Toxic Dump Transformation: A Story from India


This episode corresponds to Lesson 1 of our online course.

In this tenth episode, Master Composter Peter Ash tells us how he helped transform a hospital dump in Kerala, India, from a toxic wasteland into a lush environment – with a dramatic drop in heavy metal quantities in the soil – by using recycling and vermicomposting techniques.

Thank you to the BioCycle for making this episode possible.

BioCycle, the Organics Recycling Authority, is the leading magazine and website on composting, food waste management, anaerobic digestion and renewable energy from organics recycling. Subscribe to BioCycle and get access to every article published over the last 10 years, and sign up for @BioCycle, our free biweekly e-bulletin. For more, visit www.biocycle.net.



EM: Just to set the scene a bit, Peter, can you tell us a bit about the AIMS hospital and where it’s situated?

PA: The hospital, AIMS: Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre, they call it AIMS for short. And that, it was really a trip, because this had been a twelve-bed hospital about twenty years ago. And it turned, it grew up, like: everything that…where Amma goes, wherever she has a school or any kind of centre, it just goes from zero to a hundred miles an hour in no time.

So this hospital went from a twelve bed hospital to now a fifteen hundred bed, state of the art hospital and research centre, Med school, dental college, nursing college, school of pharmacology, you know, the whole thing. And with Amma, if you can pay, you pay. And if you can’t, you come and you get served, and you bring your family, and the family stays in the guest house while the patient’s being, you know, treated in the hospital, and everybody eats for super-cheap, and you stay until, you know, everything’s fine, and then you go home.

And so, there’s probably seven to ten thousand students that serve over, probably, twelve hundred patients every day. There’s thousands of employees. And it’s all coastal, tropical wetlands environment. And the hospital, it’s about 7 kilometers inland from the Arabian Sea. The city of Kochi, it’s a huge metropolitan area, you know, India is so densely populated. So there’s Edappally and Ernakulam, all these communities that just all run together – it’s just huge and it’s all interconnected with these waterways.

EM: Okay right, so it’s a densely populated area, and a massive hospital.

PA: Mh-hm.

EM:  And often hospitals use incinerators to burn the medical waste – but you were telling me that this one didn’t have an incinerator the first few years, and they were just dumping the medical waste onto the island itself. So, what did the dumping ground look like when you got there – and what did you do?

PA:  Basically, when I got to AIMS, the first thing I did was a big waste audit and a site assessment. And they took me around and showed me different properties, and the property I picked was right across this backwater channel connected to the Arabian Sea, to this big island that’s just, not even a meter above sea level. You know, it’s mushy in places. But, where they had been boating the waste, and the food waste – they were just dumping it in the backwaters – but all the other waste, if they couldn’t just easily recycle it, they were taking it over to the island and they were dumping it in pools of water or burning –

EM: And this was from the hospital?

PA: Yes. And for years before they got the incinerator, they had just been taking the hospital waste over to the island and burning it – right on the surface of the island. They took, like, metal rods, stuck them in the ground and made, kind of a rack so they could get some air in it, and they just put the bags…. I’ve got pictures of when I first arrived on the island where they had red hospital waste, you know, medical waste on this rack where they were burning. And the island, right there where they were dumping and burning was so dead that there was no insects, there was no birds, you know, it was just completely dead. And I said, “okay, this is the spot. This is where we’re going to do it. We’re going to have to build a big roof, so we can compost during monsoon season…”.

So, they said, “Well, what do you need?”

“Yeah, well I need this roof…”

“How big?”

“Well, like, by this, by that”


So, they laid it out and they started digging holes to pour concrete to hold up the pillars to hold this roof up. And then all the dumping and stuff that I’d seen, I said “Well” you know, “no more dumping, no more burning. We’re going to sort through this, we’re going to do better recycling. If it’s recyclable and it’s already over here now, we’re going to wash it and send it back to be recycled. If it can’t be recycling, then we’ll bag it up and we’ll send it to the proper incinerator, but no more dumping, no more burning”.

But when they started digging these holes for the footings, they’re like a meter wide, and they’d dig down so they can pour concrete and get…because it’s like the roof…like almost…our initial roof was almost the size of, like, a football field, because we had to build these big windrows of compost. Here we’re talking each day we were going to be composting six to eight metric tons of material a day. So, we’re building these long windrows, you know. We build a pile and then we’d add onto it the next day and add onto it the next day, until we run out of space. So when they start digging these holes, all this stuff starts coming out of the black mud. Syringes, blood vials – with blood still in them – catheters, IV bags, medicine packets…I mean, it was just, it was nasty. It was terrible. And I’m going, “Oh my God”. And they had told me the reason that Amma wanted me to come back was to start composting because they were under a lot of pressure from the State Pollution Control Board. And when I saw what was coming out of the mud, then I understood that, okay, this is not about composting the food waste, this is about the hospital’s impact on the environment.

