BioCycle November 2009, Vol. 50, No. 11, p. 29
Selling compost from MSW and biosolids can be profitable when the facility uses a proven technology, focuses on quality end product and implements a successful marketing strategy.
Brian C. Fleury
Marketing of compost has come a long way over the past 15 to 20 years. Today the word “compost” is almost an everyday household term and the use of compost is now a preferred way to garden. With the ever-increasing product awareness of the benefits of compost, it has become easier for compost manufacturers and marketers to sell their products. At least this is the case for those companies that are marketing the more commonly accepted kinds of composts, derived from by-products such as yard trimmings, agricultural manures and food waste.
Then there are two types of composts derived from less popular by-products: biosolids and municipal solid waste (MSW). It may not be the most glamorous product, but biosolids compost has grown in popularity in the United States over the past 20 years as more end users become educated about the advances in the wastewater industry, reduction of heavy metals to background soil conditions and its overall product use benefits. Understanding the rigorous testing that takes place with biosolids composting has also helped with its acceptance. In addition, the benefits of utilizing biosolids compost have been well documented, with engineers and landscape architects increasingly specifying the use of it for high-end turf establishment projects.
MSW compost has had the toughest path to widespread industry and consumer acceptance. There are multiple reasons, but it comes down to the unknowns in MSW and contaminants in the end product, especially glass. In order to achieve a marketable MSW compost product, an advanced composting technology and a well developed marketing plan are needed.
DELAWARE COUNTY, NEW YORK
The Delaware County, New York composting facility is a prime example of successful implementation. Located in the rural area of Walton, the facility is within the watershed of New York City’s drinking water supply. For this reason, Delaware County officials needed a long-term plan for the management of its MSW and biosolids. After a long review process of proposals and technologies, officials eventually decided on a MSW/biosolids cocomposting facility designed by GHD (formerly Stearns & Wheler), in a joint ventured partnership with Conporec.
The cocomposting facility uses the Conporec bioreactor drum for initial MSW composting and the Siemens/IPS agitated bay composting technology for the blended MSW and biosolids. The MSW is introduced into the bioreactor drum and is composted for three days. The material is then screened before being blended with biosolids and introduced into the Siemens/IPS system. This initial screening allows for a majority of the inert materials (some of which are potentially toxic, like batteries) to be discarded early in the composting process.
Combining these two proven composting technologies, along with various innovative screening mechanisms throughout the process, a marketable finished compost is produced from MSW and biosolids. It is “marketable” from a regulatory standard because it meets all U.S. EPA and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) requirements as a Class-A compost. This means that all required contaminants are at or below the acceptable levels, and that it has met the proper time and temperature to eliminate pathogens and vectors.
It is also marketable because it contains a very small fraction of glass and plastics. This is just as important for the marketability of the end product as regulatory issues. Any glass or plastics that are present in the end product must be extremely small and not considered a “sharp.”
To market the compost, Delaware County formed an agreement with WeCare Organics, LLC of Jordan, New York. WeCare is a residuals management company that specializes in composting and marketing of compost products. Combined, through its own composting operations and as a broker for public entities and private companies, WeCare has developed into the largest compost product marketing firm in the Northeast.
At first, WeCare’s management team was skeptical about marketing the material from Delaware County, knowing the history behind MSW composting and some of the failed facilities. The majority of those facilities failed because of poor quality end product, which is a direct result of inadequate technology and/or focusing too much on the tipping fees instead of on the finished product. When developing any composting facility, the focal point needs to be on the finished product. After WeCare first toured the Delaware County facility, it was clear that the County had built a state-of-the-art composting facility and most importantly, was committed to creating quality end product.
Once WeCare entered into a marketing agreement with Delaware County, its first and most important task was to develop a marketing plan, and establish a brand name. Whenever WeCare markets compost they do so under the name, WeCare Compost™, which has become a recognizable brand name in the marketplace over the past 10 years. WeCare’s staff has focused on getting the brand name recognized through advertising, participation in trade associations and trade shows, publications, banners, etc. It’s much easier to sell a product when customers know and trust it. By giving Delaware County’s compost the WeCare brand name, it provides it with a level of instant credibility that would take years for the County to establish on its own.
