The future of composting

—Matt Cotton

As municipalities and counties across the nation face increasing pressure to divert material from the solid waste stream, the collection of compostable materials and the infrastructure to produce compost is expanding.

To explain the current situation of the compost industry and its future, American Recycler sat down with Matt Cotton, the president of the U.S. Composting Council.

What should state governments and state departments of agriculture and natural resources be doing in terms of legislation and incentives to promote the production of compost?

Cotton: Perhaps the most significant driver of the initial growth of the compost market was the implementation by over 20 states of bans on some form of organics being disposed of in landfills. In addition, many states have aggressive recycling goals that provide additional incentive to recycle. There are some good examples out there for states to follow if they want to increase their level of organics recycling and composting.

States can also participate by helping to drive the demand side of the equation. Some states (like Texas, California and a few others) have developed specifications for state agencies to use when buying compost. Similarly, state Departments of Agriculture could do a better job about getting the word out about the benefits of compost. In some states agriculture is the single largest market for compost. Every state can do a better job of incentivizing generators to more responsibly manage their organics.

What should the federal government and department of agriculture be doing in terms of legislation and incentives to promote the production of compost?

Cotton: There are several initiatives that the Federal Government is currently pursuing, though most of that involves their own offices and practices. It would be great if the incoming administration took a fresh look at organics and ways to increase production and use of compost. Clearly there is going to be Federal legislation next year dealing with greenhouse gasses. Depending on how that shakes out, there may be indirect benefits to the composting industry. Most observers believe that composting projects qualify for carbon credits, though there are lots of details to work out.

If in fact composting can generate carbon credits, this may provide a funding mechanism for new or expanding projects. We are really just starting to learn about how using compost also helps with reducing climate change. It is going to get a lot more attention in the next few years.

What is the composting industry doing to promote the sale and use of compost to the agricultural industry, municipalities and federal and state governments?

Cotton: The USCC has developed its Seal of Testing Assurance Program (STA), which is a compost testing and disclosure program to help differentiate products which are truly composted and to assure that compost producers are providing the same product data and using approved test methods.

A number of Departments of Transportation around the country are now specifying “STA Compost” because it helps them make apples to apples comparisons of products. The USCC is promoting the STA program to local, state and even the Federal government, but also to landscape architects and other compost-buyers.

Is the public aware of the value of compost as a gardening tool, and if it was explained how recycling plays a role, would people be more open to purchasing compost? What would be the effect of major consumer demand for that material?

Cotton: There are definitely certain parts of the public that understand the full role of composting as an important recycling tool and also understand the importance of using compost. But there is a lot more work to be done. In many cases, compost is but one additive in a topsoil blend that a homeowner might buy, so they may not even know they are buying compost.

If the maximum amount of compostable material was collected, how would that extend the lifespan of existing landfills and reduce the solid waste collection budgets of cities and counties? Do political leaders and solid waste managers understand this equation?

Cotton: I’m always surprised that landfills don’t take full advantage of diverting organics. The savings in landfill airspace alone (not to mention the avoided cost of siting and developing a new landfill) should be enough to justify developing a composting program. There are many excellent examples of composting facilities at landfills and I’d like to see more of this. I don’t think too many political leaders make that connection. In the near future we are also likely to have greenhouse gas legislation that may also highlight the benefits of collecting more organics for composting.

Where do you see the composting industry in the next five years?

Cotton: The United States composting industry is on a steady growth curve right now. I expect that will continue in the next five years. The potential for composting is really just starting to be appreciated. The best years of the composting industry are definitely ahead of it.