EM: Hmm, I see…

PA: And Kerala has laws, I mean, they’ve got an environmental policy, they’ve got laws – state laws, federal laws. It’s just that, enforcing laws – they don’t, like, fine you. What they do is, they tell you “Okay, you can’t build anymore”. And with Amma, everything is growing, you know: more students, more patients, more technology, you know. So everything’s got to keep…they’ve got to keep building. And so, we couldn’t hold still. So we had to show them we were getting better.

And we actually, we cleaned up everything we could off the surface, and if it was recyclable, we washed it and bagged it up and sent it back to be recycled. If it couldn’t be recycled, we sent it back to go into the incinerator. What was buried in the mud we couldn’t do anything about because they hole fills up with water, you know. And this was really black, nasty, dangerous toxic mud, you know, with needles and…so we had to be careful.

So what we did was: once we cleaned the surface up, then we just, we took, like, palm fronds and, you know, things that were growing along the water edge. And we laid them out over the surface of the spongy soil, just so we wouldn’t sink into the mud, and we built our compost windrow on top of that, and then we build another one next to it. In two or three days we’d have a whole row of compost.  And in the island there was a little channel, where they had been boating with the waste and they’d been dumping on either side. And so, on either side of this little channel, we had a plot where we were making compost. And as soon as we’d turned and spread out the compost on one spot, we’d go right back in there and start composting again. And then we’d be turning and spreading on the other side, and we just kept going back and forth, and we did that for six months waiting for the roof to be finished and the floor to be compacted so that we could get a piece of equipment to turn our windrows by equipment.

EM: Okay.

PA: So, in the six months we’d built about eighteen inches of finished compost on top of the black toxic mud.

EM: Mh-hm…

PA: And before we got too far along, I went and I took a soil sample of the mud – about the upper four to eight inches of mud in this one area. And I had it tested for heavy metals. And I asked them to test for every metal you can test for, and there was only one metal that was not found: antimony. But mercury, lead, selenium, you know, arsenic, it was all in there. And it was way over limits. And we knew that was what it was going to be.

I also took a sample of the river sediment because we’re not the only polluters, you know: all that huge metropolitan area – there’s chemicals, and open sewer lines, and you name it, and the rains are running off, you know. But we did find that, there where I sampled where the dumping and burning had been going on, it was more toxic there than in the river, especially for certain metals.

EM: Mh-hm, okay…

PA: And, but anyway, so then, after six months of composting out in the open, we saw that now there’s all kinds of insects and stuff, you know, in the compost and birds are coming, you know, so it’s, like, coming alive – and then there’s seeds sprouting out of the compost. So we just come out and looked at each other and we go, “Hey, that’s pretty cool. Let’s bring in some clean soil now and mix it, and we’ll start planting stuff, you know, and we’ll restore the habitat here.

EM: That’s incredible. And what else were you doing? You were vermicomposting as well, right?

PA: Yeah. And I’d done some research, you know, like, how people were composting with worms in India, and so we build our own, kind of, open tank system: it’s just basically you build walls about waist-high on a cement floor, you put a roof over it, you put netting between the wall that’s about a meter high or less, up to the rood so it’s shaded and so birds can’t get in. And you have a little drainage on the floor so if there’s any liquid leaching out of the vermicompost pile, then you can capture that because it’s got nutrients in it. And so we started a lot of vermicomposting.

And then when we started planting plants, we used a lot of the fresh vermicompost to plant the plants with. So we knew we were inoculating the soil with earthworms, you know: there’s going to be some babies, there’s going to be some hatching eggs. And I knew that, from research that I’d done, that worms actually extract heavy metals out of the food that they’re eating. So getting earthworms into this new ecosystem that we’re building is going to be a good thing.

EM: Yeah, and we’ll talk a bit about what happened with the soil in a minute. Just before that though, can you give me a little bit more information on the logistics of the whole thing, and equipment you were using? How did you…?

PA: You know, everything gets boated over to the island – everything. You know, all the construction materials, all the cement blocks, the sand, the roofing materials, and then, you know, all of our plants for gardening and you know. And then all the food waste and the woodchips and…and then, we found this manufacturer in India that made this agricultural shredder, and then we bought this shredding machine to shred palm fronds and…. But we needed to shred a lot of wet materials too, like fresh coconut and green coconut palm fronds, and that wet stuff tends to clog up a lot of material. And so we found that this shredder machine – we bought a little one and we tested it, and then we had our own mechanics and fabricators and engineers look at it, and we told them what we needed and so we made some modifications to it. And then we took it back to the manufacturer and we said, “Look: we want to buy the big model, in fact we want to buy a couple of them, but we need these modifications build into it, because we’ve got to run a lot of wet stuff through it, and the way it’s designed right now, it clogs up. So we worked with the manufacturer and they built us, you know, the one that we needed.

But then we also needed some compost turning equipment, but nobody in India really makes composting equipment, you know: commercial scale composting equipment – there’s no compost turners, there’s no big filtering machines for compost. So, you know, I found a YouTube video of a farmer in Northern California that built his own compost windrow turner by taking the rear axle out of a heavy truck and just done a bunch of modifications: he welded this big tube onto the wheel hub, and he connected the differential onto the tractor on the power take off, you know, the tractor, to drive this differential.

