Composting is a true example of circular thinking, taking products from cradle-to-cradle by using food waste and other organic materials to fertilize plants naturally. However, while composting has been around for millennia, as societies have moved away from the rural living, the practice has fallen out of favor with individuals. Today, as cities grow and populations become increasingly urban, limited space and busy lifestyles can make it difficult to compost at home.
However, while the practice of composting may have decreased within the urban environment, industrial-scale commercial composting is on the rise. Today, as municipalities begin to address the growing issue of food waste, commercial composting is seen as a relatively simple way to reduce the 52.4 million tons of organic matter that end up in landfill each year.
It also remains one of the only ways to effectively deal with the harmful byproducts of rotting organic waste, and composting can significantly reduce elements such as methane and CO2, as well as killing pathogens and dealing with pest such as rodents and flies.
Commercial composting provides a number of benefits over traditional garden composting and, in ideal environmental conditions, the sheer scale of industrial composting facilities allows huge amounts of compost to be generated very quickly. Constant monitoring and control of these conditions even allow materials such as meat and dairy to be processed, which is usually not the case for smaller compost piles. Additionally, bioplastics can also be broken down quickly enough in industrial-scale compost facilities, a huge advantage considering increased calls to minimize plastic consumption.
That’s not to say, however, that industry doesn’t present its own set of challenges, and in fact, relying on commercial composting alone as a method of dealing with food waste is problematic. So, what is the answer to dealing with organic waste? Well, as with any waste stream, the reduction is a crucial first step as we strive to develop more sustainable systems and when used in tandem with efficient composting processes, we can begin to look towards a true circular economy for organics.
Here, we shed some light on how commercial composting works, it’ associated challenges, and why reducing food waste at the source is crucial to its continued success.
How Commercial Composting Works?
Many commercial composting facilities work in much the same way as those found on farms or in gardens, with aerobic composting still the most popular method thanks to its ease and simplicity. While other methods of composting exist, aerobic composting is ideal for the large amounts of organic waste that need to be processed within municipalities, while still allowing for a broad range of materials to be composted within a single “pile”.
Aerobic composting is practiced in two ways at commercial facilities; Static Pile Composting and Turned Windrow Composting. With turned composting, organic waste is layered and regularly turned to allow air into the pile, and the heat generated reduces pathogens and encourages microbial activity.
At its most basic level, these compost piles require layers of dry brown matter such as leaves, wet greens such as food waste, some type of microbial accelerator, and regular aeration to introduce oxygen. This type of composting is also suitable for animal products and processed foods thanks to industrial-scale piles that generate significant amounts of heat.
Static pile composting, on the other hand, mixes large amounts of organic waste with bulking agents, such as wood chips or shredded newspaper. The bulking agents allow aeration of the pile without turning, although in many commercial facilities, pipes placed beneath the pile or air blowers may also be used to increase air flow. Careful monitoring of static piles is required to ensure adequate airflow at all times.
Problems with Existing Systems
Whether for static or aerated composting, a sharp rise in waste and increased demand for collections is putting a huge strain on existing systems. Today, many municipalities simply cannot cope with the waste generated and the logistics of processing it. Waste needs to be efficiently collected, sorted and separated, usually shredded or pre-processed before finally being added to the pile.
Once piled, maintaining the ideal conditions using either of the above methods takes time, effort, and energy. When the compost has matured, it needs to be screened, processed and packaged. All of these stages in the journey from food waste to compost add to the already significant carbon footprint of our food.
While food waste, in particular, is highly valued in the industry as a unique composting agent, pre-consumer waste is much easier to compost than post-consumer waste, since raw materials are generally already separated from the rest of waste stream. This ensures contaminants are minimized, helping recycling facilities generate the highest quality compost.
Post-consumer waste, on the other hand, may have multiple separation issues that mean it all too often ends up in landfill or is incinerated. In most cases, the risks are too great to introduce contaminated waste streams to commercial compost piles, as they have to potential to ruin an entire pile.
Commercial composting facilities also require large amounts of land; there can be issues with leachate contaminating groundwater; and, depending on the climate, they may also require large amounts of additional water to maintain ideal conditions. Odor can also be an issue for large-scale commercial composting facilities, and as the urban environment continues to expand, pests and rodents remain a risk, even in the most well-managed facilities.
All in all, while industrial-scale composting provides an indispensable method of dealing with food waste, it is far from perfect when we look at the bigger picture. Put simply, the reduction of food waste must become the priority at all stages of the production and consumption journey.
Reducing Food Waste
Today, it is estimated that American’s waste close to a pound of food per person, per day, and issues surrounding the collection and diversion of that waste means much of it never makes it to the composting facility at all. Additionally, pre-consumer food waste takes up a significant proportion of both landfill and composting capacities, meaning inefficiencies at all stages of the production and consumption journey are generating more food waste than ever before. The simple fact is that, while recycling should be encouraged, the requisite facilities must receive more investment in order to meet our growing needs.
However, the priority for both businesses and individuals must be to reduce food waste at the source. In fact, across the entire supply chain, from production to consumption, waste must be minimized in order to reduce food poverty and increase our capacity for processing “true” waste. Waste in any form not only requires complex infrastructure and increasingly expensive facilities for processing, but also takes up significant resources in its production. This means that we are, in effect, putting double the strain on the environment through our wasteful habits and systems.
Tackling food waste through reduction can be achieved in a number of ways. For farmers, restaurants, and retailers, donating food is one way in which waste can be reduced, and there are a variety of organizations and companies that can help business successfully divert waste away from landfill and composting facilities through donation. Forward-thinking waste management companies such as RTS can help you implement donations though the collection and distribution of waste materials, while more information can be found on the EPA website.
For consumers, identifying and adapting wasteful habits must be the priority. Shopping smarter, saving and eating leftovers, storing food correctly, and finally, monitoring what is wasted each week with an eye on reducing those materials in the future is an excellent way to start. Additionally, and where possible, maintaining your own garden composting or in-vessel composting systems is another excellent way to reduce food waste going to landfill or commercial facilities.
Regardless of the benefits of organic compost as a product, the only way to combat climate change and build a greener world is to reduce food waste to an absolute minimum. Ensuring commercial composting can continue to deal with “real”, and not avoidable, food waste is wholly dependent on significant reductions at every stage of the food production journey.