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composting process

processing City to Soil collections with the


Groundswell Composting process

This document describes the composting process


being used by four NSW councils to transform their
residential food and garden waste into a high quality,
high nutrient, and biologically active composted
product as part of the Groundswell project.
Groundswell is a three year project which is supported
by the NSW Environment Trust Urban Sustainability
Program. The process has subsequently been trialled
and adopted by a growing number of councils and
farmers to compost biosolids, cardboard, commercial Composting facilities have been established in
pet food waste, manures, paper sludge, nappies and Goulburn Mulwaree Council and Lachlan Council on
water weeds. existing landfill sites. An on-farm composting site
located in the Sydney Water Catchment for Palerang/
Instrumental to the success of the Groundswell
Queanbeyan council collections has been licensed
project has been the development of a simple but
and will be operational soon. Food scraps and garden
effective composting process using a bio-tech
waste collected through the City to Soil collections in
product from a Queensland company called Vital
Goulburn Mulwaree Council and Lachlan Council are
Resource Management (VRM). The bio-tech product
being composted using the Groundswell’s Composting
is a two part inoculant that when properly used and
Process outlined below.
managed, creates stability, predictability, consistency
and no odour at any stage of the composting process. The Groundswell Composting Process has been
Combined with the use of compostable Biobags for designed to meet the following criteria:
the collection of food scraps, which actively dehydrate
} require minimal new machinery or infrastructure
food scraps (including meat) and ensure food arrives
at the composting site in an aerobic state, the entire } a ble to use existing landfill or farm machinery (e.g.
City to Soil process is odour free from kitchen to small tractor with blade or front end loader)
finished product.
} a ble to operate in exposed sites with no power and
minimal water
} minimal labour and machinery requirement
} s imple step-by-step process that can be managed
by existing waste management or farm labour
without expert composting knowledge
} a ble to operate consistently with seasonally
variable feed stocks
} a ble to effectively manage concerns about
putrescibles including odour, vermin and birds
} p roduce the highest quality biologically active
compost possible with zero physical contamination
that meets agricultural market requirements.

 Processing City to Soil collections with the Groundswell Composting Process


Summary of Composting Process
The City to Soil feedstock of combined kitchen and
garden waste creates some special opportunities and
risks for successful composting. The higher nutrient
and moisture levels present in the food scraps,
combined with potentially challenging ingredients
such as meat scraps provides a perfect feedstock to
produce a microbially rich, high nutrient product
if correctly processed. The specifics of the VRM
activated composting process (technically more of a
fermentative process) are outlined below. In essence,
the composting process has been developed for
simplicity, cost-effectiveness and efficiency while
Feedstock
ensuring a premium compost product.
The City to Soil feedstock includes source separated
The composting process is attracting significant
household kitchen and garden waste. All food scraps
interest due to its low labour, plant and water
including meat, bones, dairy products and fat are
requirements. The kerbside collected food scrap
included.
and garden waste feedstock is not shredded prior
to processing. This removes the requirement for Householders in participating towns have received
shredding equipment on site. Additionally, the vented 6 litre MaxAir kitchen bench-top food scrap
fermentative process reduces the number of turns to bins and a year’s supply of compostable biobags. The
just once during the 8-12 week composting process. biobags and MaxAir bins minimise odours by allowing
This results in a cheaper, cleaner end product with less the contents to breathe. When the biobags are full,
physical contamination. they are tied closed and placed in the City to Soil 240L
wheelie bin (MGB) along with any garden waste.
The project is also challenging assumptions that the
processing of food is synonymous with vermin and In Goulburn Mulwaree the 240 litre MGBs are collected
odour issues and needs to occur indoors or in vessel. monthly. In Condobolin, the collection is fortnightly.

 Processing City to Soil collections with the Groundswell Composting Process


stage 1: picking

Feedstock is delivered directly onto the composting


site/hardstand area. Where possible the truck should
spread the material out over a wide area to facilitate
picking and spraying. The material arrives pre-mixed
with food scraps neatly contained in Biobags which
are still intact but visibly dehydrated. There is usually
no odour at point of delivery. Occasionally and
seasonally, there may be some temporary odours due
to lawn clippings which may have slumped in the base
of MGBs and turned anaerobic. This seems to change
quite quickly once on site. If odour is noticeable or
unacceptable at this early stage, the material can be
sprayed with diluted inoculants prior to picking.
The first task in the composting process is to pick
through the feedstock by hand to remove any physical
contamination. A nice feature of the biobags is that
they ensure the food scraps arrive at the processing
site somewhat dehydrated, neatly contained and in
an aerobic state with no odour. Even with a monthly
collection the bags are robust enough to remain intact
during the collection and compaction process.
Typical contamination removed at this stage includes
the bottles, cans or plastic bags. The biobags of food
scraps go into the composting process intact.
Once any physical contamination is removed, the
feedstock is sprayed with the VRM Photon Composting
solutions and an appropriate amount of non or de-
chlorinated water.