Then he had this big tube with these paddles welded on it, so that you could lower it down next to the compost pile and you could drive the tractor beside the pile, and this tube with these paddles on it is now going to turn – and the thing is, this tractor is going forward, but this tube, this big metal pipe with these paddles on it, has got to turn the opposite direction; it’s got to be going, like, in reverse, as opposed…you know, so it can lift up the pile with, you know, these paddles welded to it: lift it up and throw it up into the air to get it aerated. And at the same time, we spiraled them around the tubes, so that it would actually throw the edges of the pile towards the middle, and the middle of the pile to the outside. Because that’s what we want: we want the middle of the pile on the outside, and we want the outside of the pile moved to the inside. So, we bought a tractor, and we built the compost windrow turner to put on it.

EM: That’s brilliant. And going back to the soil now – what was it like after all the work you were doing?

PA:  Yeah, so I’ll tell you what, here’s what happened was: last April, I went to the very same site that I took the original sample. And I dug down below the compost and the imported soil, down into the same black mud that I took the original sample from. And so I went and I did the same thing, in the same area, in the same soil layer, and I took that sample in. And it turned out that, like, in the upper eight to ten inches of that same original layer, we reduced three of the metals to non-detectible levels. Two others, we reduced them so that they’re still detectable, but they’re within safe limits for food consumption. There’s still three metals that we’ve reduced by at least fifty percent, but are still too high for human consumption.

EM: That’s still incredible, though, isn’t it?

PA: It is, especially when you consider that so much of the food in India is grown with overdoses of toxic chemical pesticides and fertilisers and stuff, that if that food was tested compared to the plants that are being grown on the island, they probably wouldn’t be much different.

EM: Okay, interesting…

PA: And we did, in just over three years, what we did on that island – reducing the metals the way we did – that’s unheard of! It’s unheard of. You know, and, so we’ve written some papers and I’ve presented this to different conferences…I presented this last fall to the Global Humanitarian Technology Conference in San José, California. We had another presentation at a conference held in India, also late last summer.

EM: Okay cool, so you’ve been busy trying to get the word out about this. And how do you explain to people what happened with the soil – do you know how exactly the results came about?

PA: Yeah, so what we’re finding is, like, there are a lot of different things that are happening, and we don’t know all the answers, you know, that how this could happen so quickly. We know that the earthworms are playing a part; we know that some of the plants are accumulators, or hyper-accumulators or metals. So we can plant certain plants that will pull metals out of the soil. And then, what do you do with the plant, you know? Can you compost it? Can you keylate it? Can you change the form of the metal? And then the earthworms, you know, pulling metals out: what happens when the earthworm fills up with all these metals and then it dies? Well, another earthworm eats it, so it keeps it tied up.

And then there’s some keylation that takes place, and it’s some kind of an ion exchange, especially with carbon molecules, apparently, and where there’s active fungi in the soil. You know, and one of the things we did too was we took a biological testing of the soil. Normally, farmers and gardeners to a chemical soil test, you know, they look for NPK, pH and EC – they look at the nitrogen, the potassium, the phosphorous, you know, that kind of thing. And then they want to know, like, how the chlorides – how salty is the soil. So that kind of a typical chemical test – but that’s just really supporting the chemical companies, because then they want to sell you more nitrogen, or more phosphorous, or something to condition the soil with. But if you just make compost, and you get the organic material, and you get all the microorganisms in the soil, then everything takes care of itself. The soil pH neutralises, and then these metals start to get tied up. They get keylated – they pick up or they lose an ion, and now it’s still lead or mercury, or whatever, but it’s no longer in a toxic form that enters into the food chain.

EM: Yeah, exactly. And it’s amazing to see it actually happening!

PA: Absolutely.

EM: And before we go now – because we don’t have much time – is there anything else you’d like to add, or some advice you’d like to give to people listening in?

PA: Well, you know: whether it’s composting or habitat restoration, or reforestation, or just permaculture design, or even just backyard gardening, you know, the key that I see is that: we just need to look at natural ecosystems – how is nature doing this? You know? What we need to do is mimic nature. Assist nature. As gardeners and farmers, when we see pests or we see weeds, we often ask the wrong questions. We go, “What fertiliser do I need?” or “What pesticide do I need”, you know? And that’s the wrong question. Those are all wrong questions.

We need to look at what’s out of balance in the soil, in the ecosystem. What’s out of balance so that these pests are coming? Why are the pests there, why are the weeds there? These are nature’s cleanup crew. The plant diseases and the insect pests are nature coming in and taking out a plant that can’t live there because something’s missing. And what’s missing is the microbiology. If all the microbiology is in place, then the plant will feed itself and be happy and healthy.

EM: That’s great advice, Peter. But that’s all we have time for now. Thank you very much for coming on the show to speak with us.

PA: My pleasure.

EM: All right, okay thanks.

PA: Thank you.

EM: Bye.

PA: Bye.


