blend … batch after batch after batch
  • Ensure no pockets of unprocessed material remain at end of process – screen and reprocess, as necessary
  • Choose a technology resulting in high throughput rates on the smallest possible facility footprint. Benefits of a smaller facility footprint include reduced acreage requirements for more expensive sites close to urban centers and/or additional acreage for vegetated berms, woodlands and other “invisibility” devices.
  • When it comes to moisture levels, remember the Goldilocks Principle: not too much, not too little, always just right
  • Prevent re-bloom of pathogens with proper blending and protecting piles from rain during processing and curing
  • Remove human error and mismanagement as processing factors wherever and whenever possible with automated process control and standardized operating procedures. Reinforce internal compliance with regular employee training, refresher courses and frequent inspections.