June 21, 2007 | General

Compost Operator Training

BioCycle June 2007, Vol. 48, No. 6, p. 23
Compost operator training programs – available in 17 states or regions – are transferring the knowledge and tools to stay on the positive side of the management challenges that arise in day-to-day operations.
Craig Coker

RECYCLING organic materials into composts and compost-based soil products requires knowledge of an extremely wide range of science, engineering, materials handling, equipment maintenance, business management and sales and marketing topics. Most composting entities are not large enough to justify the luxury of specialized employees who can focus on specific areas of competence. Therefore, site staff must demonstrate at least a fundamental understanding of the basics in many of these fields to avoid operational problems and difficulties that can occur on a variety of fronts. Those include: environmental and public health impacts ranging from water quality and air violations to neighborhood nuisances; product quality; equipment investments; unprocessed material stockpiles and/or end product stockpiles; and excessive reject material that needs to be landfilled.
Fortunately, the composting industry has the knowledge and tools to meet those challenges – to run efficient, profitable, regulations-compliant, and totally neighbor and environment friendly facilities. This month’s Smart Series focuses on compost operator training programs that are transferring the knowledge and tools to stay on the positive side of management challenges. This article only addresses those courses offered by academic institutions or state level composting associations; there are several training courses taught by private companies (usually equipment manufacturers) or by nonprofit environmental groups that are not covered here.
The modern commercial composting industry in North America is less than 40 years old and is still heavily dominated by smaller-scale, independently owned and operated facilities. The perception by facility owners and managers of the need for, and value of, comprehensive training is a more recent phenomenon. Obviously, this perception has been driven by the growth of the industry, the need to hire new workers, the recognition that trained personnel are more likely to avoid problematic issues in facility operations, and the noticeable lack of any widely available, academic-based, or trade school-based training programs in composting (although some components, like principles of sanitary engineering or diesel engine repair, have been around for years).
Training needs vary according to the employees’ responsibilities at a composting facility. Front-line equipment operators generally need more hands-on education (how to monitor moisture content or measure bulk density) along with traditional manufacturing topics like health and safety or equipment preventive maintenance procedures. While these operators may not need to understand the mathematics of adjusting a compost recipe for less-biodegradable lignin content in a carbon source, they do need a fundamental understanding of the “managed decomposition” process at the center of composting operations. Front-line operators are also the best people to ensure a facility remains in compliance with applicable regulations. Training programs go a long way to enhancing regulatory compliance. “We began training in Kansas about 12 years ago,” says Ken Powell, an Environmental Scientist with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. “Those composting facilities who have sent operators to the training have fewer violations when our inspectors come onsite for inspections.”
Complicating the training issue is that many equipment operators have only minimal secondary education and may not have the background in math, science and engineering that are useful in understanding the “why” of compost process monitoring and quality control. “I want my operators to have basic math skills,” says Lonnie Heflin, President of Bay Organics, LLC, a Maryland composter. “But more importantly, I want them to have data interpretation skills, so they can understand, for example, a Solvita™ compost stability test result. I also want them to understand the ‘linear’ nature of our business so they can adapt to disruptions when they occur. In theory, composting is a series of steps, i.e., analyze feedstocks, develop formulas, blend, monitor, aerate, cure, screen, sell. In a vacuum, the process repeats itself, step by step, 1,2,3, etc. In reality, however, the process becomes fluid. Everything can be a variable – moisture content of feedstock and carbon sources, rainfall (or lack thereof), incoming tonnage fluctuations (especially spikes), equipment malfunctions, customer demand, cash flow, regulators, odors – you name it! I want my staff to understand the 1,2,3,4, etc., so that when necessary, they can handle 1,4,3,2 or any other combination of the process steps, if that is what is necessary to get the job done.”
Those involved in sales and marketing of compost, on the other hand, have less need to understand diesel engine repair, but a greater need to understand how compost benefits soils, and thus the horticultural or agricultural plants grown in those soils, in addition to the basic principles of product marketing and sales. This is because compost is still a commodity where the consumer needs to be educated as to why they should buy the product. A compost facility manager needs to know what the equipment operator and salesperson know, in addition to subjects like contracts, business law, accounting/bookkeeping, and human resources management. Fortunately, much of this business-related training is widely available, but is not tailored to the composting industry (how does one write a proposed contract to set tipping fees for feedstocks?).
It has been argued that those peripherally involved in the composting industry (notably state environmental agency regulators) also would benefit from training in the basics of composting. This argument may have merit in that many state agency personnel have no formal education or training in composting, and thus, have difficulty in viewing composting as a manufacturing activity more so than a pure waste management activity, when conducting site inspections or reviewing permit applications. “I attended the training course offered in North Carolina last year,” says Michael Scott, a soil scientist and composting facility regulator with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “The course was very informative and will help me as a state regulator.”
