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preemption vs. prevention - banana peel

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 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.

A Fredom Lawn still needs compost

The Freedom Lawn still needs a little compost.

Yale professors “invented” the Freedom Lawn in the early 1990s.  It’s a concept rooted in low maintenance residential turf areas. No watering, chemical management, or power mowers allowed.

Freedom Lawns replace the intensively-managed suburban lawn. They offer joyously weedy landscapes as a more environmentally-responsible option.

You’ll note the word invented is in quotes.  Some forward-thinking homeowners have long used this method of lawn care. But growing awareness of “greener” practices draws more and more people to the Freedom Lawn.  It’s an intentional lawn management method designed to protect ground and surface waters.

Unfortunately, great ideas don’t always work quite the way visionaries expect.  There’s a difference between the drawing board and real life situations.  So, the Virginia Turfgrass Council’s  journal added a caveat to the no-maintenance lawn.

The intention of the Freedom Lawn may be right for the times.  But research shows the reality can do more damage to water quality than traditional care.  In a nutshell, it says Freedom Lawns can be environmentally irresponsible.

Use Compost

The article offers a few tweaks to correct the failings of the no-input Freedom Lawn.  At no surprise to us, many of these suggestions include the use of compost.

Among 12 Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Sustainable Lawns are the following tenets:

  • Add a 1″-2” layer of quality compost before seedbed prep to benefit lawn health and aid water infiltration.
  • Repeatedly apply organic matter via the compost. Builds topsoil, binds nutrients and water, and promotes soil aggregation. This improves water infiltration and compaction resistance.
  • Add two compost applications per year at 100 lbs./1,000 sq. ft. (500 lbs. per application of compost for the typical 5,000 sq. ft. suburban lawn). This provides all the fertility the lawn requires and limits any potential P or N runoff.
  • Phosphorous (P) does not leach if there’s enough clay and/or organic matter in the soil.  Leaves, clippings, and compost add organic matter.  Because it’s slow-release, compost can help with N runoff, too.

High maintenance lawns are fast becoming as passé as the era of poodle skirts from which they came.  Learn to love those dandelions. Rejoice to find ourselves, quite literally, in the clover.  It’s important to remember the role healthy soil plays in maintaining a healthy lawn and planet.

Use chemicals or not, embrace species diversity for your lawn or not, mow it or not.  But do maintain soil organic matter.   Healthy soil makes any lawn care regime an environmentally-responsible effort.

Access the full article:  Are Freedom Lawns Environmentally Responsible? It’s well worth the read, even if your lawn is still stuck in the ‘50s.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE this blog post:  Fixing patches in a centipede lawn — why use compost?

PHOTO: Flickr/by Susan Harris