Beyond branding, it’s important to know your clientele. MSW compost is going to have glass in it. That is a fact, at least for now. For this reason the material can’t be marketed for every application. The kinds of applications WeCare have found best suited for MSW compost are commercial-grade topsoil (DOT, etc.), new construction (athletic fields, golf courses, etc.) and lightweight rooftop growing media.
Two end markets that WeCare has decided to avoid when marketing MSW compost are topdressing and home garden centers. The glass pieces in the Delaware County compost are very small and wouldn’t be able to cut anyone, but they are still noticeable, especially when the sun hits at the perfect angle. Once the material is incorporated into soils, the glass pieces are no longer visible, but if the compost is used for topdressing there is a chance that they may be seen before the compost is worked into the soil media. Understanding that these end uses might be troublesome, it’s easier and more cost-effective to focus on the markets where the material will be more widely accepted.
VALUE OF THE PRODUCT
When marketing a new product, even if it is being marketed under a recognized brand name, it will take time to establish a solid value for it. For MSW compost, the most important goal at the beginning is to get the product in front of as many customers as possible, even if it is at a small profit margin. As the product becomes more accepted (and hopefully demanded) by a large number of customers, then the value of the product can gradually increase.
When marketing in the Northeast, it’s also important to note that there will be times of the year when there is little to no demand for compost. Plans need to be made accordingly, either through proper amounts of storage, or deals (smaller profit margins) to sell the product to end users that have adequate storage capabilities.
Identifying certification programs will help boost product value. In order to give the product as much credibility as possible, WeCare submitted all of its compost products to the U.S. Composting Council’s Seal of Testing Assurance (USCC STA) Program. The USCC STA Program employs standardized practices in compost testing and information disclosure. As end users become more educated about compost and its uses, they increasingly request testing information. The STA Program allows customers to compare “apples to apples” for a sense of assurance that the material is what they want.
When marketing large volumes of compost many small customers, a few large ones or a combination of the two are needed. The large volume customers are typically landscape contractors. For a majority of projects, in order to sell to the landscape contractors the compost should be approved by the landscape architects and/or engineers. Landscape architects develop soil specifications for their projects. If the landscape architect specifies minimum organic matter percentages in the soils, they will generally specify compost as a soil amendment.
WeCare, and many of the larger compost marketing firms, work with landscape architects and engineers in order to get a particular compost(s) specified for their projects. This is achieved by specifying certain criteria that the compost must meet in order to be used, typically a minimum organic matter percentage, min/max pH, min/max percent solids and maximum soluble salt content. The more detailed the specification, the more likely the landscape architect has a certain compost product in mind.
WeCare’s sales and technical staff have educated landscape architects about the benefits of using the MSW/biosolids cocompost from Delaware County. By getting the material into a few projects and having the landscape architects see the beautiful finished turf, WeCare has been able to get compost from Delaware County specified into many projects throughout New York State over the past two plus years, and have many more projects lined up for 2010.
WeCare has also been steadily growing a base of smaller customers with landscapers and landscape suppliers. As more customers use the product, they see the benefits and keep coming back. WeCare sold out of compost from Delaware County this August for the first time, which is now expected to be an annual trend. This is an exciting achievement for everyone in the MSW-based composting industry, or for those that are interested in entering it, because it’s proof that with the right design/technology, a dedicated operator that focuses on the back-end (finished compost) and the right marketing plan/company, MSW and biosolids compost can be sold and actually turn a profit.
Brian C. Fleury, Senior Project Manager for WeCare Organics, LLC, markets compost and specialty soils from all of WeCare’s facilities. For more info, visit www.wecareorganics.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
November 19, 2009 | General
Marketing Mixed Waste Compost
BioCycle November 2009, Vol. 50, No. 11, p. 29