As the industry continues to grow, there is a need for training in specialized topic areas that go beyond the basics of proper C:N ratios and moisture content. The trend toward enclosing composting facilities means understanding issues like the principles of corrosion control in structures, how odor control tools like biofilters should be designed, and how composting buildings should be ventilated to keep indoor air quality at appropriate, and safe, levels.
There currently are 17 state or regional compost operator training programs in the U.S. Some are held every year (the Maine school is offered twice yearly), whereas others are every two years (and one hasn’t been offered for more than two years). Table 1 lists some features of these courses. In addition to these state and regional offerings, both the U.S. Composting Council and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) offer short (i.e., 1-3 day) courses to prepare attendees for the USCC/SWANA Certification Exam.
Several state and local programs taught in previous years are no longer offered, as the academic researchers behind the courses have switched research focus, or personnel and organizations have undergone changes. Another obstacle to teaching courses every year is that the number of potential new students does not always justify the cost of offering the course, particularly for those courses entirely dependent on tuitions.
Programs vary from the one-day courses taught in New Jersey and New Hampshire as requirements for licensed waste management facility operators to the five-day courses taught in the Carolinas, Louisiana, Maine, Washington, and the new Rocky Mountain States class (at Colorado State University). The Washington Organics Recycling Council (WORC) has been teaching its Compost Facility Operator Training since 1995 and over 350 persons have gone through the course. The class is now offered at, and with the partial support of, the Puyallup campus of Washington State University.
Pennsylvania has taken the first step towards offering more advanced courses, as its nonregulatory certification program in composting offers 10 advanced short courses beyond the basic two-day course. Advanced course offerings include “Compost Use for Turf Management” and “Animal Rendering/Composting.” A course on “Aerated Static Pile Composting” is in the planning stages. The Pennsylvania program is taught through the Professional Recyclers of Pennsylvania (PROP).
The longer duration courses combine classroom lectures with hands-on field exercises and tours of composting facilities. “I think field exercises are extremely important,” says Eva Christensen, owner of Earthtenders (Farmington, New Hampshire) and the instructor of the 2007 composting training course offered by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. “Operators should have real-world training in diagnosing compost piles – why it’s wrong and then how to fix it properly. This year’s course includes diagnostic exercises.” Field exercises taught in the Carolinas course include activities such as measuring bulk densities of feedstocks, free air space and/or moisture content, and pile/windrow volumes; building compost piles (and diagnosing incorrectly made piles); monitoring pile temperature; and evaluating maturity with a Solvita™ test kit.
A new training format is being used by WORC. “We have two panels of guest speakers, one for operators and one for compost users,” says Connie Allison, Executive Director of WORC.
Taking course attendees to tour composting facilities offers two advantages – students get a break from the tedium of classroom lectures and newcomers to the industry have a chance to see how others site, design and operate their facilities. It is also an opportunity to combine site tours with field exercises. The Carolinas course shows several different types of operations in terms of feedstocks and technologies, e.g., an aerated bridge tunnel biosolids composting facility, an open-air turned windrow industrial process residuals facility and a multifeedstock solid waste plant.
The various training programs have, not surprisingly, similar content. Many try to offer as wide a perspective as possible over the narrow two to five day window of training time available. While each program has differing topic names and specifics, many offer the basics of the composting process and microbiology, process monitoring and control, facility siting and design, and compost utilization. Some include compost marketing and sales or compost business management, and some offer particular topics relevant to that area. “For example,” says Greg Baker of the New Mexico Environment Department, “the certification course in New Mexico is tailored to our arid environment, where pile moisture control and water harvesting and conservation are critical to composting success.”
The three-day Georgia course (taught by the University of Georgia) offers these subjects: Science of Composting Process, Composting Systems, Feedstock Preparation and Handling, Compost Pile Recipes (Feedstocks and Software, lab data analysis), Recipe Development, Windrow Construction, Microbiology of Composting, Field Laboratory (pH, electrical conductivity, oxygen, basic sampling techniques), Managing the Composting Process, Product Quality, Maturity and Stability, Odor, Facility Siting and Design, Erosion Control, The Economics of Composting, Marketing Strategies, and a Group Project and Evaluation.
None of the training programs surveyed for this article offer refresher courses, although the Advanced Composting course taught in Pennsylvania does cover some of the information taught in the Basic course. WORC also offers one-day advanced training and similar short workshops. Jason Governo of the University of Georgia notes he has seen some attendees repeat their course as a refresher in later years. “We don’t offer refresher courses at the present time,” says Bill Carney of Louisiana State University’s Ag Center. “We just can’t do it all.” Maybe not, but the abilities of these various programs to teach and train composting facility operators has been one of the cornerstones to the successes the industry has seen over the past 15 to 20 years.
Craig Coker is a Principal in the firm of Coker Composting & Consulting in Roanoke, Virginia. He is also the principal instructor of the Annual Compost School taught by the Carolinas Composting Council.

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