Eco Landuse Systems Pty Ltd
(D27) On-farm Composting as an Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Resource Recovery Scheme for Organics
Johannes Biala, Ed Henty, The Organic Force
The idea of source separating and composting organic residues was not conceived and developed by the waste management industry but by agriculture. The main objectives were to recycle nutrients and organic matter and to replace inferior MSW compost with high quality compost products that were acceptable for agricultural / horticultural use. The original concept envisaged the establishment of on-farm composting operations and the use of the compost primarily by farmers.
Despite the original concept and a simplified licensing process for composting plants of up to 6,500 tpa not many on-farm composting plants were realised in Germany. This is mainly because
1. Decision makers in waste management departments do not see farmers as potential and viable partners.
2. Farmers cannot provide ‘complete solution packages’ which are preferred by local authorities.
3. Farmers cannot compete with waste management companies.
4. Identical operating and licensing conditions for all plants result in high processing costs per tonne for small operations.
5. Farmers often lack the capital needed to establish composting plants.
6. Potential tax disadvantages for farmers.
In each case where on-farm composting schemes were implemented they required a very clear political decision on the part of the local authority to involve the agricultural sector in the processing and use of organic resources. The aim was to provide additional income for the ailing agricultural sector and to support local economies.
Examples of schemes that involve either on-farm composting or the use of agricultural labour and machinery are provided. With an average input of more than 7,600 tpa, the situation in the UK demonstrates that on-farm composting is not necessarily small scale. There, on-farm composting is supported through site licence exemptions if not more than approximately 3,000 tpa of organics are processed and if all produced compost is used on the farm. Gate fees between $35 and $55 per tonne generally make on-farm composting a very good business proposition.
In Australia, on-farm composting is still in its infancy but is gaining momentum. Farmers are primarily seen as end users who pay for compost but not as potential partners in the handling and processing of the organic materials. A shift in this attitude would provide farmers with income opportunities and hence change their attitude towards using compost.
On-farm composting is well suited for rural and semi-rural areas where this concept is able to deliver significant benefits for waste management, the environment, the community and farmers. On-farm composting schemes provide local solutions for local problems and they make use of farmers’ existing skills in managing biological / mechanical systems as well as of their machinery and facilities.
A federally funded pilot project has been established in Crows Nest Shire (Qld) to develop and implement an environmentally and socially sustainable resource recovery scheme for rural communities. The project will focus on organic resources and their on-farm composting and use. At the outset of this project the major hurdles that have to be overcome are the integration of municipal and commercial collection rounds, appropriate handling, processing and usage of septic waste and the licensing of co-composting (manures and external inputs).
As overseas, on-farm composting and the recognition of the agricultural sector as a potential service provider for the handling, processing and use of organic residues will only become a reality if the concept gains full political support.
On-farm composting, rural waste management, environmentally and socially sustainable development
To date municipal waste management and recycling activities in Australia have focused overwhelmingly on the urban population centres and on the collection and re-processing of dry recyclables such as paper, glass and cans. The development of appropriate recycling and resource recovery schemes for rural areas on the other hand has not been addressed yet. Due to the lack of alternative models and a shortage of resources to develop more suitable schemes, the kerbside collection of dry recyclables was also adopted in many rural communities as the standard recycling activity. This was the case despite its limited potential for landfill diversion, its limited environmental benefits and the frequently high transport costs to distant sorting and reprocessing facilities. It is only now that these issues are addressed and more suitable resource recovery strategies for rural communities are being sought. The collection and on-farm composting of municipal and commercial organics may prove to be a superior concept for rural communities by delivering a range of waste management, environmental and social benefits.
The idea of source separating organic garden and kitchen waste, composting it and utilising the produced compost was not conceived and advanced by the waste management industry. The concept in fact was developed, trialled and implemented in the early 1980’s at the Department for Ecological Agriculture at the University of Kassel in Germany. The main objectives were to recycle nutrients and organic matter contained in the waste stream and to replace inferior MSW compost with high quality compost products that were acceptable for agricultural / horticultural use. Therefore, it is not surprising that the initial composting trials took place on a farm employing agricultural machinery and that the original concept envisaged the establishment of on-farm composting operations and the use of the compost by farmers and also to substitute peat moss in growing media (Fricke et al., 1985).
