Transforming Agricultural Waste into Fertilizer

Tennessee Creates a Circular Economy Around Composting

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Posted: Wednesday, June 1, 2016 2:15 pm

With more than 300 food related industries in Tennessee, waste management can be a considerable – and costly – challenge. Composting agricultural byproducts can be a cost-effective, sustainable solution that takes production waste out of landfills and puts it back into the soil.

The Compost Company in Ashland City, Tenn., is turning organic waste products into a high-yield compost material for farmers, landscapers, and gardeners.

Ed Wansing, founder and COO, along with company president Clay Ezell, owns and operates The Compost Company LLC. Operating a large composting facility can appear deceptively simple, but, “There’s more to the recipe than just dumping organics on the ground,” said Ezell. “The mix is really important. We take great care to mix the proper amounts of carbon and nitrogen so that it breaks down quickly, with little odor, and becomes the best natural fertilizer it can be.”

The temperature of the compost is also very important, and is partially dependent upon the mixture of materials in the compost. While using a probe to measure the temperature of the steaming piles of compost, Ezell added that, “Sight, smell, and consistency are our primary metrics.” Proper temperature, as well as the correct ratio of carbon to nitrogen, guarantees that those three metrics remain correct, and that the compost does not smell bad.

Customers of The Compost Company include Caterpillar, US Smokeless and Organix, a vendor to Wal-Mart. Nashville’s new Music City Center, which has its own sustainability management plan, provides feedstock to The Compost Company, as well, which includes food prep waste, compostable plates, box lunches, and paper towels and napkins.

The bulk of The Compost Company’s customers includes farmers, landscapers, and gardeners, “but there have been some surprises as well,” adds Wansing. “The most unusual use of our product was by a pet food facility for a bio-filter. They built the bio-filter to clean the air before discharge from the facility (to minimize odor).” The Compost Company has also sold compost for use in several rain gardens that filter stormwater runoff from parking lots before it enters the watershed.

In Tennessee, tobacco is a common crop and makes an excellent source of nitrogen for the composting process.

A partnership with American Snuff of Memphis came at a good time for The Compost Company. “We really needed a larger feedstock, and companies like American Snuff brought us over that hurdle,” said Wansing.

American Snuff manufactures snuff and chewing tobacco. Since tobacco is an organic material, returning it to the soil is a natural choice, but initially American Snuff had “looked for land application or composting and really didn’t find anything close by,” said Rhonda Rogers, senior environmental health and safety manager for American Snuff. It wasn’t until Rogers met Wansing at a conference that American Snuff was able to make composting a reality.

Composting is not the only sustainable initiative that American Snuff supports, and they have a sustainability team to help them make environmentally sound choices. They also land apply the process waste tobacco from their Clarksville, Tenn., facility to a local farm and require that tobacco farmers are provided with education on sustainable farming techniques. There are 3,700 acres of farmland in Tennessee that provide tobacco to American Snuff. “We call our corporate-wide sustainability initiative ‘Transforming Tobacco,’” said John Massey, manager of process improvement with American Snuff and member of the sustainability team.

American Snuff is also concerned with making sustainable supply chain choices, both at their Memphis facility as well as their manufacturing site in Clarksville, and now uses biodegradable Gaylord boxes and other process materials that are compostable.

Waste management solutions are growing more popular across industry sectors. According to a recent survey by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Office of Sustainable Practices, almost 30 percent of food and food-grade product manufacturers like ConAgra, Unilever, and the Mars Chocolate Factory use land application or animal feed supplementation to reuse process wastes. Large-scale composting, while a sought-after solution for many manufacturers, has not historically been an option in Tennessee.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation hopes to change that, and in 2016 provided the first round of grant funding to promote composting and build or update infrastructure that supports an increase in the diversion of organic wastes away from Tennessee landfills.

“Grants offered by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Division of Solid Waste Management will help to support and encourage the spread of composting programs both public and private across the state,” said Patrick Flood, director of the Division of Solid Waste and Hazardous Management. “Providing incentive to reuse and repurpose food wastes is a priority with our department.”

The Compost Company provides one of the first of many outlets for companies with organic and compostable waste. Companies like American Snuff are taking advantage of an environmentally responsible and fiscally efficient method of waste management, and as opportunities for composting increase across the state Tennessee’s landfills will be less burdened.

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