How to Do Commercial Composting

To succeed at commercial composting, you will need first to understand how composting works.

Planning

Rhonda Sherman of North Carolina State University notes in "Large-Scale Organic Materials Composting" that the keys to success also include knowledge of how to construct a composting facility, which raw materials work best, how to manage odor and how to produce and market high-quality products.

Learn the ideal ratios of carbon to nitrogen of the raw materials you'll be using. You'll need about 25 times more carbon (found in wood, paper products, leaves and fruit wastes) than nitrogen (found in horse, swine and cattle manure, grass clippings, food scraps and vegetable wastes). Understand the role of oxygen, moisture and pH to speed composting.

Plan your compost facility. The simplest entails passive piles of compost materials, which may take a year to decompose. Many compost facilities create windrows: long narrow piles typically 3 to 12 feet high, 10 to 12 feet wide and hundreds of feet long. Use a front-end loader to form windrows and regularly turn the contents for faster decomposition. Other facilities place the compost within vessels such as containers or buildings, along with forced aeration and mechanical turning to speed the composting.

Estimate costs for major expenses of your facility. For a static pile, purchase a front-end loader and a screen to sift the compost. To aerate a static pile, buy a perforated pipe and blower. For a window operation, obtain bids for a front-end loader, chipper, tub grinder, screen, windrow turner and a dump truck. In-vessel composting requires less labor and land area and provides better odor control, as well as consistently good compost. However, in-vessel composting may cost from $40 to $150 per wet ton of waste to process.

Estimate costs for smaller capital investments, such as an air compressor, pressure washer and a used oil collection and handling system.

Set up a maintenance schedule for your vehicles and equipment.

Operations

Select a site based on the anticipated volume of raw materials, the technology planned, the equipment and projections for growth. Look for road accessibility and a lack of houses within a half mile to avoid subjecting residents to odors. Check the land's drainage (slightly sloped is best) and convenient utilities.

Develop your site by grading it, adding minimal paving under the compost and building berms around the perimeter. Set up areas for raw materials storage, processing, composting, curing and storage of the end product. Set up your equipment. Construct retaining walls for your storage piles. Screen the site using fencing or trees.

Obtain permits for zoning, building and land use from your local jurisdiction. Obtain from your state permits for water discharge, composting and transportation. If you plan to compost sludge, obtain a federal permit as well.

Collect feedstocks for your compost. Consult guides such as the "On-Farm Composting Handbook" (see Resources) for formulas to create your composting recipe.

Create your windrows, passive piles or in-vessel compost.

Testing and Marketing

Test your compost for odor, color, pH, moisture content, salts and other characteristics related to its effectiveness and potential appeal to customers.

Monitor and limit odor by tweaking your feedstock recipe and maintaining the piles' moisture level.

Market your compost, preparing in the winter for sales in the spring and summer. Weigh whether to sell compost bagged, bulk or both ways. Approach growers, landscapers, government agencies, garden centers, farmers, golf course operators, cemeteries and homebuilders as potential customers.

About the Author

An award-winning writer and editor, Rogue Parrish has worked at the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun and at newspapers from England to Alaska. This world adventurer and travel book author, who graduates summa cum laude in journalism from the University of Maryland, specializes in travel and food -- as well as sports and fitness. She's also a property manager and writes on DIY projects.