Madagascar: Soil Fertility on a Shoestring Budget


This episode corresponds to Lesson 1 of our online course.

In this seventh episode, we talk to Master Composter Peter Ash about how he successfully  tackled deforestation and soil erosion in a small village in Madagascar, with hardly any funds or manpower. Peter demonstrates how understanding natural systems and using nature to our advantage can dramatically improve the health of the environment.

Thank you to BiobiN for making this episode possible.

BiobiN® is a mobile, on-site organic/wet material management solution that starts the composting process and effectively manages odour from putrescible waste. BiobiN® can be used in a variety of outlets, including food manufacturing, restaurants, shopping centres, supermarkets…it’s endless. Whereever organic or wet materials are generated, BiobiN® is THE solution



EM: So Peter you just came back from a two-month trip to Madagascar. How did that come about?

PA: I was hired a year ago when I was in France and I was teaching some gardening and composting classes, and…. So anyway, I was approached by this Frenchman and he told me about…that he has this, not much financial backing but a small NGO in France and they were doing work in Madagascar; in kind of the north-west area of Madagascar, the dryer side of the island, in a fairly remote area. Very poor: no running water, no electricity. And they’d basically built a small village where they had a school for little children. And then they also had some high-school students that were coming from further away, and they were trying to gain some food security, and they were just having a lot of difficulty.

EM: Right, and they sent you there to help them out. What were the main troubles they were having?

PA: So, what I’d discovered was: first of all, that side of the island had been deforested probably two hundred years or more ago. The cattle are a very import part of their diet, and a very important part of their culture, and so what they were doing was that they were burning the range right before the rainy season to burn off all the weedy vines, and the small weedy palm trees…. They’re burning it all off to create new grasses for the cattle. Well anyway, so I get there and I see this deforestation, I see this slash-and-burn, and terrible soil erosion – so I immediately saw, okay, we got to deal with erosion control, we got to deal with soil fertility, and we need to capture the water.

EM: Right. And regarding food: you told me that they were trying to grow rice, and I imagine that was quite a problem?

PA: Yeah, the property – there was no really low-level land for rice farming. Rice farming has to be done – when you’re dry farming it you need to have flat land and you need to be down in the low valleys, in the natural run-off areas, and we didn’t have any terrain like that at this village. We were on kind of a sandstone bluff, and then it would drop down to what would turn into a streambed when it rained, and then we had another hill going up the other side. So – and very few trees – a few palm trees here and there, a few mango trees here and there…you know, mostly everything had been burned off in the past.

EM: Right, and how were they for water generally then?

PA: Basically, when I got to the village they had two wells – hand-dug wells – and it was, they were very shallow. And they had planted some trees, maybe a year at the most earlier, and they were having to hand-water the trees to keep them alive during the dry season. And in one day of watering, they could take the well all the way to the bottom.

EM: That’s quite a dire situation.

PA: Yeah…

EM: Can you list, then, the key things you decided to do to help?

PA: Right…I knew we had to do some earthworks to capture the water, and replanting trees to help hold water in the soil, digging berms and swales to help hold the water and recharge the water table…and then soil fertility.

EM: Right, and there were some big challenges when it came to improving soil fertility, wasn’t there?

PA: Yeah, so I’ll tell you what – here’s what happened was…it turned out that the students that were there – the high-school students that I was supposed to be teaching compost to – were mainly not available. Initially we did make a couple compost piles and…but it was too labour intensive. So, what we found was we had…we had about twenty-head of cattle and a couple goats. Some were owned by the village itself but most of them were owned by neighbours, but they were penned on our property.

And, you know, one taboo I discovered was that we could do no, like, compost toilets or humanure composting. That was completely taboo, but to work with the cow dung and the cattle manure – that was not a problem. And they didn’t know anything about using it. And so here was this cattle pen – quite a bit of manure had built-up in it, and I discovered that we had a nearby sawmill that had mountains of wood shavings and sawdust that was a waste, and they didn’t know what to do with it. So we could get that for free, just by sending some men in an ox-cart over and…. And then there was another nearby village where they grew a lot of sugarcane and they had some low ground and some flat ground, and so there was all this sugarcane waste.

So what we decided was that: due to lack of labour and equipment, that we would just spread the woodchips and saw dust and the sugarcane waste in the cattle pen, and then allow the cattle to just trod on it for a month or so – three weeks to a month – and then we just scrape it all out and use it as mulch. And we could turn it into the soil for kitchen gardens…and so on. And so, we let that be one of the major key components for our soil fertility program, rather than manually making compost and having to turn it, and adding more water and so on.

And then, on top of using the cattle to make compost for us, a lot of people have pigs as well and most of the animals just run free and the range is open-range for everyone to use. But then, we built what we call a pig tractor, which is like a portable pigpen. So we had the pig tractor with just three little piglets in it. Of course, the pigs are being fed, but we also just threw a lot of organic material inside  – the same wood shavings and the sugarcane mulch, and then weeds from the garden, we’d just throw it in there – if they pigs didn’t eat it, no problem: they would just basically compost it for us.

