Single-use plastics are a significant contributor to landfill waste and water pollution. But in the US, the majority of trash is organic, compostable material. Food waste, clean paper products, and yard trimmings comprise up to 55% of municipal solid waste or MSW. While some people will attempt composting organic waste at home, this isn’t practical for everyone. Home composting requires time and space. For many, a home composting operation can’t handle the amount of trash the average household produces. Fortunately, commercial composting is one solution that can fix our waste problem.
What is composting?
In a nutshell, composting is the breakdown of organic materials that can later be used to improve soil fertility and water-holding ability. Healthy soil is critical for optimum plant growth. The composting process is identical, whether it’s taking place in someone’s backyard or in an industrial setting.
An ideal compost heap requires carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 30:1. While the waste is breaking down, temperatures must stay around 120 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Moisture levels in the compost heap must also be maintained between 40 and 60%. Ideal moisture levels help naturally-occurring microorganisms break down the waste into a rich material that can be used to fertilize a garden.
When did commercial composting start?
In the early days of commercial composting, small-scale operations mainly served woodlots and farms. But in the 1980s, people became concerned about the ever-increasing size of landfills. Large-scale recycling programs were launched across many US communities. Today, commercial or industrial composting facilities can reduce the country’s solid waste by up to 50%. These large-scale composting operations have the tools and personnel to manage a high volume of organic waste that the average backyard compost heap simply can’t.
How does commercial composting work?
Some cities automatically offer their residents commercial composting services. If you live in one of these areas, your community will provide you with a composting bin in addition to your recycling bin. But if not, you’ll need to enroll in separate composting services. These services are sometimes referred to as yard waste or green waste.
Private hauling companies will collect the bins, similar to how trash and recycling bins are collected. The composting bins are taken to a commercial composting facility where the material is housed in a secure structure to reduce odors and maintain ideal conditions for the waste to break down. Commercial composting facilities use three different methods:
- Windrows — The waste material is piled into long rows called windrows and turned periodically for aeration.
- Aerated static pile — Waste is piled high and layered with other materials like shredded newspaper or wood trimmings to increase airflow. Pipes placed beneath the heap are also used to either draw air out or push air in.
- In-vessel — In this method, the waste is put in a silo, drum, or trench lined in concrete. Conditions are mechanically controlled, and the waste is turned periodically while it breaks down into usable compost.
Typically, waste turns into usable compost within a few weeks. More massive piles may take several months before the materials cool sufficiently. The compost is then sold to the public, and the proceeds help offset the program’s operating costs.
Fixing the Waste Problem: A Two-Pronged Approach
Commercial composting can reduce landfill waste by up to 50%. But while organic, compostable materials make up a slight majority of America’s trash heap, single-use plastics are also a major contributor to landfill waste. While commercial composting operations are becoming more widespread, so too is the use of sustainable, single-use flexible plastics and films. These products are made of biodegradable, compostable materials. By increasing the use of both, the next generation can inherit a cleaner, healthier planet.