California company closes the composting loop

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

BEFORE we made our first ton of compost, we had already talked to farmers to determine what they needed in a soil amendment,” says Roger Van Der Wende, Vice President, Supermarket Division, Community Recycling & Resource Recovery, Inc. (Community) in Sun Valley, California. Considering the fastidious navigation the company has done to advance in a previously uncharted realm of resource management in southern California, his statement comes without surprise. Since beginning food residuals collection in June 1994 with a 28-store pilot with Vons/Safeway supermarkets, Community has expanded the program into California's (and quite possibly the world's) largest, serving over 1,200 stores. “Community's success is definitely a result of a team effort, within the company as well as with the relationships with our supermarket customers,” notes Van Der Wende.

The company's growth hasn't stopped at food residuals collection from supermarkets. Restaurants also are serviced, and in addition to collection and composting of unsaleable produce and compostable produce packaging, Community provides its supermarket clients with waste audits and technical assistance for traditional recyclables as well. It also owns and operates California's largest composting facility, a transfer station and materials recovery facility (fully permitted with a capacity of 1,700 tons/day), a C&D recycling operation, and farms thousands of acres of land. Its sister companies own and operate two biomass-fueled power plants in California. Community Recycling's facilities are located in Sun Valley, except for the biomass plants (one in Dinuba and the other near Firebaugh) and the composting site and farms, which are located in Lamont.

An inventory of Community's growth and diversification is impressive. Collection has grown from 28 Vons/Safeway supermarkets, to include most major grocery chains in southern California, 250 Save Mart stores, 246 Safeways, and 19 Foodscos in northern California, more than 20 Vons and Food for Less stores in the Las Vegas, Nevada region, and a multitude of other residential and commercial accounts.

In January 2000, Community completed installation of “state-of-the-art” construction and demolition processing equipment that allowed it to increase capacities of C&D debris to 2,000 tons/day. In addition to C&D, the facility handles street sweepings, beach debris, gypsum and commingled streams. Community's MRF “utilizes a patented, high volume, mechanized processing system that is continually modified to recover cardboard, newspaper, mixed paper, ferrous metal, aluminum cans, HDPE and PET plastic, wood and compostable organics, depending on markets and customer needs,” notes the company's website. “The facility can also process and consolidate loads of commingled source-separated recyclables when required.”


Food residuals collected from southern California go to a portion of four acres adjacent to Community's Sun Valley Transfer Facility for preprocessing, a stage where the material is mixed with yard trimmings. Approximately 800 tons/day of source separated green material from the City of Los Angeles, haulers, private landscapers and residents are received at the site. Unlike many of its competitors, Community accepts palm fronds, yucca, mulberry, and large tree stumps. Material is ground with a 1,500 horsepower electric grinder with a throughput of 200 tons/hour. Ground green materials are combined with supermarket, restaurant and residential food residuals (yard trimmings, food, and paper packaging are cocollected in the cities of San Fernando and Arvin, California), and transferred to the Lamont composting site.

Community is proud to offer what many believe is a better option than alternative daily cover (ADC), a puzzling and controversial rule in California that allows cities to claim diversion credit for green materials ground and used to cover garbage in the landfill. Company literature states, “Use of this facility ensures that haulers do not need to rely on ADC markets for collected materials and allows haulers to collect food waste and food-soiled paper in the residential and commercial sector without end use market concerns.”

Organics collected from farther north and east of Los Angeles go directly to Lamont for composting. The facility is on a 480-acre site, which includes a composting pad, and areas for research and finished product receiving, processing and curing. The windrow composting operation is permitted for 3,692 tons/ day, but presently receives about 2,000. Processing equipment includes a Scarab windrow turner. Community also owns or leases, and actively farms, over 3,000 acres in the same region.

Eighty of the composting site's acres are dedicated to research farming, and for good reason: Community uses the research area and its own 3,000-acre farm to test blends and demonstrate the value of its products, and 65 to 70 percent of the compost sold is custom-blended for agricultural markets. A substantial, and effective, component of the company's marketing strategy has been to make farmers aware of its research, and many have been to the test plots and witnessed firsthand the process of applying amendments, establishing crops, and improved plant health and higher yield as a result of enhanced soil quality. Of all the amendments Community produces in Lamont, 95 percent go to growers. Three percent is bagged and sold in supermarkets, and two percent is donated to communities and schools. In 2006, the company produced more than 300,000 tons of compost.

In addition to using compost and various blends, Community amends soil on its own farms with gypsum from both new construction and mined sources. When crops require higher acidity, elemental soil sulfur from sources such as oil refineries is added. Focusing on soil quality has produced dramatic results for them. “We've seen up to a 40 percent increase in yields from heavy soil that had previously been farmed to death. Our cattle feed corn grows to incredible heights of 13 to 14 feet,” Van Der Wende notes proudly. The company's farms primarily grow cattle feed corn silage in the summer, and wheat or millet in the winter, which is sold for feed to dairies. They also grow a mile square of wine grapes (where soil amended with compost has greatly improved root stock), almonds, and 560 acres of certified organic alfalfa.

Community's success is a direct result of its diversity, and also through avoiding a paradigm that leads many large-scale composters into capacity and revenue challenges. “Composting can't be looked at as waste diversion,” he asserts. “You must cater to the end users. It always has to be end product driven. The need for good compost is growing. Water conservation efforts and organic farming will increase demand. And it is best done locally, where you can establish relationships with end product users.”

And there may have never been a more important time for California growers to consider the benefits of compost-amended soil. Agriculture in the Golden State is an industry worth almost $32 billion annually, and it generates $100 billion in related economic activity (California Department of Food and Agriculture statistics). According to data compiled by the University of California's Agricultural Issues Center, organic farms accounted for $500 million of annual produce sales in 2005, up from $200 million in 2000. Organic produce revenues have risen even higher in the past two years, as demand for organically grown crops continues to climb.

California has been the nation's leader in agricultural production for more than half a century, and adequate water supply has been a prevailing issue impacting both drinking water and irrigation. On August 31, 2007, irrigation water challenges intensified when U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger required more stringent protection of the delta smelt, believed by the scientific community to be a key indicator of water quality and the overall health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (see sidebar). The delta region supplies approximately two-thirds of California's residents and millions of acres of farmland with water - about 6 million acre-feet per year. The judge's decision threatens to reduce water supply from this source by one-third, a prospect that already has farmers throughout the state in crisis mode.

Community Recycling's extensive resource management work holds the potential to offset some of the farmers' challenges, and the substantial volumes of material they collect, process and make available to market promises considerable positive impact. “Compost is one of the tools that will help California agriculture survive,” says Van Der Wende. The spoiled and damaged fruit and vegetables Community composts ultimately returns to improve agricultural soil, reduce irrigation demands, and help the state's farmland continue to be some of the most productive in the world.

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