• Processing Green Materials - Saturday, April 12, 2008 at
  • BioCycle

    November, 2007--In 1989, California's state law AB939 mandated that municipalities reduce the total amount of waste finding its way to landfills by 50 percent. At the time, and throughout the early years of the diversion mandate, yard trimmings and wood waste - which accounted for well over 20 percent of the municipal solid waste stream - were candidates for helping local jurisdictions meet the diversion mandate. Along the way, and still today, managing these materials and turning them into high value end products has offered a great opportunity for enterprising companies.

    One company that tapped into the opportunity is Agromin/Cal Wood, which works with haulers to receive green waste from curbside programs in 19 cities in the tri-county region (Ventura, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara) in southern California. Agromin/Cal Wood has created a unique business model that not only helps the haulers with contracting cities meet the goals of AB939, but lets them know their waste is reentering the local economy as value added products.

    The company's origins go back over 15 years ago. Bill Camarillo, CEO and co-owner, said he and his partners started California Wood Recycling in 1990 as a by-product of trimming trees for utility companies. The wood chips, they discovered, could be sold to biomass electricity generators in the northern and central parts of the state. In 1993, as cities started to ramp up green waste programs, Cal Wood was asked to receive more and more green waste from city recycling programs. The problem was that the energy companies were purely interested in wood chips but not other green waste, so Cal Wood started looking for alternative markets.

    Camarillo and his partners hit on the idea of shopping around for a company already experienced in the business of formulating and manufacturing soil products and selling them commercially. In 1994, they found and purchased Agromin, which had been creating organic products for landscapers, nurseries, homeowners and farmers since the early 1970s. Working as one company, Agromin /Cal Wood (Agromin) could both receive green materials from yard waste recycling programs in the region and be assured that these materials had a sustainable marketplace.

    A THRIVING ENTERPRISE

    Agromin grosses about $10 million/year in revenues. The largest part, $6 million, comes from tipping fees, paid mostly by cities. The current tip fee is $30/ton to receive green waste. Landfill tipping fees are about $40/ton, so cities save money and fulfill the requirement of AB939 at the same time. About $1 million in revenues come from sales to the biomass energy industry; $3 million come from sales to the agriculture, landscaping and home use markets.

    Agromin employs 55 people at five facilities. Four of the facilities - in Oxnard, Simi Valley, Santa Paula and Santa Clarita - are permitted as processors. They preprocess the recycled material received mainly from green waste programs, but also from tree trimmers, farmers, commercial projects and homeowners. "We receive 220,000 tons of green waste annually," says Camarillo. "That's the equivalent of 11,000 semitruck loads. But it doesn't all arrive that way. There are packer trucks and pickup trucks as well." Homeowners cleaning up their yards may deliver waste directly.

    Preprocessing involves removing trash, chipping and grinding the materials, and screening it to specs for a variety of applications. Product destined for biomass plants is hauled directly to those facilities from Agromin's preprocessing facilities. Other materials are transported to Agromin's Camarillo, California facility for soil manufacturing and mulch production. Finished materials are used in over 250 soil products, all containing lesser or larger amounts of recycled organic material. "We're a custom soil products manufacturer," says Camarillo.

    VERSATILITY OF PRODUCT LINE, DIVERSITY OF MARKETS

    One of the company's keys to success, notes Camarillo, is "versatility of product line" to deal with fluctuations in markets throughout the year. He refers again to the 220,000 tons of material received annually: "When you look at it, that's four million barrels of green waste from curbside collection. We can't have that material just sitting in our yard."

    The solution for Agromin has been two pronged - create a wide variety of products and at the same time identify and cultivate a diversity of markets for those products. Farmers and growers represent the largest market for compost and mulches made from urban green waste, accounting for about 40 percent of Agromin's product sales. Its aged and screened mulches are used by vegetable, strawberry and avocado growers in the central coastal region. The products meet growers' needs for weed suppression and soil erosion control, as well as enable reductions in water, herbicide and pesticide use.

    Biomass energy conversion accounts for another 30 percent of sales. The final 25 to 30 percent are direct sales to nursery owners, horticulture, professional landscapers as well as homeowners and "do-it-yourselfers." Agromin claims a database of 3,000 customers in direct sales made through its on-line store (www.Agromin.com) and by a team of sales representatives.

    Commercial products fall into three main lines: soil amendments, soil blends, and barks and mulches. "Agromend," for example, is described as “a soil amendment specially designed to keep heavy clay soils loose and workable," while "Garden Humus" is "for sandy soils to add natural organic humus while rebuilding the soil." Its "Lawn Dressing" mix is targeted at lawns, and "Vegetable Garden Mix" is specifically designed for vegetable gardens. Likewise, Agromin produces soil blends for a variety of uses, from pots, containers and raised beds to balcony and rooftop planters, and for landscaping and backfilling. The company also markets barks and mulches made from a variety of materials, coming in various consistencies for different end uses.

    The key to market success, says Camarillo, is "understanding the needs of the plant the consumer is trying to grow. To use an animal analogy, you don't feed a dog the same way you feed a horse." A delicate mix for roses might contain 20 percent peat and 15 percent compost, he says. A palm tree mix might use 35 percent compost, whereas a mix for hardy carrots might include 85 percent. Where a product doesn't exist for a certain grower or landscaper's needs, one is created. Adds Camarillo, "If someone calls and says, 'I have sandy soil. How can I grow some tulips?', we'd create a product." All of Agromin's products are offered bagged or in bulk.

    BROADENING AWARENESS AND ACTIVITIES

    Agromin has taken part in another unique approach to handling vast quantities of green waste. In 2004, Agromin and Limoneira of Santa Paula, - Ventura County's oldest and largest grower of lemons, Valencia oranges, avocados and row crops on 4,000 acres - created a composting facility on five acres of Limoneira land. The facility receives 200 tons of waste a day and converts it to 120 tons of finished material that is added to the soil. One obvious advantage of this method is that once the waste is delivered and composted, it does not need to be transported again and can be applied to crops directly.

    On the consumer level, Agromin recently created a new line of garden kits to promote its products and educate consumers. Salsa and Pesto Kits - and a forthcoming Peppers Kit - sell on the company's website for $39.95. These kits include seeds, soil, pots and printed instructions - everything needed to grow all the ingredients for salsa or pesto. Another kit, "Carrots for Kids," encourages children to start growing their own food and teaches them about organic gardening.

    Agromin views the rapidly growing market for organic produce as a major opportunity. Camarillo notes that all of Agromin's products meet certification standards as organic. The company has found, through testing, that residual pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers from yard waste collection programs are not an issue given the vast quantities of compost produced and the tendency for those products to be diluted by the process.

    The company's products have been used in high profile projects, like landscaping at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and in the rose gardens at Oprah Winfrey's Montecito mansion. Environmental applications include use in Integrated Pest Management, for land application in the remediation of depleted soil, and in some experimental projects to reclaim wetland areas. Concludes Camarillo: "I've read a lot of articles about composting. Most companies have one market, or one or two types of farmers they sell to. We service all the different markets." In this way, Agromin is achieving the goal of sustainability, both for itself as a viable company and for green waste recycling as a whole.

    Josh Wachtel is a free-lance writer for BioCycle (www.biocycle.net) and In Business, the magazine for Sustainable Enterprises and Communities (www.inbusiness.org).

    Copyright 2007, The JG Press
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