Compost Field Trip

Homegrown Neighbor Here:

I recently had the opportunity to tour an industrial scale composting operation. I am a huge compost geek so I was pretty excited. I’ve seen a lot of piles in my day, but nothing like this. This facility, Community Recycling (a division of Crown Disposal), processes food scraps and organic wastes from most of the major grocery store chains in Southern California. They also collect food scraps from restaurants and other food vendors in the region as well as operate a recycling facility for metals, plastics, wood, paper, yard trimmings and anything else they can find a market for or a way to keep out of the landfill. I must say it was pretty impressive. But the most exciting part of course was the compost.

There were literally mountains of compost called windrows in rows perhaps twenty feet high by several hundred feet long. It’s a large scale operation with not just one windrow but dozens of them. And this is all stuff that otherwise would end up in landfills. Of course we should be composting all of our organic wastes close to home, but the sad truth is that a lot of this lovely organic material gets thrown away instead of returned to the earth. So I am glad that enterprises such as this exist.
When vegetables are going to go bad at the grocery store, they get tossed in a bin bound for these vast fields of degrading organic matter. The interesting part is that they get tossed in, plastic and all. There are bagged carrots, bagged salad mixes, plastic wrapped heads of cauliflower, all together. The compost windrows are just littered with plastic as you can see. Nothing like my backyard compost, where I would never allow any plastic or so much as a stray rubber band. On a commercial scale, they find it easier to sort the plastic out at the end of the composting process. Just how they do that, they won’t say–apparently it’s proprietary. But we got to drive around the hundreds of acres of compost and see the process for ourselves, start to finish. [Mr. Homegrown here: plastic combined with organics is one of the big problems in the world of municipal waste.]
The food waste is blended with wood chips or wood ‘fines’ as needed. Huge windrow machines straddle and churn the piles. They look like something out of Star Wars. Several months later the finished compost is sold to farmers. Community Recycling is a totally vertically integrated operation so of course they farm a little too–organic almonds, some row crops and some forage crops. That way, if they have too much compost on their hands at one time, they can always put it on their own land. The soil looked pretty good to me. I got to traipse around and get my hands in the earth. They also raise wild turkeys and other native birds to be released into the wild. It is part of a habitat and wildlife restoration project they are involved in.
This was better than any amusement park I’ve ever been too. I mean, they have compost, weird looking wild animals- yes, turkeys are very weird looking, organic almonds, a recycling facility and did I mention the mountains of compost? I’m pictured below, the happy queen of the compost heap.

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  1. I am still trying to get my compost to look like that. There was a story on the news recently about the city of San Francisco and the efforts they’ve been making to compost as much as possible, and I mean from everybody- not just restaurants and the like. I wish I could remember the numbers but I was pretty impressed with the percentage of their landfill that they’re composting. Here’s a link to info about it:

    Yeah for composting!

  2. Over the summer I got to see one of those windrow machines in action where it was invented – at the Rodale Institute. (It’s even possible that the modern concept of compost was invented there as well. I’d have to check though.) The windrow machine was mighty impressive. That’s a machine for some serious compost production. We got to see working demonstrations of some other cool machinery designed in house as well. Most of the folks on this tour were farmers, and I can tell you that farmers admire cool gear as much as the next person.

  3. As a backyard composter, I was looking for something to take my refuse and grind and shred it into small pcs. Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any small compost shredder. I use a lawn mover for grass and leaves, and for vegetable stalks, fruit rinds, and small branches I find machetes work great.

  4. JJ:

    A tool I have found useful is the trunk of an old Christmas tree, with all branches clipped off. I use it to pound things against my patio and break them up; it has been a good way of working broken terra cotta pots into the soil, for example, but it also makes fairly short work of partly-rotten wood.

    If I needed sifted compost, I’d put the compostables that didn’t pass the mesh through such a treatment before composting them again.

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