With certification programs for products and people in place, could facility certification be next?

By Cary Oshins, Al Rattie and Ron Alexander

New Credential Launched

Experienced composters can now earn the credential of Certified Compost Operations Manager (CCOM).  The Certification Commission of the USCC, formed over this past year, believed that this was the right place to initiate a certification program for the compost manufacturing industry. This operations manager has the day-to-day responsibilities of managing a compost manufacturing operation and it is a critical position in the overall organics management process, so it was the natural place to launch the first professional credential developed by and for the industry,

The minimum qualifications to be a CCOM are two years of experience, a multi-day training course and a successful test grade.  To get certified, first, one completes an application, which includes recording and verifying the training and experience components. Once the application is approved, the candidate schedules and pays for a test. The 75-question test is available at any of more than 600 computer-based testing centers all over the country. The test includes a sampling of questions from across nine content areas, such as “feedstock management” and “worker health and safety” (see Knowledge Domains for a CCOM sidebar).

Composting CertificationThe development of a professional credential has been a goal of the USCC for well over a decade. The Professional Credentials Committee of the Board looked at it long and hard in the early 2000s, but did not have the resources at the time. Then the focus switched to training, and the highly successful Compost Operations Training Course was launched in 2010. The Course, now run by the Composting Council Research and Education Foundation (CCREF, a 501(c)3), is taught three or four times each year at various locations around the country, including California in the spring and North Carolina in the fall (schedule and other details can be found at http://compostfoundation.org/Education/COTC).

In 2014, momentum for the development of a professional certification program accelerated when the CCREF received a grant from the 11th Hour Project to begin the process of developing a new credential. Over the next two years, under the guidance of The Communicators, one of the elite companies that guide associations in the credentialing business, the CCOM was researched and the test developed.  This included interviews with key stakeholders, focus groups and a broad survey, through which the “scope of practice” (aka, the job description) was articulated and the primary drivers described (see Six Key Benefits to Composter Certification sidebar). Then test questions were written and tested, thanks to hundreds of volunteer hours from subject-matter experts and potential candidates from all over the country who wrote and took the beta test this past summer. As the research phase neared completion, the program was handed to the USCC, which in turn empaneled the Certification Commission.

The Certification Commission consists of five Commissioners who have a long track record of involvement and success in the compost manufacturing industry.  The initial group includes Mark Rose, Living Earth, Jack Hoeck, Rexius, Scott Subler, ClimeCo, Jerry Bartlett, Bartlett Ventures and Tom Del Conte, Vision Recycling. The Commission guided the development through the final phase of launch, including all the administrative and logistical details: communication tools, test provider selection, database creation, appeals process delineation, and all the other pieces that need to be in place for a robust and valid credentialing program.

The CCOM credential was formally launched on Oct 27, 2016. Dozens of individuals are working their way through the application process. The first group of certificates will be formally presented at a ceremony at COMPOST2017, the annual conference and tradeshow of the USCC, which convenes in Los Angeles, CA this year from January 23 – 26.

Over the coming years, other certifications will be added. Getting state-specific credentials for those states that require training would be a natural next step. Adding a technician or entry-level certification will also be considered, as well as an advanced certification for more experienced managers, or specialty credentials for consultants, marketers, collectors or regulators.

Running a successful certification program is like running any other business.  It requires understanding the needs of the customers and providing them with a smooth and rewarding experience. It requires investment and careful management. Ultimately, it means providing a value to the individuals, owners and stakeholders in the compost manufacturing industry.

Composting CertificationProduct Certification Grows

While the certifying people may be new to the USCC, the organization has been certifying products for more than 15 years. Compost that does not have a market is merely a costlier form of waste. The USCC recognized this need to brand high quality compost, and help develop confidence and market demand for those compost manufacturers who approach the manufacturing process in a professional way, setting themselves apart from those who view the composting process as more about waste reduction than about product manufacturing.

The USCC is celebrating the 16th year of its Seal of Testing Assurance (STA) Program. The overall purpose of the STA Program is to improve customer confidence in compost selection and use, which improves compost’s image and marketability. The USCC has also identified several other benefits of the program for both individual compost manufacturers and the overall industry. These include:

  • Serving as a quality control function for compost manufacturers
  • Standardizing a set of test parameters (and methods) for use in evaluating compost product quality
  • Acting as a framework to allow implementation of established numerical product standards/specifications (e.g., state Departments of Transportation)
  • Assisting in implementation of an inspection or quality verification program for compost specifiers

What is STA?