And then, when we first built the pig tractor – right next to it, just about the same size, we planted some cover crop. So as soon as the cover crop began to flower…all these nitrogen-fixing plants have, you know, captured atmospheric nitrogen, fixed it on their root systems. So as soon as it flowers, that’s basically when the plant stops growing and starts fruiting. And that’s when it uses that nitrogen. So if you cut it at that point, then all the nitrogen – these little nodules that are fixed in the soil on its root system – remain in the soil. So then what we did was we just moved the pig tractor over and set it on top of that cover crop and the pigs just devoured it in no time. But then, they’d left all that nitrogen in the soil already.

EM: Amazing, that’s a very effective way of getting around the problem of not being able to compost!

PA: Yes, indeed it is. And then, you know, as far as the reforestation: we looked around and we searched out local trees and seedlings…like, they have some moringa, which you can plant just from a cutting, and then there was a couple other trees – some of the acacia, that the leaf can be used as fodder. And, you know, of course the acacia will also provide shade and it’s a nitrogen-fixing tree – the same as the moringa. So, we planted trees on the swales, on the berms, using the swales to capture the water to water them.

So a lot of what we did around our tree plantings was…some woodier plants and trees which were more or less weeds to us – they weren’t fodder for animals, they weren’t nitrogen-fixers, they weren’t food for humans – so those trees, we didn’t cut them down completely but we coppiced them heavily so that we could chop off the branches, lay it out as mulch on the ground, and then allow the tree to grow back out so we could come back and coppice again. And as the trees that we planted grew up larger, we kept creating a larger mulched area around the tree to hold water, to create soil, to create the environment for the microbiology to be active….

And then we started our own nursery from seeds. And I’d brought a bunch of seeds with me, various seeds of fruit trees and nitrogen-fixing trees that would work in Madagascar. And then, because we had access to bamboo – some big stems, you know: bamboo that was several inches wide at the base – and so we cut tubes that were, you know, open at both ends and we used that. We put good soil inside, and then we planted tree seeds in those, so when the seeds spouted, then the roots could only drop straight down, it couldn’t spread out. And then as soon as the seed was up about four inches or so, then we took the whole bamboo tube and we planted the seedling in the tube, in the berms. So that as the swale would soak up water, you know, the root would just drop right down through the bottom of the bamboo and get a really good, deep start. And so before I left, we planted probable sixty – sixty or eighty trees that we’d started in these bamboo tubes. Basically, we had to use just what nature was offering us. Like, we couldn’t even buy, like, plastic pots, we couldn’t even buy, like, a plastic tube, you know, to start a seed in. So the bamboo worked great like that, you know, in a years time or two years time, you know, with most of the bamboo in the soil, it’s going to rot and just be fungal food for the root system, which is great.

EM: Right, so it’s all about using nature to your advantage then?

PA: Yeah, absolutely you know, and we’re really looking at, you know…. Any permaculture design is going to begin with just getting a good assessment, you know, and talking with the people – asking them what do they want. You know, “what is it that you want?” you know? And they needed more food, they needed more fresh water, and so that’s what we concentrated on.

And then, you know, anything you plant – if you can get some compost into the soil, if you can get any kind of organic material into the soil…because we know that in natural systems, plants don’t need fertiliser, they don’t need pesticides if the system is healthy. And with a basic understanding of how plants function, and, you know, the relationship of the microbiology in the soil…when we have a basic understanding of that, we realise that early-successional plants have a very highly bacterial-dominated soil food-web because early-successional plants are annual plants – they’re soft, green tissue plants. And what decomposes soft green tissue is bacteria.

And then when we get to the end of plant-succession, when we get to old growth forests and, you know, hundreds of year old trees or thousands of year old trees – we see that we have a very fungal dominated soil food-web. And so, if you’re growing trees, then you need more fungi in the soil, and if you’re growing perennial plants – you know, shrubs and things – then you need that balance of bacteria and fungi.

And so, that’s what we were trying to teach our local farmers and the villagers there, was that: around our trees we got to get a lot of woody material and mulch, and just keep mulching. Nature mulches herself, you know, she’s dropping leaves, she’s dropping fruit…. Man, you know, when we understand that – we can build compost piles and make humus in a very short period of time. But actively composting was something we just didn’t have the equipment and the manpower for – so just, laying on layer upon layer upon layer of mulch…

EM: Yeah, and it’s absolutely amazing what you got done there in such a short time.

PA: You know, I was actually really amazed by how much we accomplished in a two-month period with myself and a couple volunteers and then, on average, ten labourors. You know, we established a tree nursery, we dug some key berms and swales, and then only then, you know, when the heavy rains came consistently and the swales remained full, that then when they reached a high level, they could run off slowly into the natural drainage system.

What we didn’t have time for on my first trip was to really work the stream bed itself with constructing gabions to slow water down and not just run right off to the rivers, and then out to the ocean. So, we feel that, you know, we should be able to have that stream running year-round in seven years, with proper earthworks.