The real world however, developed differently. While the model for source separation and composting of kitchen and garden organics was adopted very widely, it was by and large not farmers who engaged in composting but rather local authorities and waste management companies. Regarding strategic directions there was prolonged debate as to whether ‘centralised’ or ‘de-centralised’ composting operations are preferable. The planning and licensing process for plants with a design capacity of less than 6,500 tonnes/year (tpa) was simplified. This resulted in the fact that more than 50 % of the over 500 composting operations in Germany have a design capacity of less than 6,500 tpa. Nevertheless, not many on-farm composting plants in Germany exist that process municipal and commercial organics.
Reasons why on-farm composting was not realised very often are as follows:
1. In general, farmers are not involved in waste management activities and therefore are often not considered as viable partners other than potential end-users.
2. Generally, local authorities prefer ‘complete solution packages’ which combine kerbside collection, processing and marketing of organics as well as planning, building and financing of the composting plant. Only waste management companies can offer such packages.
3. Composting became ‘big business’ and farmers were not able to compete with waste management companies.
4. Contracts for the composting of municipal organics are decided upon through a competitive tendering process, which places waste management companies at an advantage.
5. Identical operating and licensing conditions for small and large operations resulted in very high processing costs per tonne for small plants, making them unviable.
6. Average farm size in Germany is relatively small, hence farmers often lacked the capital needed to establish composting plants and they also may have lacked the land to utilise all produced compost on their own land.
7. Farmers were unsure whether the Taxation Department would change their status from ‘Agricultural Operators’, to ‘Fully Commercial Enterprise’, which would result in the loss of many tax advantages.
Vogtmann (1999) called the development that led to large scale composting plants ‘misguided’ since, in his view, large composting operations are not as sound as smaller ones. According to his view, the development of organic resource management strategies should take an approach, which aims to ensure that composting facilities are ecologically sound, economically sound and socially sound in accordance with Local Agenda 21 goals.
In each case where on-farm composting schemes were implemented they were brought about by a very clear political decision on the part of the local authority to involve the agricultural sector in the processing and use of organic resources. The aim was to provide additional income for the ailing agricultural sector and to support local economies. In one case a district council in Southern Germany decided to engage 14 farmers to compost the organic residues of its 110.000 residents at 14 on-farm composting sites with a capacity of 650 tpa each (Jungwirth, 1992). Each farmer built and financed his plant (one standard design) and in turn entered into a 15-year supply and processing contract with council. Even though some machinery was shared among the operators, the scheme turned out relatively expensive for the following reasons:
1. Plants were too small to capture any economies of scale
2. Design and regulatory requirements were identical to large-scale operations. This was inappropriate
3. Elimination of impurities had to be done manually due to the small scale of the operations. This proved very costly
Another district also decided to involve farmers but went about it in a different way (Table 1). The district provided the land and the local waste management contractor the finance to build two composting plants, one with a processing capacity of 6.500 tpa and the other of 16.000 tpa. Approximately 25 farmers provide the majority of the labour requirements (on a part-time basis) and some of the machinery inputs for the composting as well as for the shredding service for the 22 local authorities within the district (Vogtmann, 1999). This example is not a true representation of on-farm composting but the scheme still provides income support for the agricultural sector and enhances the local economy.
Table 1 Example of organisational structure for integration of farmers into composting operation
In other countries such as Austria or Switzerland for example the willingness to engage farmers as service providers for the management of municipal and commercial organics is much higher. Consequently, there are a relatively high number of smaller scale on-farm composting operations in these countries. One example is St. Johann (Austria) where one farmer operates a 350 tpa ‘Pavilion’ composting operation, while another farmer collects garden and kitchen organics from approximately 4,300 residents (UTI-JAEGER, 2000). A specifically designed, tractor pulled ‘Biowaste Collection Trailer’ is used by the farmer to collect the organic residues. The activities of the Composting Association Feldkirch provide another example of small scale composting (Linz, 2001). This association was founded 10 years ago and provides its 860 members with the opportunity to drop off garden organics three times per week and hence avoid home composting while still ensuring that their organics are used beneficially. The annual membership fee amounts to $30 of which the City of Feldkirch receives two thirds for providing the site and machinery. Membership in the Composting Association does not result in reduced waste collection charges or rates. Labour input for the operation is partly voluntary and partly paid for at $10 / hour. Farmers are reimbursed for the use of agricultural machinery.