STA is a testing and information disclosure program. There are many different types of compost, produced from a variety of feedstocks. These products look different and may perform differently in particular applications and conditions; therefore, they must be used correctly. However, correct compost usage results from having the appropriate product for the desired application, as well as accurate usage information. The consumer has a right and the compost manufacturer has an obligation to make this information available to customers.

In a new development, the STA Program can now be defined as a “certification program.” The USCC’s Market Development Committee understood that “STA Compost” resonates well with most of the professional landscaping industry, but may not be the most user-friendly term for residential consumers of compost products. The USCC completed the marketing and legal steps needed to allow the Council to promote STA participating composts as “STA Certified Composts”. The trademarking process is underway: www.Certifedcompost.com.

Creating STA Certified Compost will strengthen the STA brand and make it more identifiable for the retail compost consumer. The USCC has launched a national campaign to promote STA Certified Compost through both industry and related media outlets.

Related Initiatives

STA participation and its required compost testing offers both essential operational feedback and product promotional support. Some of that support is described below.

“Growing A Greener World”

Composting CertificationOne of the more well known media outlets is the “Growing A Greener World” (GGW) television series, broadcast on PBS stations across the U.S. The USCC has a partnership with GGW to promote the use of STA Certified Compost. Joe Lamp’l, gardening guru and host of the show, is helping to spread the news about the many benefits and uses of STA Certified Compost. He is collaborating with the USCC to create content for his national television GGW broadcast that will emphasize the importance of using STA Certified Compost products.

Working with GGW helps promote compost use to homeowners (the “buying public”), which can be difficult and expensive to do. But the USCC has a unique opportunity at the moment, with many homeowners and professionals alike knowing that they need to “fix the soil” to easily grow healthy and vigorous plants, as well as conserve and protect both water and soil, reduce plant loss and help mitigate the effects of climate change.

Compost—The Sustainable Solution

To help compost manufacturers expand commercial-scale project markets, the USCC has developed “Compost—The Sustainable Solution” program. The overall goal is to enhance the marketability of compost on large commercial projects, while positively affecting landscape plant/turf establishment and survival (while reducing input materials), provide erosion and sediment control (and the contaminants attached to them), reduce irrigation water volume in landscape settings and manage storm water effectively (promoting green infrastructure). Major initiatives planned for the program are:

Raising Soil Organic Matter: The USCC’s “Strive for 5%” (SF5%) campaign promotes planting ornamental plants only after the soil organic matter is raised to 5 percent. In some ways, this initiative would take Western Washington’s Soils for Salmon (buildingsoil.com) program national, but promote it regionally, based on regional issues. The program could be promoted to reduce use of irrigation water in landscapes, protect surface waters from contamination transported through erosion and storm water, or simply reduce storm water management infrastructure.

Manufacturing Topsoil with Compost: The SF5% campaign also promotes topsoil manufacturing with compost for the benefit of the plants, the environment and the economy (cheaper than ‘hard’ engineering solutions). Another important component is “healthy soils, help plants thrive,” while reducing plant loss and maintenance inputs (e.g., water, fertilizer, pesticides).

Using Compost-Based Technologies: SF5% will promote compost-based green infrastructure tools for erosion and storm water control, from topsoil manufacturing (SF5%) and compost berms, blankets and socks to green roofs, bioswales, bioretention ponds, rain gardens, etc. There are many possible partners to promote this concept.

The USCC has already created some tools for STA participants to use in introducing this program to the marketplace. These areas of concentration within the program were chosen because compost can be of major benefit to them, both technically and economically. Most compost manufacturers would agree that these markets could expand considerably over the next decade. They can also positively impact climate change, as well as mitigate its effects.

The Future

With certification programs for products and people in place, could facility certification be next? Given the broad array of technologies, scope of operations and business models, this would be a challenge. On the other hand, as the push for organics diversion increases and the infrastructure grows to meet this demand, creating a standard of operations that a facility can be judged against will become increasingly valuable. The USCC could decide to move in that direction, and the Certification Commission’s charge could be expanded to include that scope. For now, the focus and energy will stay on products and people, but who knows what the future will bring?

Cary Oshins is the Associate Director of the USCC and Director of Certification for the Certification Commission. He can be reached at [email protected].

Al Rattie is Director of Market Development for the USCC. He can be reached at [email protected].

Ron Alexander is a compost marketing expert and Principal of R. Alexander Associates. He can be reached at [email protected].

For information about the Certification Commission or to start an application, visit www.CertificationsUSCC.org.