JANUARY 2009 Composting food waste.

Composting increases across North America
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The diversion and collection of compostable materials is increasing in jurisdictions across North America and Canada.

These materials – yard waste and/or food scraps from households, restaurants or food processing companies – comprise a large element of what is currently disposed of in landfills. Many solid waste managers and experts question the practice of paying to ship this material to landfills when it can be processed and reused locally, be it for agricultural, landscaping or storm water pollution control.

The U.S. Composting Council promotes the collection of compostable material, expansion of the production infrastructure and the sales of compost.

Stu Buckner, executive director of the Council, said the goal of composting and recycling is similar in that they both promote diversion from landfills and reusing valuable resources.

“We often share the same infrastructure, message and facilities,” he said. “Composting is just recycling of the organic waste stream and a lot of the recycling companies are involved in composting as well. Composting is incredibly important and in some communities, the volume of yard waste and food waste can outweigh the volumes of bottles, cans and paper altogether.”

Composting, said Buckner, can be done across North America and that it is important for cities, counties and states to do what they can to help replenish the topsoil in rural and urban areas.

“It’s absolutely silly to be burying the material into landfills when we are losing topsoil annually,” he said, noting that it takes many years for natural processes to replenish soil and that intensive agriculture on an annual basis requires that soil nutrients be added to replenish the existing soil levels and rebuild them.

Rising energy costs have increased the price of artificial fertilizers. Buckner said this has helped to strengthen the agricultural sector market for compost.

But while agriculture is a key market – the prime market for compost in California (farms and vineyards), the horticultural and landscape market is also important. A demand by state highway departments for compost as a storm water pollution prevention measure could seriously expand demand.

“Texas has done a fantastic job in making that connection,” said Buckner. “Compost is an excellent engineered solution to an ongoing problem. Other states are trying to replicate what Texas has done, but it has been slow going.”

Buckner said the composting industry is expanding.

“The number of facilities and the volume that they are producing is growing every year,” he added. “The collection of food waste is taking off and new feedstocks are being accepted. Currently, there are about 4,000 facilities that we know of. Millions of dollars have been invested in facilities over the last five years.”

Buckner said it is important to secure reliable national production statistics and to create an infrastructure to tally those numbers. Even producing rough estimates continues to be a problem.

“We would love it if the EPA would help us do that,” he said. “Compost is really a regional phenomena and state-by-state production levels vary tremendously – no one has really tracked production. Prices are regional and they don’t depend on economic fluctuations. Individual businesses have tracked production for themselves, but the mechanisms for reporting all production have not been developed yet.”

Farming operations that compost are often not permitted and Buckner said in many states, on-farm-composting activity is essentially unregulated.

“With rising fuel costs, fertilizer prices and disposal costs of residue, composting on-site makes a lot of sense if you are generating enough material,” said Buckner, “just as it makes sense for restaurants to participate in compost collection programs. In San Francisco they are offered a price break on collection fees. Over 1,200 supermarkets in California have their food waste and cardboard collected and sent to a composter.”

The Council endorses compost collection programs because it is good resource policy, helps to reduce green house gas emissions and promotes environmental awareness to individuals and companies.

Matt Cotton, the president of the Composting Council, is also a principal with Nevada City, California-based Integrated Waste Management Consulting, LLC.

Having worked with large commercial composters in the state for many years, he has witnessed the growth of the industry from the initial surge (1995-2000) and its steady growth since then. Cotton credits the state’s solid waste diversion legislation, starting at the 25 percent level, for the rapid expansion of the industry.

“Prior to the 1990s it was predominantly a few private companies,” he said, “but with the landfill diversion legislation, municipalities needed to deal with the yard waste stream and we developed a lot of infrastructure for collection and processing.”

In terms of production, according to Cotton, California composters and mulch producers handled over 6.1 million tons in 2001. A subsequent survey in 2004 revealed that 9.8 million tons were processed. He is currently working with the California Integrated Waste Management Board to put together the statistics for 2008.

The biggest purchaser of compost in California is the agricultural sector.

“It makes sense in California where we’ve got one of the largest agricultural producing areas in the country,” he said. “Wine grapes are particularly suited to annual applications of compost. Agriculture consumes a huge amount of water, so adding organic matter back to the soil is incredibly important to sustain it. On a volume basis, we are probably leading the nation on certified organic acreage, which uses a lot of compost.”

This year has been a good year for composters selling into agriculture as rising fuel prices have raised the price of fertilizers. Many growers are starting to realize that adding compost can help make their limited fertilizer budget go farther.

Cotton stresses that composters have “barely scratched the surface” of the agricultural market. He credits the California Integrated Waste Management Board for playing a critical role in helping to develop markets, educate farmers and municipalities, finance demonstration projects and dealing with problems that have arisen.

“We have a lot of resources for other states to look at,” he said. “It’s a model for how a state can facilitate productive use of resources [www.ciwmb.ca.gov/organics].”

The biggest challenge facing the compost industry is overcoming the status quo of dumping material into landfills.

“If people understood the benefits of not landfilling,” he said, “then it becomes easier to develop a robust compost infrastructure. Getting the word out to have a collection program and a facility started and to develop a market can be challenging.

“But we are succeeding,” he added, “and people are increasingly looking at composting to solve a number of problems.”

While recognizing that states with low tipping fees have less composting, Buckner stresses that composting should be done to manage resources in a more sustainable manner and while a landfill will leave a long-term imprint, a composting operation can be “relatively superficial”.

Expanding the market for compost will require an increase in production to meet demands by the agricultural, landscape and highway department sectors; educating the various sectors that can utilize compost and persuading people to take a chance on compost. Using compost for green roofs and LEED construction projects is another sector that is beginning to take off.