by Irwin Rapoport
February 05, 2008--Each year, hundreds of tons of green waste from households, businesses, institutions and farms are deposited into landfills.
For more than 10 years, Camarillo, California-based Agromin has been converting green waste (lawn clippings, leaves and wood, including dimensional lumber) into compost, soil and mulch.
"We processed over 250,000 tons in 2007 and this year we surpassed over three million tons in total," says Dave Green, Agromin's director of sales and marketing.
Green waste, when dumped in a landfill, eventually breaks down into water and various materials and is lost for re-use.
"By recycling green waste, not only are we extending the life of landfills, but you are reducing the amount of green house gases that are emitted from landfills," says Green.
The second largest green waste recycler in California and eighth in the nation, Agromin operates in 19 cities in southern and central California--from San Diego County to Monterey County.
Local trash haulers bring green waste directly to Agromin's five recycling sites for processing--paying a lower tip fee than if the waste were deposited at a land fill. The material is cleaned, chopped and laid out in huge composting rows.
"It's turned and watered continually for about 45 days," says Green.
Wood from construction sites is also chopped and mulched. When the material is removed from the composting beds, it is screened once more to create various particle sizes and then sold to landscapers, farmers, government entities and to consumers in bulk or in bags.
Agromin produces custom soil blends, compost and soil amendments (60 percent of its production), with the remainder being mulches. The firm also produces wood chips for power plants that generate "green" electricity.
"Instead of ending up in a landfill, the green waste is recycled into nutrient-rich soil, thus closing the recycling loop," says Green. "Our soil is certified by the U.S. Composting Council (USCC)."
Green notes that many municipalities and counties use Agromin's compost and mulches. "Without these and other outlets, we would just become a storage facility--basically a landfill," he says. "Without municipalities re-using or buying back material that their residents recycle, it would be much harder to close the recycling loop.
"A municipality can become self-sufficient in mulch and compost," he adds. "Some have neighborhood clean up programs and Earth Day and Arbor Day events where our compost is available. Others offer our bag products through various retailers in their communities. We also donate product to schools for school gardens. A big part of our school program is to educate students on green waste recycling and saving our landfills."
Green says that students are great ambassadors for recycling. "They are our best green waste and recycling police because they really look at what goes into recycling containers and make sure that the waste is sorted properly," he says. "The material has to be clean because northing works with contaminated waste."
Agromin is also conducting experiments with food scraps to generate products. It composts food from packing warehouses including excess produce, cores and trimmings. "Our testing facility is composting pre-consumer food waste and we are having good results," says Green.
Agromin soil is used by agricultural companies to replenish their fields. It has partnered with Newhall Land and Farm in Los Angeles County and Limoneira Company in Ventura County.
"These ag companies have seen tremendous gains, not only in erosion control, but in water conservation," says Green. "They are finding that they use 30 percent less water for citrus crops by using mulches and composts from recycled green materials."
Soil depletion, particularly the loss of valuable topsoil, takes years to regenerate naturally.
"We can do what mother nature does in only 45 to 60 days," says Green, who believes the United States Department of Agriculture could do more to spur the development of compost and soil production companies to reduce the effects of erosion on farms. "There are not a lot of incentives for the agricultural community to do anything more than the existing fertilization programs."
Agromin is also selling products to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley--California's key agricultural production center. The area is greatly affected by losses to soil erosion via irrigation, wind and rain.
"Anytime we can cover fields in mulch or composted soil, it slows down the natural process of erosion," says Green. "Along with the use of pesticides and herbicides, erosion continues to be an area of concern.
"The problem right now is that everyone is trying to educate the agricultural community," he adds, "but it really comes down to cost--what can a farmer earn for a crop? It's economics and sometimes it's not as economic in the short run to use compost and mulch where fertilizers get a quicker result."
Green is finding that landscape architects are looking to "go green" when using compost and soil products for their residential, commercial or institutional projects.
"In California alone there is about three to four million tons of green waste produced annually," he says. “Having state and municipal legislation that requires green materials be recycled is essential for green recycling success. California's AB 939 mandates a 50 percent diversion rate from landfills. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering increasing the diversion rate from landfills to as high as 75 percent. If that comes to pass, California will have to get everything out of the landfill that can be recycled."
Another way to ensure green waste collection and processing success, says Green, is for cities and counties to mandate that private solid waste contractors partner with green recyclers.
"Agromin partners with private waste haulers that collect the green material and drop it off at our facilities," he says. "Since the haulers pay a lower 'tip fee' than at the landfill by recycling the green waste, they come out ahead."
Recreating the California model in other parts of the United States is doable as long as viable soil amendments or compost could be created from the available green materials, notes Green "The composting process has to be adjusted so the soil has the right nutrient values and be safe from pathogens," he says. "Northern climate zones might be limited to seasonal operations because of weather. We can operate 24/7 year-round in California."
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