Second of Three Parts

Organics Diversion: How Do We Get There from Here?

Noel Lyons and Lynn Lucas

Recycling the organic fraction of the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream has become a national priority. What started with yard waste now includes food waste and diversion of these biodegradable materials from landfills; incinerators are also carrying pallets, dirty paper, waxed cardboard and other organics to composting, with some of this side-streaming taking place outside of traditional waste management systems.

A recent trade industry publication revealed that the number of communities with source separated organics (SSO) programs has grown by more than 50 percent since 2009. The number is small—only 150 communities among 16 states—but it does not include the new crop of enviropreneurs offering commercial collection and composting services.

Times are changing. Food waste and other organics are bypassing transfer stations and landfills by the truckload because the economic, humanitarian and environmental benefits of diversion have proved to be significant and far-reaching; in less than 20 years, composting has moved from the backyard to the mainstream.

Composting Goes Industrial

Driven by the need to recycle nutrient-rich, high-moisture materials along with the yard waste—everything from food waste to biosolids to fats-oils-grease—commercial composting overcame a plague of over/under-designed facilities in the early 1990s to become the efficient, environmentally-secure, industrial-scale operations of today.

This segment of the waste industry has, for the most part, abandoned both outdoor windrows and over-engineered operations that were unreliable and not cost-effective, finding an efficient, profitable middle ground that represents the future face of composting. In a properly-managed, indoor facility, odor is controllable and leachate is a non-issue. What remains is a true manufacturing process where sophisticated air handling systems, biofilters and computerized controls exist to create and maintain the ideal environments for the microbial populations responsible for biodegradation. The result is rapid throughput on a smaller footprint, a self-pasteurizing process, public acceptance and a premium compost product with real dollar value.

Today’s designs and processes also deliver the ability to manage a wide variety of materials with differing moisture levels simultaneously, greatly contributing to economic viability. The correct balance between materials handling and process automation leads to simpler systems offering flexibility, ease of operation and cost-reductions. The depth of knowledge gained from more than two decades of academic/field research and hands-on experience has given the industry a better understanding of the science of composting, professional training programs and improved tools for “recipe” development.

Perhaps the greatest boon to composting has been the vastly improved compost product with the predictable quality demanded by the professional landscaping, turfgrass and erosion/stormwater control industries. By developing formulations specific to the requirements of these distinct user groups, commercial composting has created high-value, volume markets for its products. No manufacturer of quality compost has a problem selling high-performance products in today’s marketplace.

Economics Drive Commercialization

Achieving the current level of design, technology and product performance is important for only one reason, and it isn’t waste recycling. Ensuring the commercial viability of composting (the process) guarantees the supply of compost (the product), a material essential to the restoration of topsoil and natural soil functions as they relate to clean water, food production, chemical reduction, energy and water conservation, and stormwater management.

Composting, once squarely within the purview of the public sector, is following the landfill’s lead and shifting to the private sector, which has expertise and capital. But commercial composting is a microdot compared to the giant sphere that represents those who own or control collection infrastructure, ideal composting sites and the bulk of today’s organic feedstocks. Obviously, if the evolution is to progress at anything other than a snail’s pace, collaborations will be required, and the effort will be economically beneficial to all parties. Currently, small, windrow operations dominate the composting industry, but that has to change. Based on today’s more successful commercial operations, here is what the next generation composting businesses will probably look like:

  • A regional facility in concept, but local by definition, since it makes neither environmental nor economic sense to transport garbage long distances.

  • An appropriate, industrially-zoned site, located within 50 miles of a sufficient number of targeted, high-volume generators.

  • Environmentally-secure, indoor or encapsulated processing with biofiltration.

  • A processing capacity of 50,000 to 200,000 tons per year on a footprint of 4-20 acres.

  • A high level of process control, most likely, some type of aerated static pile.

  • Materials handling systems that are simple, flexible and don’t rely on a lot of automation.

  • Professional sales and marketing for both intake and product sales.

  • A true manufacturing approach, with product sales contributing significantly to the revenue stream.

Collaborations Can Build Infrastructure

Hundreds of new composting facilities of this size and type will be required to meet recycling goals, making siting the greatest challenge to infrastructure build-out. However, collaborating with commercial compost manufacturers and leveraging existing assets, owners of landfills, transfer stations, wastewater treatment plants, yard waste facilities and other suitable properties can reduce costs, offer organics recycling services to customers at competitive rates and make quality compost products available to their communities—all without capital budgets. It can also consolidate all organics recycling with one contractor and at one, professionally-designed and managed industrial facility. In exchange for their expertise and financing, composting companies gain good sites with appropriate zoning, buffers and traffic access, scales, stormwater treatment systems, compatible neighbors, feedstocks and compost markets.

Berkeley County, SC, offers a current example of successful public/private collaboration. It owns and operates its own landfill, including a yard waste composting operation. In the spring of 2011, the county solicited expressions of interest from the private sector to operate “green” waste management facilities on the property. Two companies were selected, resulting in a green energy facility currently under construction and an indoor, industrial-scale compost manufacturing plant in permitting. These companies will not only take over the county’s yard waste management, but also biosolids, adding these materials to feedstock streams sourced from the entire Charleston region.

Through collaboration, the county leveraged its assets to secure long-term stability for the identified waste streams and acquired two state-of-the-art recycling facilities without a capital budget. At the same time, the millions of cubic yards of compost that will be produced and used in the region over the life of the composting facility will amend the region’s coastal soils to help protect local watersheds.

Whether the Berkeley County project becomes a model for collaborative infrastructure development or stands alone as a unique undertaking largely depends on those who hold the assets. Berkeley understood not only its own needs, but also those of for-profit entities operating in a highly competitive arena. That isn’t always the case, as evidenced by the number of solicitations for organics recycling projects that fail for lack of qualified respondents. Too many strings can tie a commercial composting company up in knots and render a potential project unprofitable, no matter how ideal the site. Successful collaborations must work for both sides of the equation.

Assuming the Role of Facilitator

At first glance, the challenges of zero waste seem daunting.  But site and collection assets, technologies, expertise and financing are already in place. By assuming the role of facilitator and bringing it all together through collaborations, today’s waste management industry can meet and survive the challenge of diversion, securing its continuing leadership in an increasingly-recyclable world.

The final part of this series will focus on what will we get for the investment?

Noel Lyons is president and co-founder of McGill Environmental Systems (Harrells, NC), a leader in the establishment of indoor, industrial-scale composting as a revenue-producing service and recycling technology for mainstream waste management.

Lynn Lucas is a project developer for McGill Environmental Systems, specializing in business development, communications, marketing and branding.

They can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or visit the Web site at