What is organic waste?

When talking waste management, organic is a broad, generic term describing waste derived from any type of living matter.

A mighty oak, the family dog, and icky germs are all examples of living things. As they feed, grow, and die, living things create organic waste.

Organic waste is decomposed by other living organisms. These degradation catalysts can rely on physical decomposition (like earthworms and dung beetles) or chemical (like bacteria and fungi). Their preferred environment can be aerobic (with air) or anaerobic (without air).

Paper, cardboard, and pallets are all organic wastes because they’re manufactured from trees, cotton, kenaf or other fibrous plants. Egg shells, fish bones, and moldy cheese are organic waste because they came from animals. A discarded biodegradable bag is considered organic waste because it was made from a plant-based polymer that can be decomposed by bacteria. Potatoes and wheat are examples of plants that can be used to make these types of plastics.

“Biodegradable” is not necessarily compostable at all types of composting facilities. Some biodegradable materials don’t breakdown fast enough using slower composting processes and, like conventional plastics, can be considered contaminants. On the other hand, many high-rate processes will be able to handle both biodegradable and compostable plastics. Waste that has been certified “compostable” by the BPI or other certification agency can usually be accepted and managed by the widest range of composting facilities.

Given enough time, all organic matter will biodegrade. However, some ingredients or finishes can be toxic to feeding microbes. Therefore, most composting facilities, including high-rate operations, do not accept things like treated lumber, even though they may be derived from organic materials. Exceptions might be made for paints and treatments that have been tested to prove they will biodegrade within an acceptable timeframe.

Organic is not the same as “certified organic”

Within the organic waste management arena, the word organic is not to be confused with the commercial “certified organic” marketing label used by growers and manufacturers.

The 1990 congressional decision  resulting in the designation of “organic” as restricted marketing lingo was probably not representative of that august body’s finest hour. The conscription of a term that had been used generally in chemistry and other common vocabulary for hundreds of years – and then attempting to give it a very narrow definition — has created quite a bit of consumer confusion in the ensuing decades.

But organic waste is not always as nature made it, either. Food and other biodegradable wastes can contain man-made additives. Fortunately, a modern, high-rate composting system is capable of degrading many synthesized chemical compounds as it breaks down organic material. Therefore, when the urban area is served by one of these advanced systems, the organic fraction of the municipal solid waste stream is, most likely, both biodegradable and compostable. Even some non-organic wastes, like (untreated) gypsum board, can be added to the compost blend to improve its market value.

Composted organic waste as a soil amendment

As a soil amendment, compost is always organic, but may not be “certified organic” – unless it has met certain criteria for certification. Most of the time, the word organic on a compost label simply means the soil amendment was made from organic (the generic use) material and is not a synthetic fertilizer/amendment product.

If “certified organic” compost is preferred, then the consumer needs to look for a product sporting a certification symbol from a legitimate, USDA-accredited certifier.  But know that organic certification addresses ingredients and processing methods only, not product quality. 

Quality standards for compost products are established under the U.S. Composting Council’s (USCC)  Seal of Testing Assurance (STA) program. Compost manufacturers certifying products under the STA label focus on meeting requirements related to maturity, pH, salts and other quality indicators, all verified by regular product testing by USCC-approved laboratories.

Approved labs are required to use equipment and testing methods specific to compost products, which differ from the more commonly-used soil testing criteria.

Transplanting can be a tricky business.  Whether moving from a greenhouse or a personal garden, plants do not care for the experience.  And transplanting can sometimes trigger a disastrous response from the plant.

When the stress or damage is too much for the plant, transplant shock may result.  The plant either wins the struggle to adapt to its new home or dies. Different species and varieties of plants can handle transplanting better than others, but the threat is always present.

Usually, transplant shock can be caused by a failure to allow the plant enough time to acclimate to a new temperature. This is especially true if the plant has been raised in a protected condition such as a greenhouse. Another cause is when the roots of the plant have disturbed too much during transplant. Other factors that can make a difference include the weather conditions during the process, and the treatment the plant receives shortly after transplant.

Compost is an effective way to combat transplant shock, as the mechanisms of compost work well to help make the process go smoothly. Unlike fertilizers, compost requires fewer applications and will last longer keeping the soil healthy. The additional nutrients will also help the plant acclimate to its new home and lower stress levels. Reducing the amount of stress a plant experiences is paramount to a good transplant.