On-farm composting however, is not limited to small-scale operations, as is demonstrated by the situation in the UK. There, in 1998 the average size of on-farm composting operations, which process municipal and commercial organics, was more than 7,600 tpa (Gilbert and Slater, 2000). On-farm composting is supported by means of licensing exemptions. The UK Environment Agency as regulating body provides a site licence exemption for on-farm operations if not more than 1,000 m3 are processed at any one time (equal to approximately 3,000 tpa of organic waste material) and if all the produced compost is used on the farm. Several farmers I worked with in the UK farmed organically and for them the supply of nutrients and organic matter through compost was very important. However, for all of them, on-farm composting was also a viable business opportunity with gate fees for municipal organics ranging between $35 and $55 per tone. The avoidance of landfill tax of currently $27.50 per tone is a considerable incentive for the diversion and re-use of organics.
Even though on-farm composting in Australia is gaining momentum (Biala, 2001b) if those operations, which process primarily their own animal manures are disregarded, there are only few on-farm plants that process municipal and commercial organics. Examples for on-farm composting are Keyneton Compost in Victoria where food-processing effluents are composted with sawdust (Barrett, 2000) and Custom Compost in Western Australia where pig effluent is co-composted with shredded garden organics (Gulliver, 2000).
The lack of markets for compost generated from municipal and commercial organics has been the overriding issue hampering the further development of composting for many years. This situation has not changed and ways are still being sought of how compost use can be made attractive and affordable to farmers. However, in many cases current contractual and financial arrangements are not conducive to such developments. The processing of organic materials is set up in such a way that the composter charges a gate fee for the delivery of organic materials to the site. These charges cover all processing and associated costs and include a profit margin, hence generating income for the composter. What is often not covered by the gate fee, it seems are the costs for marketing, transport and application of the compost, since it is anticipated that the farmer has to cover these costs. This however, is often financially not a viable option for the farmer and becomes less so with increasing transport costs (Biala and Wynen, 1998).
Currently, farmers are only seen as potential end-users of compost who should be willing to pay for the product and also cover transport and application costs. However, often they are not willing to do so. It can be assumed that a farmer’s view on the use of compost differs significantly, depending on whether he is given the role of end user who has to pay for the product plus on-costs or whether he can derive income from its production and still have a valuable product. Hence, on-farm composting or the involvement of farmers in compost production with an opportunity to derive some income would be able to alleviate the compost marketing problem to some degree.
Considering this and the multitude of other benefits on-farm composting of municipal and commercial organics provides, it is somewhat surprising that this concept has not advanced further in rural and semi-rural areas. The major benefits from a waste management, environmental, social/community and farmers point of view are listed below:
· The recycling of organics diverts the single largest fraction in the domestic waste stream from being landfilled, hence has the highest potential for waste reduction and the best chance of being cost efficient.
· The diversion of organics from the waste stream reduces some of the most environmentally detrimental effects of landfilling, methane and leachate emissions, which are generally unabated in non-engineered rural ‘tips’.
· Relatively low organics processing costs through the use of existing machinery and infrastructure.
· Ensuring the production of high quality compost that will meet the user’s needs since the end product will be applied to the fields of the compost producer (farmer)
· Avoidance of compost marketing costs and marketing problems since the farmer will guarantee to use the finished product
· Recovery and beneficial use of an otherwise wasted resource
· Reduction of methane and leachate emissions from rural ‘tips’
· Reduced need for transportation of organic input materials and finished products due to the close proximity of collection areas, processing site and receiving farmland.
· Beneficial effects of compost use on soil fertility and productivity and hence reduced reliance on external farm inputs
· Establishment of resource recovery scheme that is well-adapted for rural community
· Money spent on the on-farm processing of organics stays within the community and provides support for the local economy
· The on-farm composting of organics provides a business opportunity for the agricultural sector
· Potential for creation of local employment
Benefits for the farmer (composter)
· Opportunity to generate supplementary income
· Opportunity to make use of available machinery and infrastructure
· Use of “free” compost
· Advantage through the beneficial effects of compost use, some of which may have a direct cost reduction or yield effect (e.g. nutrient content, improved water holding capacity)
· Savings through reduced need for external inputs (fertiliser)
On-farm composting schemes provide local solutions for local problems and they make use of farmers’ existing skills in managing biological / mechanical systems. Therefore, on-farm composting can be the ideal solution for the processing and use of municipal and commercial organics in rural and semi-rural councils. Even regional centres with 100,000 people or more can easily process their organic waste fraction through on-farm composting schemes.