EM: That’s incredible. And how did the locals react to all of this?

PA: Well, I think they were very excited. Especially I think some of the older men were very excited about what they were learning, and what we were doing because in two month’s time you can start to see the changes. And, you know, when they saw that “my gosh, we’re holding some water here. This water would have just run away but now it’s still sitting here two days after that last rain!” You know…

EM: Yeah, yeah. Well it must be very exciting to see it all working out.

PA: Yeah, yeah. So, I’m looking forward to going back, you know, maybe at the end of the rainy season, or like halfway through into the dry season to see what more we can do with just mulching and….

EM: Great stuff Peter, you’ll have to keep us informed about how you’re getting on!

PA: Certainly.


Composting in the Biotech Industry: Case Study


This episode corresponds to Lesson 6 of our online course.

In this sixth episode, Head of Composting at Novozymes Frank Franciosi gives us an in-depth view of the operations at his compost production facility in North Carolina (USA). He shares with us his thoughts on marketing compost correctly and his strategies for setting up a successful facility. 

Interview by Eleen Murphy

Thank you to Green White Space for making this possible.

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EM: So Frank, could you tell

FF: Yeah, I actually got into this business, didn’t know anything about composting, and had answered an ad in a paper to manage a composting facility in North Carolina. At the time I knew nothing about what composting was all about, other than the normal, basic biology and science behind it. And I got involved with the US Composting Council, which was a good resource for me: I met a lot of people, visited some sites, and really learned how to do it on a commercial scale.

And I started this facility, then got out of that facility – worked there for about four or five years – and started another facility, which is working with Novozymes. At the time, they were looking for alternatives for their residuals coming out of that plant. It was an alternative for them. Traditionally I lot of the biotech industries do a lot of land application of their residuals and put it on to farm land – which is, you know, the cheapest way to do it. However, what has happened is a lot of the area is starting to get more urban, so we’re losing that farmland; so this was another way of actually looking at more of a sustainable approach for the residuals long-term.

EM: And how much residuals do you take from Novozymes itself?

FF: we take about thirty-five to fourty percent of the residuals coming out of the process – the plant in Franklington which is just North of Raleigh, North Carolina.

EM: Right, and how much do you produce then?

FF: We produce about thirty-five thousand cubic yards a year of finished product.

EM: Right, and how much is that in tonnes?

FF: It’s roughly about half, because it weighs about a thousand pounds per cubic yard – a thousand pounds a cubic yard is kind of the number that we always use.

EM: Cool and tell me a little bit about the facility itself: the location, the size…that kind of thing.

FF: Yeah, the facility itself sits on an eight-acre site. We have about five hundred acres and we’re smack in the middle of that parcel so we’re surrounded by wooded area. It’s very much a rural area, so we don’t have issues with, you know, neighbourhoods encroaching on us because we own the land all round it (laughs).

EM: Sounds ideal for what you’re doing then.

FF: Yeah.

EM: Could you talk us through, then, the general process of composting at your site and the equipment that you use?

FF: We have, you know, we start off with the front-end loaders. They’re our measuring cups (laughs), okay. And then we have a big mixer just like you mix when you’re baking a cake. It is a Kuhn Knight – it holds about thirty-five cubic yards. It’s a commercial, industrial mixer so this is a rotating reel and it’s got augers in it that are against it, so… And then there’s a conveyor belt that comes off that mixer. We have a truck that parks underneath they conveyor belt, and the conveyor belt conveys the mixed material into the back of the dump truck and then he takes it out to form the windrow.

And then the windrow, you know, they’re about twelve feet wide and about six feet high. The turner – it’s a Backhus, a German turner – and we turn based on meeting our pathogen reduction: basically one time a week, or once every five days. And then taking temperature measurements every seventy-five feet, and we do that with a manual probe. And we use a compost manager system that’s developed from Green Mountain Technologies so we can datalog that back into our PC, so we can track the temperatures.

So after sixty/sixty-five days we’ll pull that windrow up and we’ll feed it to a screener. We have a Backers star screen, it’s a rubber star screen, so all the fine material falls in between the stars, and all the large runs up. The oversize, as we call it, we take that and it goes back into the front-end of the process. And then the fines, we can screen to whatever particle size we want based on our sales demands and what our inventory is. And then we’ll stockpile that material and we’ll let it cure for another sixty days. So most of our materials are at least one hundred and twenty days old before we sell it, depending on the season: our Spring – we have a big Spring sale season which starts in March and May and then it dies down in the middle of the summer months as it gets really hot here – then it picks up again in the Fall. So we have, like, pretty much a six-month sale season, that’s pretty robust.

EM: That’s great.

FF: Yeah.

EM: So, is most of the materials you take from Novozymes or is there any other places you take them from?

FF: There’s a wood-moulding manufacturer that we take the sawdust from. And then there’s five different municipalities in the area and they bring us yard waste. And so, we have to grind that, some of it comes in pre-ground and some of it we have to grind, so we have a horizontal Rotochopper grinder and we’ll grind that down into three inch minus material. And we sell everything bulk, we don’t bag anything. So everything goes out in large tractor-trailer loads.

