14 Apr 2017
a tractor piling some compost

For those of us in the solid waste and recycling industry it is difficult to remember a time when there were thousands of garbage dumps (read: holes in the ground that communities buried and/or burned their waste in) scattered about the Country. Mostly, these dumps were developed to service the communities close by, within a 5-15 miles radius. Also, many of these dumps were family owned and operated by local residents out of a need to provide an essential public health service: managing community waste.

Fast forward to 1976, peace and love were not the only things in the air and water. Open combustion of garbage and other manufacturing processes have created the need for major environmental legislation and subsequent increased Government oversight of industrial activities. For this industry, it came in the form of Subtitle D, or Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). According to the landmark legislation, “[RCRA’s] primary goals are to protect human health and the environment from the potential hazards of waste disposal, to conserve energy and natural resources, to reduce the amount of waste generated, and to ensure that wastes are managed in an environmentally sound manner.” What happened over the next several years was a transformation of the industry and how communities handled the management of their waste.

This legislation, among many other things, required an enormous investment of capital for garbage dumps to stay in business. They had to become landfills, highly engineered holes in the ground, that cost millions to design, develop and operate. Operating these facilities now required skill sets underdeveloped in most small family owned operations. For the most part, these businesses closed down or were sold to large waste firms backed by established financial institutions. The high costs to build and operate within new regulations required Cities and Counties to pool resources and develop regional landfills that serviced many communities. This eventually evolved into the disposal model we see today: regional mega-fills that service a large radius, are highly capitalized and have huge O&M costs. This new disposal model required long term and robust contracts to build and maintain. Because the economy of scale was so great, the larger these facilities were built, the more volume they took through their gates, the more profit they made. This dynamic helped keep disposal costs relatively low for municipalities, making it difficult for other waste management options to compete in the marketplace (like, recycling for example).

Enter an emerging industry: commercial composting. It is true that composting has been going on for ages, since the beginning of flora and fauna on earth. However, now urban and suburban planning and sprawl required collection and management of communities’ yard debris: plants, flowers, trees, etc. Thanks to the same environmental awareness that sparked the mega-fill model, many earth conscious entrepreneurs saw the value in processing and managing that material to manufacture a product: compost.

The commercial composting industry has continued to grow over the last 20 years or so thanks to environmental advocates, and innovative and earth conscious cities and regions supported by local and state government policies. As the desire to compost organic material grew, so did the variety and volume of material being composted. Once we discovered that the organic food material creating methane emissions at landfills could be returned to the earth via compost, the industry took on a whole new frontier.

Currently, composting sites that manage food scraps have obstacles to face such as new and different odors, liquids and contaminants onsite. Best management practices are evolving to match an evolving supply chain. Some facilities suffer from increased scrutiny from neighbors and regulatory agencies due to the trial and error nature of managing a rarely consistent supply of material. Ultimately, this condition has lead the composting industry to where it is today: facing highly engineered and capital intensive regulatory requirements in order to stay in business and/or grow to meet the increasing demand for capacity.

What’s that you say? You’ve heard this all before? The age old adage rings true: History is bound to repeat itself. The composting industry is undergoing a shift much like the garbage dumps of the 1970’s and 80’s. The demand for highly engineered systems and controls will likely lead some composters to close their doors, and some to sell to large companies backed by banks. Due to the capital intensive nature of these operations, economy of scale will prevail and composting facilities will have to grow to meet regional demands requiring long term contracts to maintain.

Ultimately, the rates (costs to residents and businesses) associated with manufacturing compost from organic waste will always be higher than landfilling, even with economy of scale. Even though landfills are highly engineered, they’re still holes in the ground and their commodity is airspace.  In a way, disposal contracts are long term real estate agreements between municipalities and the landfill. Landfills also work much like reverse-mining operations where the quicker and more efficiently you fill, the less expensive it is. Commercial composting is a completely different model. It is a manufacturing process that can take up to 120 days or more. The sheer time difference between landfilling and composting a ton of organic material is enough to multiply the cost of managing it exponentially.

Also, compost manufacturing is different from most manufacturing because the cost of making the product exceeds the value of the product in the marketplace.  This is because compost competes with chemical fertilizers even though it shouldn’t since the benefit of fertilizers is mostly short term production gains, whereas compost provides soil health first, creating a healthy microbiome for long term production gains.

The long term environmental benefits of composting organic material is clear to many Governments that are moving forward with policies to ensure the next generation has healthy air and soil.  However, the growing costs, shrinking margins, and inability to compete with disposal has made it difficult for communities to approve these programs. City Council members must be willing to approve garbage rate increases to reflect the true cost of properly managing our “waste” and putting it to good use.

Since there is little time to reinvent the wheel, we could look for inspiration from past programs that have subsidized recycling efforts amidst a marketplace that heavily favors disposal.  In California, many of the curbside recycling programs have been funded by a combination of disposal and producer or generator fees.  And while it has been possible to place producer fees on bottle/can manufacturers, there is less political will (for good reason) when it comes to placing fees on farmers. That leaves the disposal fees option to ponder, which over time will add to the cost of landfilling our waste.

Whatever the solution is to the question of how we responsibly and economically manage our waste, we are bound to be more successful and innovative if we think backwards before we think forwards.  What were the lessons learned from RCRA and the consolidation of the landfill industry?  How can we implement and fund organic waste recycling programs using the lessons learned from curbside recycling?  I’ll end with a great quote by author Ronald Wright “Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”

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