U.S. Composting Industry Outlook

Mike Virga, USCC

USCC 2012

Michael Virga
BioCycle January 2012, Vol. 53, No. 1, p. 37


WHAT a great time to be in the compost manufacturing industry! We have a fantastic sustainability platform and environmental message: We recycle organic materials into products that benefit the environment and society. Our industry has the capacity to sustain a very rapid rate of growth for a significant period of time.
Since joining the U.S. Composting Council (USCC) in September 2011 as the new Executive Director, I have been climbing a steep learning curve. A forester by trade, I spent 28 years in the private sector, working for an integrated pulp and paper company and a major trade association, and as a corporate social responsibility consultant.

I am passionate about the environment. But I am also a businessman who understands how critical it is to drive this industry’s economic engine. The economics sound simple enough — we need to increase the supply of feedstock and create more demand for our products. Making those changes will require a strong commitment from this industry’s leadership. As I prepare to open the USCC’s 20th Annual Conference and Trade Show in Austin, I’d like to share my impressions of some major challenges our industry faces and highlight key components of the strategy that I am developing with USCC staff and leadership to move us forward.

The USCC needs to expand its legislative platform and become directly engaged in the political arenas at the state and Federal level. In Spring 2012, the Council’s headquarters will be relocated to Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. This move puts us closer to Capitol Hill, the Federal agencies that have an impact on the composting industry, and many of the allied nonprofit organizations that we intend to partner with to build political clout. This coalition building is illustrated by the strategic alliance the Council recently executed with Keep America Beautiful.

The USCC’s initial activity in Washington will be focused on the rural development, energy and conservation programs of the 2012 Farm Bill. And the USCC will continue to push for policies that support our industry by promoting diversion, recycling and composting.

Politically, we need to increase the number of states that ban landfilling of yard trimmings and fight initiatives to repeal these bans. Over the last few years, the USCC has won some and lost some of these battles, but I am confident that the positive environmental impact of composting will tilt the pendulum in our industry’s direction. No one is crafting policies that encourage new landfills.

Even in states where bans on landfilling organics have been repealed, opportunities to promote the composting industry exist. In Florida, for example, companies in the waste management business — an industry that typically supports the ban repeal — are making significant investments in composting facilities. This is an excellent trend and will continue as the public demands move government policies towards a more sustainable society. The USCC and its member companies are uniquely qualified to provide the services and technical expertise to meet this demand. It’s a great time to be in the composting industry.

Building on Synergies

Identifying and capitalizing on potential synergies among related industries is an important technological opportunity. For example, some may see growth of the anaerobic digestion (AD) industry as a source of competition, but I see it as a positive trend that presents an opportunity. There is a natural symbiotic relationship between AD and composting. AD creates biogas from organics and the digested organic waste should be composted. While it does not make sense to digest all organics, it certainly makes sense to digest highly energetic feedstocks such as food scraps or sludges. The energy contained in such materials is a root cause of many odor issues at composting facilities.

AD and composting can and do work together in a complementary manner. However, maximizing energy extraction leaves an insufficient amount of energy in the digestate to finish the composting process and produce a good, mature soil amendment. Anaerobic digestion and composting facilities can address each other’s shortfalls and develop systems that optimize use of feedstocks.

More generally, we need to refine our industry’s core message, develop new and more effective communication tools and materials, and demonstrate why composting is the right approach to managing organic wastes. The USCC has retained a marketing agency to work closely with us on how we communicate to our target audiences. The agency will be reviewing research that has been done on public perception of the composting industry, developing the USCC’s branding and key message strategy and an overall communications plan that will direct the creation of all marketing, communication and educational materials, online content, and business materials for the USCC.

As an industry, we need to develop systems that demonstrate the critical value of our products and services to the financial community and public policy makers. To this end, we are moving ahead with North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) recognition and establishing a stand-alone code for composting. This undertaking will provide robust statistical data on performance that will help achieve support both in the marketplace and in the policy arena. The Council also plans to commission a study during 2012 that will establish a baseline for the economic impact of our industry (see accompanying article in this USCC Outlook 2012 section). The outcome of this research will provide much-needed economic data on the current size and potential of the U.S. composting industry.

Last but not least, during 2012 we plan to reinvigorate our sister organization, the Compost Council Research & Education Foundation (CCERF), seeking to broaden and diversify our revenue stream. This will expand the CCREF’s capacity to fund research and education projects at the national and local levels.

This is a fantastic time to be in this industry — and I am thrilled to be a part of it.

Before joining the U.S. Composting Council as Executive Director, Mike Virga was Executive Director of Forestry at the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), where he developed the Sustainable Forest Initiative, the world’s largest third-party certification program for advocating ecologically sound forest management.

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