Immature/unstable composts can increase difficulties for transplants, so be sure to choose a quality, stable compost product like McGill SoilBuilder, especially if planting under plastic.

Amending soil with compost builds soil organic matter (SOM) and replenishes soil microbial populations.  Both help all types of plants –from vegetables to trees — to not only survive the “shocking” indignities of transplanting, but thrive throughout the season.

Read more about transplant shock and compost:


Read it.  Amended attitude: a new commitment to soil health using compost, written by Gary Gittere and recently published by SportsTurf Magazine.

Back in September of 2012, McGill SoilBuilder was used to improve the soil beneath the lay-down of new turfgrass at the England Run Library in Stafford County, Virginia.  Fast-forward to the following year, and the grounds became their own testament to the effectiveness of compost as an under-layment for sod. Compost and turfgrass — it’s a winning combination.

Check out the before and after photos:

Brandon Grissom, turf manager at Innovative Turf Application and Consulting (ITAC), says  the company has found success through its use of compost in sports field management.  According to Grissom, compost positively impacts soil structure and that, in turn, improves moisture retention — something that both he and his customers quickly picked up on. “We saw how big of a difference it (compost) made versus a synthetic product,” he said.

How are you using compost to manage sports fields?

ITAC is a Virginia-based turf field construction and maintenance company, providing services to schools like the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William and Mary.

Douglas Wilder Middle School field gets ready for compost in 2010.

Douglas Wilder Middle School field gets ready for compost in 2010.

A few years back, Henrico County, Virginia, decided to start using compost on its fields and lawns.

Because of this decision, the county sees improved endurance to the wear and tear of their fields. They’ve also been able to save time and money in maintenance.

Two employees of the Recreation and Parks Department in Henrico spoke about the responsibilities of their jobs. Jason Melton, Turf Maintenance Superintendent, and Blake Phillips, Sports Field/Recreational District Foreman, have seen vast improvement. They credit the use of compost.

The men are responsible for all irrigated turf in the county. This includes about 130 acres consisting of the lawns of rec centers and historic homes, as well as athletic fields.

“Softball, baseball, soccer, multi-use fields, lacrosse, one croquet court, and one stadium baseball field where we host special events,” Melton listed. “In the past, we’ve hosted the Babe Ruth 13-year-old World Series and plan on hosting this event again in 2014. For the past several years, we have also been hosting the Triple Crown United States Baseball Championships.”

Henrico started using organics 4-5 years ago based on research conducted by Dr. Andrew McNitt at Penn State University.

“The first field renovated with compost, I think we used a 2- inch depth over the entire 70,000 sq. ft. soccer field, tilled to a depth of 5-6 inches, and that was SoilBuilder,” Melton recalled. “We sprigged this field and results were amazing. Since then, using compost has been standard for our renovations and new construction.”

Douglas Wilder Middle School field two years later after compost application.

Douglas Wilder Middle School field two years later after compost application.

Phillips explained the process. “Sprigging is the process of establishing warm season grasses using the stolons and rhizomes (the vegetative part of the plant).  We normally sprig at a rate of 600 – 800 bushels per acre.”

Melton spoke about the results they saw in soil organic matter (SOM) for one of the fields they tested. “Our native soils range anywhere from 3-5 percent.  After blending 2 inches of compost into the softball fields at Glen Allen, we saw an increase in organic matter ranging from 3 to 5 percent.”

Since many of the fields they oversee are used for recreation, the wear and tear can be tough.  But  through the use of compost, the field holds up, Henrico reports. The results go beyond improvement of the soil.

Prior to compost use, the County Youth Football Field required a fertilizer application four times a year.  It cost $520 each time for fertilizer. Now, thanks to compost use, the maintenance team says savings for this particular field  are $1,240 for material only.  That doesn’t count time, labor, and fuel.

Jason Melton is the Turf Maintenance Superintendent for Henrico County. He was graduated from Virginia Tech in 1998 with a degree in Forestry and Wildlife.

Blake Phillips is Henrico County’s Sports Field – Recreational District Foreman. He was graduated from Longwood University with a Business Management degree. His father is a sod farmer in Southampton County, VA.   Phillips worked for a turf company during his high school years and summers during college.