Date: Sunday, May 12, 2024
AUTHOR: Team Viably

What is Commercial Composting and Why Is It So Important?

Hands holding fresh compost with title overlay of "What is commercial composting?"

Commercial compost production is at the forefront of sustainable waste management, transforming organic waste into valuable soil amendments. Whether you’re considering starting a compost production facility or a seasoned compost producer, it’s essential to understand what the process entails, its benefits to both business and the environment, and the various equipment options available for the most effective operations.

In today’s world, where planet health matters more than ever, commercial compost production is becoming an essential move for many businesses. Commercial composting is not only crucial for mitigating climate change impacts but also offers substantial financial benefits for businesses. Composting businesses can attract eco-conscious consumers, gain a competitive edge, and gain a robust market share. This approach not only helps elevate standards in waste industry leadership but also opens up lucrative opportunities in the growing green economy.

An Overview of the Commercial Composting Process

The commercial composting process typically involves four key stages:

  1. Collection and Preparation: Organic waste materials are collected and often pre-processed to remove contaminants and reduce particle size for enhanced microbial activity.
  2. Active Composting: Various “recipes” of the prepared waste are then mixed and subjected to conditions that encourage aerobic decomposition by microorganisms. This phase is characterized by high temperatures that reduce pathogens and weed seeds.
  3. Curing: Following active composting, the material undergoes a curing phase where microbial activity slows, and the compost stabilizes.
  4. Screening and Packaging: The finished compost is screened to remove any remaining impurities or inorganic contaminants, including plastics, and then packaged or prepared for sale or use.

Ingredients For Commercial Compost Production

There are three ingredients needed to create compost: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (NPK). Together, these elements are essential for the microbial activity that accelerates the decomposition of organic matter. Raw organic materials used in commercial composting are known as feedstocks, and they typically include varieties of food waste and scraps, yard waste and trimmings, manure, and agricultural residues. These materials are rich in carbon and nitrogen, the fundamental elements for microbial activity.

The ideal ingredient mix usually varies from compost producer to compost producer. However, successful “recipes” consist of an optimal balance of carbon-rich materials, such as leaves and woody materials, with nitrogen-rich materials, like food scraps and grass clippings, to optimize the composting process.

A waste hauler drops off organic waste at a commercial compost facility as raw feedstock for compost production.

Types of Commercial Composting Approaches

Commercial composting is typically categorized into three primary production methods, each with its unique process. Understanding these methods is crucial for businesses aiming to select the most efficient and effective composting approach for their needs.

A loader moves compost in a composting facility.

Static Pile Composting

Static pile composting entails placing organic waste in large piles, where it remains stationary throughout the decomposition process. This method is often utilized for materials that decompose slowly or when space constraints exist. In order to ensure adequate oxygenation, piles are equipped with a series of ventilation pipes in the floor beneath the piles. These pipes allow air to flow into the pile, eliminating the need for frequent turning. This approach can be cost-effective due to minimal labor and equipment needed but also requires constant careful monitoring to maintain optimal conditions for composting.

In-vessel composting plant.

In-Vessel Composting

In-vessel composting represents the most controlled commercial composting method, with organic waste decomposing inside a closed container. This method allows for precise control over temperature, moisture, and aeration, ensuring rapid decomposition of the waste material. In-vessel systems can vary in size, from small drums to large industrial-scale reactors, accommodating different volumes of waste. This approach is ideal for urban areas or environments where space is limited, as it minimizes odors and pest attraction. In-vessel composting involves higher initial capital and operational costs but does provide quick turnaround times from waste to usable compost.

Windrow Composting

Windrow composting is the process of piling organic waste into long, narrow-rowed piles. This method is favored for its adaptability to various types of organic materials and scalability. The windrows are regularly turned to introduce oxygen to the pile, which is crucial for aerobic decomposition. The turning process also helps to evenly distribute heat, moisture, and microorganisms throughout the pile. Windrow composting is particularly effective for handling large volumes of organic waste and is commonly used in agricultural and municipal operations. It requires a space footprint large enough to house the windrows and the use of specialized machinery equipment called windrow turners to perform the periodic turning.

Each composting approach has its advantages and ideal use scenarios, dependent on the specific requirements and constraints of the composting operation. By carefully evaluating the types and volumes of organic waste, along with space, labor, and capital investment considerations, businesses can select the most appropriate commercial composting method to optimize their sustainability efforts and financial return.

The Benefits of Commercial Composting

For businesses venturing into organic waste recycling, commercial composting presents a unique opportunity to achieve significant environmental and economic benefits. This process not only supports sustainable waste management by diverting organic waste from landfills, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it also transforms waste into a valuable product that can generate revenue.