Development of Sustainable waste management for rural communities
In the past recycling schemes in rural communities were often adopted from urban centres and hence focused primarily on the collection of dry recyclables. However, such schemes may not necessarily represent the best option for rural communities and may not make best use of limited resources (Biala, 2001a; Scordalides, 2001). The transportation of dry recyclables to distant processing plants is expensive, the reduction of the municipal waste stream is limited and the reduction of negative effects caused by landfilling in non-engineered rural ‘tips’ is minimal. Rural and semi-rural communities need to take a fresh look at their recycling and waste management schemes and develop strategies that are well adapted to their circumstances and also benefit their own community. The segregation of municipal and commercial organics and their subsequent processing and use by local farmers represents such a recycling and resource recovery scheme that is well adapted and appropriate for rural communities.
The Federal Department for the Environment (Environment Australia) has recognised the potential benefits on-farm composting schemes can deliver in improving resource recovery and waste management in rural areas. Therefore, it supports a research project that seeks to develop and implement an environmentally and socially sustainable resource recovery scheme for rural communities. The project will be realised in the Shire of Crows Nest, which is located approximately 170 km west of Brisbane.
The project encompasses the development of a strategy for the integrated collection and processing of municipal and commercial organics as well as locally available biosolids and septic waste. Subsequent to public consultation and education the strategy will be implemented and the on-farm composting operations will be planned according to the types and quantities of organics received. The composting operation as well as the input/output material will be monitored. Costs and benefits of the entire organic resource recovery scheme will be determined from the point of view of the council, the community, the farmer and the environment.
Since the pilot project only started on 1. October 2001 no results are available yet (but will be presented at the conference). However, it has become clear that a strategy that is aiming for the fully integrated management of all organic residues within a given region through on-farm composting has to resolve the following issues:
Combined collection of municipal and commercial
In order to make the collection of organic residues as efficient as possible municipal and commercial organics need to be collected together. Barriers currently preventing combined collection rounds need to be overcome.
Contrary to our original expectation, the disposal of septic waste appeared as a major waste disposal issue in Crows Nest Shire and presumably this is also the case in other rural areas. Septic waste collection companies are interested to find alternative disposal options which are less costly than disposal at the wastewater treatment plant and which provide them with access for 7 days per week.
In Queensland the operation of feedlots and piggeries is classified as an ‘Environmentally Relevant Activity’, which requires a license. This includes the on-site composting of manures. The Department of Primary Industries assesses applications, establishes operating conditions and monitors compliance on behalf of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). This includes not only the handling and processing of organics but also the appropriate use of such materials (e.g. nutrient budget). However, as soon as external organic residues are accepted for co-composting on a farm, e.g. sawdust or shredded garden organics as bulking agents, the responsibilities and licensing conditions become ill defined and unclear. This issue has to be resolved jointly by the Department of Primary Industries and the EPA.
Overseas examples showed that the agricultural sector can be an integral part in the processing of organic residues as well as in the use of composted products. This can be achieved via on-farm composting or by utilising agricultural labour and machinery to accomplish organic resource recovery tasks. However, agriculture is disadvantaged in competing with waste management companies for contracts to compost municipal and commercial organics. Therefore, on-farm composting and the integration of the agricultural sector over and above its role as potential end user will only happen if there is a clear political will to do so.
Current rural waste management and resource recovery schemes need to be re-assessed to establish well-adapted schemes that make best use of limited resources and deliver the best environmental, social and economic outcomes for rural communities. On-farm composting of municipal and commercial organics has the potential of delivering a wide range of waste management, environmental and social benefits to rural communities.
The practicalities as well as the economic, environmental and social implications of on-farm composting and the development and implementation of an improved resource recovery scheme are assessed through a federally funded pilot project in Crows Nest Shire (Queensland). At the outset of this project the major hurdles that have to be overcome are:
1. To establish an integrated collection for municipal and commercial organics;
2. To find an appropriate way of handling, processing and using of septic waste;
3. To resolve issues related to the licensing of co-composting (manures and external inputs).
These issues will be only resolved if all parties involved, i.e. local authority, waste management contractor, State Government Departments, farmers and the community show a willingness to advance resource recovery and waste management in rural areas through on-farm composting.
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