EM: Cool, and to give us an idea of how it sells – what are the markets that you sell to, are there many?

FF: So, you know, the traditional markets that we sell into are the landscape construction, or landscape installation, markets. We also sell it to the nursery market, and we do sell it to some golf – the golf industry. And then the new area that we’re in is…it’s called Green Infrastructure, I don’t know if you’ve…it’s also called Low Impact Development, and there’s some new rules and regulations that, you know, if you build a building now you have to estimate how much storm water flow you’re going to have – and you have to catch that one-inch rain event. So we’re starting to sell compost into those markets, because compost is very…it has a high absorption rate, it’ll hold a lot of water, it’s basically a natural fertiliser and it’s a great growing media. So there are several areas where compost is being used – green roofs is one of them. You’ve heard of rain gardens or bioretention basins, green swells…. And these are all different applications within that Green Infrastructure category. So that’s happening here in the US.

And then, more and more we’re seeing compost being incorporated into the soil, so there’s a better percolation, a better infiltration rate into the soil – and that’s a whole new market, we’re just kind of scratching the surface. And then another market is erosion control: which is preventing the sediment from running off on construction sites, and that has been a huge market for us just in the recent years.

We’re just starting to sell a little more into agriculture; agriculture believe it or not is not a big market for us, but more and more people are seeing the value of using compost. And then there’s a big push here in the US to grow local, buy local. So we’re seeing more smaller farms, and people are now more interested in keeping their farms, but growing organic and being able to provide that to a farmer’s market rather than a grocery store.

EM: That’s amazing yeah, that’s very promising. And you have a number of different products for different uses – I presume it’s high-quality compost you’re selling?

FF: Yeah, we…you know, because our feedstock’s are very consistent, we get a very consistent product on the back-end. We don’t change our process – so that’s been a big part of us is keeping that quality control on the process side and then also on the finished product side.

And then we screen the different sizes. We screen really, really fine mesh – quarter-inch material – you know, very fine, and that goes to the golf course market, that goes to that green roof market. And then we screen a half-inch/three-eights inch product, which is pretty general purpose: it can be used in potting media, it could be used as a mix, it could be used directly into the garden as an additive. And then we screen really at a larger size, which is coarser, it has a lot more of the woody material in it, it’s got more mulch content in it – and that’s used for erosion control because that’ll hold the slopes, just like a mulch will hold and give you temporary stabilisation of that slope.

And then we do some mixes: a lot of people, they don’t realise the value of the word compost so they’re used to buying topsoil – and we don’t sell topsoil because that’s not sustainable. But we manufacture topsoil; so we take a portion of compost and we blend it in with some sand and some silt and some clays and we make what I call and engineered topsoil, and that’s a very popular product because when people say: “well, do you have topsoil?”, and I say: “no, we don’t have topsoil, but we have engineered topsoil”. And then they go “well, what’s engineered topsoil?” and it’s basically a topsoil that we create by blending other ingredients in with it.

And that’s been a huge market boom for us, because again people are more used to buying topsoil. But when they buy topsoil they buy weed seeds, they buy…I mean, who knows what’s been sprayed on the field…so it’s an unknown but, see, they think if it’s black it’s good, because if it’s dark then it’s rich. But when you look at the analysis of topsoil here in North Carolina, there’s really only one percent organic matter in the soil. And our compost has about sixty to seventy percent organic, so it’s very high in organic matter, which is really the secret to compost, is that: all in the organic matter, and the humus.

EM: Right, and why do you think that there’s so little understanding about compost then, in a general sense?

FF: So I think, you know, it’s all how it’s marketed. And a lot of compost is sold in the US not as compost, but as a soil supplement or as a topsoil, or you know, a manufactured topsoil – and that’s just the stigma that people just have to get over, over time, I think. One of the challenges that we have in the industry is to monetise the value of compost because if you took each and every one of those components and you started adding, not just the value of fertiliser value, but the cation-exchange capacity, organic matter, biological activity…but people don’t value that, they just look at NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium), they don’t look at the overall picture of soil health.

I think part of the problem is, you know, the commercialisation of fertilisers – the brand-naming of fertilisers – you know, “hey it’s Springtime, time to go out and get your spreader and….” well, you know, we don’t have that market appeal. We’re trying to work on people getting back to basics. One thing that the recession has done is that it has increased awareness of waste, so people aren’t wasting as much. The other thing is, people are now growing a lot of gardens themselves. So that’s been a big push for us: community gardens are growing all over the US, there’s a big push for urban gardens. You know, so I think it’s an awareness thing and I think we need to do a better job at educating the general public as well as school kids because if they learn it, eventually it’ll become common practice.

EM: Yeah, so get it into the school curriculum.

FF: That’s right.

EM: And do you know of any other businesses or companies that are composting their organic waste?