Commercial composting offers multifaceted benefits:

  • Environmental Impact: By diverting organic waste from landfills, composting significantly reduces methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. Furthermore, compost used in agriculture and landscaping conserves water and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers by using a nutrient-rich soil amendment instead.
  • Economic Advantages: Commercial composting can transform organic waste management from a cost center into a revenue stream through the sale of valuable, marketable compost products. It also saves money on landfill hauling and tipping fees while contributing to a circular economy.
  • Soil and Plant Health: Compost improves soil structure, enhances water retention, and provides essential nutrients to plants, supporting sustainable agricultural and landscaping practices.

Equipment For Commercial Composting Operations

The scale and nature of commercial composting operations dictate the type of equipment required.

Key equipment categories include:

  • Shredders and Grinders: High-speed grinders and low-speed shredders both reduce the size of organic waste, making it more suitable for composting and microbial activity, especially in windrow composting.
  • Windrow Turners: These machines aerate compost piles, ensuring oxygen is distributed evenly throughout the material, heat is dissipated, and adequate aerobic conditions are maintained.
  • Screening Equipment: Screeners, whether trommel or star screen, are used to separate unfinished compost or large particles from the finished product, ensuring quality and uniformity. Star screens are engineered to process compost, even with wet or moist material, efficiently.
  • Separating Equipment: Windsifter separators are used to separate lightweight contaminants, like film plastics, from the finished compost, ensuring clean end products.
  • Temperature and Moisture Sensors: Monitoring equipment is crucial for optimizing composting conditions and achieving high-quality compost.

Composting Times and Efficiency

The duration of the composting process can range from a few weeks to several months, depending on the method used and the materials being composted. Windrow composting stands out for its efficiency and scalability, particularly when evaluating composting time. This method leverages natural aeration and microbial activity, accelerated through the mechanical turning of the piles, making it an effective strategy for reducing the overall composting duration. The frequent turning introduces oxygen, crucial for aerobic decomposition, ensuring a consistent and optimal environment for microbial activity. This windrow turning process not only speeds up the decomposition of organic material but also enhances the compost’s homogeneity and quality.

One of the notable advantages of windrow composting is its adaptability to handle large volumes of waste, contributing to its efficiency. The method’s scalability means it can efficiently process significant amounts of organic waste within a relatively short period, often spanning only a few months, depending on the materials’ nature and environmental conditions at the composting facility. This efficiency is particularly beneficial for agricultural and municipal operations that generate vast amounts of organic waste and seek timely waste management solutions. Furthermore, the use of specialized machinery, such as windrow turners, streamlines the turning process, significantly contributing to the method’s overall effectiveness and efficiency in producing high-quality compost within shorter time frames.

Challenges and Solutions for Commercial Composters

Common challenges in commercial composting include odor management, pest control, and ensuring the composting process complies with regulatory standards. Commercial composters that utilize the windrow turning method have developed several effective strategies to mitigate common challenges.

Odor Management: One primary method to control odors in windrow composting is by maintaining an optimal balance of carbon to nitrogen (C:N ratio) within the compost material. This balance helps to minimize the production of malodorous compounds that occur when there is an excess of nitrogen. Furthermore, regular turning of the windrows with a turner ensures adequate aeration, thereby preventing anaerobic conditions that lead to foul odors. The covering of windrows with a layer of finished compost or other biofilter materials can also serve as an effective odor control measure by acting as a physical barrier that absorbs and filters volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Pest Control: Pest management in windrow composting operations relies on controlling the environmental conditions to make them less attractive to pests. The frequent turning of windrows disrupts the breeding cycles of flies and other insects while also ensuring that the compost reaches higher temperatures, which are lethal to many pests’ eggs and larvae. Properly managing the moisture levels within the compost piles and ensuring that the outside layers are dry can further deter pests. Additionally, maintaining clean and tidy surroundings with minimal spillage and controlling access to the site helps minimize the attraction of rodents and other larger pests.

Compliance with Regulatory Standards: Compliance involves adhering to specific processes and practices that align with local and national regulations governing composting operations. This adherance includes implementing and maintaining a robust monitoring system for temperature, moisture, and aeration levels within the compost to ensure that it undergoes proper sanitization, effectively killing pathogens and weed seeds. Documenting the composting process meticulously, including inputs, process parameters, and product testing, ensures traceability and accountability.

These strategies highlight the proactive measures taken by commercial composters using the windrow turning method to address the challenges of odor management, pest control, and regulatory compliance. Through continuous improvement and adoption of best practices, commercial compost operations can successfully mitigate potential issues, ensuring efficient and sustainable production.

Summary

Commercial composting represents a powerful tool for businesses to contribute to environmental conservation while realizing economic benefits. By understanding the nuances of the composting process, the materials involved, and the equipment needed, organizations can effectively integrate composting into their operations. As the demand for sustainable practices continues to grow across North America, commercial composting is poised to play a pivotal role in shaping a more resilient and circular economy.

Ready to learn more about commercial composting? Click Here to speak with one of our organic waste recycling experts.

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