Laying the Foundation to Your Composting Program

08/01/2010 | By Jennie Morton

Because a lime is a terrible thing to waste

Laying the Foundation to Your Composting Program

Composting is one of the green practices on the planet, but is it right for your facility?

What do lawn clippings, a coffee filter, and a banana peel have in common? They’re all compostable. According to the US Composting Council (USCC), upwards of 162 million tons of organic material go into our landfills each year. Composting takes what we see as waste and turns it into a resource, putting carbon back into the ground instead of the air.

For facility professionals who want to boost their waste management practices, composting takes recycling to a whole new level. Establishing a program, however, requires careful evaluation and planning to ensure a smooth transition. Before you start rounding up your coffee grounds and pizza crusts, the first step is to fully commit to composting and plan long-term strategies.

A Sound Business Plan
Mitch Birchfield, the director of environmental services and hazardous materials manager at Seattle Children’s Hospital, says composting "is an overall good business decision." It helps by reducing tipping fees and cutting energy costs, as well as positively branding the company and work environment.

For example, Children’s program started in 2007 and has a contract with a local business to pick up their organics. Their kitchen alone generates 6 tons of compost material a month, which saves them $7,200 a year in tipping fees. They also removed all of their garbage disposals – saving them an additional $30 a day – and extended the life of their compactor with repairs instead of replacing it.

Getting Started
Once you commit, these essential steps will make all the difference:

  • Conduct a waste audit: Not every building generates enough material for composting to be economical. Manpower, equipment, and funding all depend on how much material you can divert. Do you know how many pounds you can redirect in a day?
  • Contact a hauler: If you don’t have the space or experience to compost on site, make sure a compost business exists in your area. If not, you may want to install a dehydration machine, which is a self-contained composting system.
  • Equipment: Generally you will need additional or repurposed bins, instructional signage, liners, and a separate dumpster (which may be provided by your hauler). Dewaterers or pulpers are good choices for large properties.
  • Training: Employees and tenants can be energized by new practices, so make sure their input and concerns are addressed. They’re the ones who will keep the program going on a daily base.
  • Be a good neighbor: Get in touch with your county health department. They may have forms or inspections to complete or regulations to abide by. You need to prove you won’t have vermin or odor problems.
  • Start small: Even with careful planning, know you will still run into issues. That’s why Cary Oshins, the education program coordinator for the USCC, recommends phasing in your program. "Expect a learning curve, be willing to learn from your mistakes, and adapt accordingly," he says.

Preparing for the Future
For Birchfield, businesses have to remain vigilant to make their programs efficient and sustainable. While "composting is not always intuitive," on-going evaluation is vital such as "having compost containers frequently checked and cleaned, the collection process reviewed, and the resource requirements assessed," he recommends.

Finally, it’s important to remember that while composting has been around for centuries, it’s still a relatively new practice in commercial settings. "While composting relies on a natural process, it is neither rocket science nor as simple as it seems," says Oshins. "It takes time and attention to iron out the bugs in your program."

Jennie Morton ( is assistant editor for BUILDINGS.

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