FF: I don’t know of any right off my hands that I could think of, but you know, that changes all the time. I know there’s some egg processors that are doing it here in North Carolina, there’s some tobacco companies that are looking into doing it with their stems – so there’s other industries, I don’t know if it’s just biotech per se. And a lot of it, I tell you, I’ll be honest with you: a lot of it, and it was a big bridge that I had to cross, was the big liability issue here. You know, “oh, what’s the liability, you know” and I think a lot of the corporate people say “well, that’s not our business, we’ll, you know we’ll just send it to a facility”.

So a lot of facilities are probably taking similar material like we’re generating and composting that material. There’s a plant not far from us that makes amino acids, and I know that they have a left over residual, and they’re taking that and they’re shipping it to a competitor of mine, and they’re composting it. So, directly setting up a facility on-site, I don’t think there’s a lot. But I think there’s a lot going to compost, but you just don’t know about it because they’re private contracts they’ve arranged.

EM: Yeah, well it’s good so long as they’re composting it!

FF: That’s right! Yeah, that’s right.

EM: So what do you think it takes to get started on a facility like your one?

FF: You know, it’s very much baby-steps. And I think the approach was: prove it on a small scale; figure out what your technology is. The obstacles that I look at are: of course, money is one (laughs). But you know, location is really important. We don’t really have an odor problem, but you know, when you’re handling stuff like food waste and some of the other materials…if you’re handling manures and there’s dairy farms all around you – there’s not an odor problem (laughs). But if you’re handling dairy manure or food waste and you’re surrounded by a housing development, then there’s an odor problem, right? So I think locations are important.

You want to be near a major road, but you don’t want to be right on the, you know, you want to be off the major road. You want to be in an area that’s pretty much you know what the growth around you is going to occur. Like, I know there’s facilities that have been around since the 1970’s and what is happened is that everyone sold the land around it, so now it’s all housing – well, now you have all these odor complaints. Well, it was there since the 1970’s, I mean….

Yeah, so location’s important and, you know, storage issues, seasonality – those are the big issues. And then, you know, how you plan your facility. You know, looking at the process flow and how materials come in, and you want to make it as linear as possible. Just like, you know, an auto-manufacturing line – the line’s straight. So you want to have an engineer to be able to figure that out, but you also want somebody that has knowledge in the industry.

It’s a lot of materials movement, so if you want to move something a short distance, you could move it with a loader. If you want to move it a little bit longer than that short distance, say…sixty/seventy feet, maybe it’s better to use conveyors or a truck, like a dump truck, or a conveyor and a truck.

And then, you know, your run-off: you want to make sure that if it’s an outdoor facility, that you’re capturing that run-off.  So contamination is also an issue. So those are the big things. And then, sizing your equipment for your facility, so like, you know it’s really better to start out with leasing equipment because the life expectancy of that equipment may be short: like a grinder that takes a lot of beating. So all those little things on figuring out what the movements are and how to increase your efficiency in those movements are really important.

EM: Amazing, great advice. And would you say that it’s economically viable for businesses to go down this road?

FF: Yeah, I think it is. You know, the model in the US is: a lot of composters make the majority of their money on the front-end which is tipping fees, not so much on the back-end. It may be eighty-twenty or sixty-forty. And I think that it could be a good business, but it all depends on what those…you’re competing against the landfill, so your fees have to be better than the landfill so you can bring that business in.

You want to try to get as clean feedstocks as possible, so contamination is an issue there because if you’re picking out a lot of trash and stuff, that’s just more processing time and more equipment. If you make a really good product on the back-end then you can recoup more of your profits on the back-end. So, you know, I think it can be. I know the other model is the AD model, and that works really well where you have high-density populations, small footprint, high tipping fees – so you can recoup some of that in the tipping fee, the energy generation, and then the final product.

What I worry about is there’s a lot of AD plants out there that…they consider everything but the final product, and you know, they’re saying “well we can sell it as a digestate”: in a lot of cases here in the US you can’t because you have to treat it for pathogens, you got odor issues, it’s not a mature product. So it’s more of a cost than it is a profit. So, I’d like to see that model work, where they take the digestate on the back-end and they compost the digestate too so they make another value added profit.

EM: Yeah, absolutely, that makes sense. And finally, is there any last words of advice that you’d like to give?

FF: I’m a believer that if the markets are there and the markets are steady and there’s a really good demand for the product, that we’ll see more facilities expand, we’ll see more facilities being permitted, because the economics working out – start working out a lot better, because you know. A lot of the composting that was done early in the US was mandatory state mandates on keeping yard waste out of the landfill, which was a smart thing to do because it’s useless in a landfill. But they didn’t have the infrastructure, they didn’t have the training and the technology to do it right, to make a product. And you see a lot of municipalities kind of getting out of the composting business, and you see a lot more private-public partnerships being developed. Because I think we understand it more as a manufacturing process – and that’s the attitude you have to take, which is “I’m not just keeping this stuff out of the landfill, I’m making a product”. And, you know, if you make a high quality product, obviously you can demand more price for your product.

EM: Great, great stuff. Frank, that’s all we have time for today, thanks for coming on.

FF: Alright, thank you Eleen.