Composting accident won’t slow industry’s growth

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The October 2011 deaths of two California composting company workers raise safety concerns just as the industry appears ready to grow. State and local mandates for more solid waste recycling require more food and yard waste composting. But air and water quality regulations are also tightening. And the recent deaths, coming three years after a similar fatal accident in British Columbia, mean the industry has to clean up its image to fulfill its promise.

Michael Virga thinks the challenge is surmountable. “This was an isolated incident in California,” said Virga, executive director of the US Composting Council in Ronkonkoma, New York. While this case, involving two brothers one of whom died trying to rescue the other, is particularly tragic, Virga noted that all manufacturing industries experience unfortunate and sometimes fatal incidents.

“No matter how well you do and drill into employees the safety protocols, sometimes you have accidents,” he said. “We’re tracking this and thinking about how we can get better and offer more training opportunities.”

The outcome for the California company where the workers died, Community Recycling & Resource Recovery Inc. of Lamont, is uncertain. The accident occurred October 12, when a worker cleaning out a drainage tunnel inhaled a fatal dose of hydrogen sulfide. His brother went into the 8’ deep shaft to rescue him, but was also overcome and later died.

The company was shut down by a court order, then reopened temporarily to give a local municipal water treatment facility time to find another place to dispose of one million gallons of sewage per day, which was irrigating compost piles. It also faces ongoing state and federal investigations as well as a proposed multi-million-dollar county fine for an unlicensed plastics recycling operation uncovered after the deaths.

A Vancouver composter blamed in the 2008 deaths of three workers no longer operates. It declared bankruptcy after the deaths, which like the California case involved inhalation of toxic fumes given off by compost, and will be unable to pay a $200,000 fine Canadian regulators levied in November 2011 after a 3 year investigation.

Similarly serious impact on other composters is unlikely, according to Neil Edgar, executive director of the California Compost Coalition in Sacramento. The Lamont facility had an unusual drainage design that made it susceptible to that kind of accident, he said. “It does put a black eye on the industry as a whole,” Edgar said, “but I don’t think it’s applicable to any other composting site in California that I know about.”

Compost Calculations

The Lamont composter is one of the nation’s largest, but there are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 other, mostly very small commercial composters, Virga estimates. The exact number is unknown, as is their revenues, payroll and other indicators, largely because the industry has no individual classification code. The Compost Council is pursuing a stand-alone industry code for compost, but will take several years to work through the process.

Meanwhile, compost is poised to boom. Right now, only about 3 million American homes have curbside composting, according to Anne Morrissey, CEO of Ucan, a Menlo Park, California, startup that makes a residential compost container. But that number is growing at more than 50 percent a year. Most are in California, Washington, Oregon and Minnesota with some cities in Texas doing pilots, she said.

Only about 3 million American Homes have curbside composting, but that number is growing at more than 50 percent per year. Much of that growth is driven by state and local mandates requiring certain percentages of municipal solid waste be recycled.

That leaves a lot of potential compost, because an estimated 33 percent of municipal solid waste consists of food scraps. Most of the rest is lawn clippings and little of either is being composted. Virga estimates that 95 percent of food waste, for example, is not composted.

Change is coming because of state and local mandates requiring 75 percent of municipal solid waste be recycled. “As cities commit to achieving 75 percent recycling, those goals are unobtainable without adding food composting,” Morrissey said. “We’re definitely going from early stage to a very heavy growth period between now and 2020.”

Composting Tradeoffs

Composting reduces carbon emissions and returns nutrients to the soil. It is widely used for urban landscaping and agriculture and, increasingly, to help manage storm water runoff at construction sites. Composting reduces water and fertilizer use, and helps manage landfills. “We like to think from an environmental and sustainability standpoint, it’s much better for society to compost organic waste and turn it into products that benefit the environment and society,” Virga said.

In addition to safety concerns, however, air and water quality are issues. Composting releases odors and volatile organic compounds that can compromise air quality. Runoff from composting facilities can contaminate water supplies with pathogens and toxins.

These concerns are leading to tighter rules for issuing permits to composting facilities in California. Edgar said two of the state’s local air districts enacted new rules in 2011. “Both those new regulations will raise the bar on increasing capacity in those two districts, making it quite a bit more costly and a lot more difficult to permit new sites,” he said.

At the same time, Virga reports state regulators across the country are developing new permits between full-scale solid waste permits and less costly ones issued to leaf and yard-waste recyclers. “The new permits are being designed to make it easier to get source-separated organics like food scraps recycled,” Virga said.

When it comes to water quality, covering compost piles helps to reduce runoff. So can installing storm water capture ponds. Virga expects more regulations requiring such equipment, especially storm water management.

One question is whether consumers will participate. Some cities fine residents who fail to sort organic waste. However, Morrissey recommends making the job more appealing. That’s why she developed her container designed for use in kitchens. Morrissey guarantees a 10 percent compliance increase to customers who try her cans.

New technologies

Anaerobic digestion is a composting alternative that addresses many environment issues. This process confines compostable material in an oxygen-free container where bacteria break it down and generate energy that can be sold. Since it’s contained, air and water quality are smaller concerns. “Currently the cost of doing that is somewhat higher than it is for composting,” said Edgar, while noting that in Europe, digestion is popular because of the European Union ban on landfilling organic waste and government subsidies for energy it produces.

Aerating compost rows by forcing air through from above or below promises to improve efficiency and, because some approaches require covering rows, reduce air and water emissions. Membranes that cover rows also can help control odors and volatile organic compounds as well as rain runoff.

Machines that turn compost piles raise the efficiency of the process. And equipment to process raw feedstock, such as grinders, is improving its environmental profile. “Air emission standards are becoming more strict annually, but our engine vendors can supply us with the most current technology, including Tier 4 compliant engines, that can meet regulations,” said Michael Stanton, Southeast regional sales manager at Morbark, Inc., a manufacturer of grinders for composting and other uses in Winn, Michigan. “Morbark can also provide electric powered machines as well.”

Compost of the future

The industry may look somewhat different in a few years, in addition to being larger. For instance, Virga sees more combined composting and landfill operations. Edgar noted that it makes sense to combine digestion facilities with composters, which can use leftovers from the digestion process as compost feedstock.

All told, Virga said, the industry is making excellent progress and is well positioned for growth. “We’re getting better and better in terms of our manufacturing efficiency, environmental controls and safety,” he said.