 Processing City to Soil collections with the Groundswell Composting Process


stage 2: inoculating

The composting inoculant is a combination of VRM


Photon Starter Culture® and VRM Photon Seeding
Agent®. The VRM Photon Starter Culture and VRM
Photon Seeding Agent has been specifically selected to
meet the feedstock requirements of a combined food
and garden waste collection.
Dilution rates are 1 litre of starter culture and 1 litre
of seeding agent diluted in a minimum of 10 litres
of water for every 10 cubic meters of green waste.
(i.e., 100mls of each product for each cubic meter of
feedstock)
Both products should be diluted in water at the above
rates prior to application. Ideally the composting
solution should be applied under pressure using a full
cone spray or atomiser (e.g. a yellow pressure nozzle)
as exposure of the solution to oxygen kick-starts the
oxidisation process which kick-starts biological activity
while the fine droplet size maximises surface coverage
The piles should be quite wet before covering (ideally
40% –60%, min 30% moisture to max 80% moisture)
- wetter than would normally be associated with
open windrow composting. If extra water needs to be
added to the piles the dilution rate can be increased
by increasing the amount of water the inoculants are
mixed with. In practice, a combined food scrap and
garden waste collection is reasonably moist and should
only require a small amount of additional water. (For
example, in Goulburn Mulwaree Council, 1000 litres is
usually added to each 100 tonne batch of food scraps
and garden waste, regardless of seasonal variation, In
Condobolin, where the climate is dryer, approximately
150-200 litres of water is applied to each 10 tonne larger sites we have started using tarps with a hem
batch of feedstock). reinforced with 1 1/2” water pipe and either clamps
or sandbags to keep the tarps tight and to counteract
Once the piles are wet and inoculated they are
strong winds.
piled into windrows and fully covered with durable,
waterproof polytarps weighed down with tyres or Broadly speaking the inoculant contains combinations
other heavy objects that will not damage the tarps. of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, special fungi and
To assist with water reticulation through the pile, yeasts. The composting process is more accurately
windrows should have an ‘M’ profile and smaller piles described as a fermentative process. Specific microbes
should have a flat top and a small dip or hollow in the are included that actively breakdown fats, meats
middle. This assists condensation to drip back into the and other difficult products that might challenge a
pile. High internal temperatures drive moisture to the conventional aerobic composting process. Within
outside of the pile and steps should be taken to ensure certain limits, the specific balance of carbon to
condensation on the inner surface of the tarp does not nitrogen in the feedstock is not vital to the composting
drip down the sides and out of the pile. Good contact process because the inoculants contain both carbon
between the tarp and the pile helps. More recently on fixing and nitrogen fixing bacteria.

 Processing City to Soil collections with the Groundswell Composting Process


Odour produced by sulphur reducing bacteria which
predominate in conventional anaerobic processes is
addressed by the inclusion of photosynthetic bacteria
and purple non-sulphur bacteria in the inoculant mix.
These bacteria consume the sulphur reducing bacteria
and also compete for their food source. The purple
non-sulphur bacteria require anaerobic conditions
to flourish and out compete the sulphur reducing
bacteria. Unlike the sulphur reducing bacteria, the
purple non sulphur bacteria are inhibited by sunlight.
Covering the piles helps to create the conditions for
the purple non-sulphur bacteria to flourish.
Collectively these composting solutions provide a
range of significant advantages.
} t he requirement to turn piles is reduced as the
microbial population does not require ventilation.
} c arbon retention is considerably higher than in
regular composting.
} o dour is greatly reduced and in most instances
eliminated all together. We have found that
there is no issue with odour at any stage of the
changes to a uniform black colour. Additionally, ray
composting process.
fungi and actinomyces quickly start to infiltrate the
} t he requirement to cover piles with polytarps piles and can be observed as grey filaments or powdery
significantly increases the thermal and moisture flakes. If these grey powdery flakes and filaments are
efficiency of the piles, reducing both water predominating, it can be an indication that the pile
requirements and runoff. is too dry, so check moisture levels and apply de-
chlorinated or non-chlorinated water as required.
Additional information on VRM can be found at:
www.vrm.com.au Evidence of secondary composting processes can
usually be observed on the outer surface of the piles
The covered piles are left for four to six weeks.
where there is more oxygen and the temperature
During the first day or two the temperature climbs
is cooler through the presence of slaters, native
to around 65-70 °C as a flush of aerobic activity take
cockroaches and other larger soil biology.
place. By the end of the first week the temperature
stabilises at around 50-55 °C. This early aerobic flush Moisture levels during the fermentation process
of activity provides the first of two opportunities for should fall no lower than 30% with an optimum
pasteurisation. If well managed, these temperatures moisture level of 40%-60% but no higher than 80%
are even achieved on the outside of the piles. where adequate leachate controls are in place. Ideally,
According to the AS 4454 standards, compost must the surface of the pile (under the tarps) should
reach and hold a temperature of 55 °C for three remain moist.
days to achieve pasteurisation requirements. If the
expected temperatures are achieved throughout the
pile, the Groundswell composting process exceeds the
pasteurisation requirements outlined in the standard.
In association with the stabilisation of temperature
around 55 °C, the pH level drops to around 3.5-4.5
as the fermentative bacteria colonise the piles. The
piles should remain quite wet, and the colour quickly

 Processing City to Soil collections with the Groundswell Composting Process


stage 4: maturation & storage

After 8-12 weeks, depending on process control and


particle size of the original feedstock, temperatures
should slowly come down and pH should return to
neutral. The compost can be left to mature. Piles
should be kept covered and not allowed to dry out.
Ideally, piles should not drop below 40% moisture.
The end product is predominantly ‘chocolate brownie’
in nature with some longer, coarser, but significantly
softened particulate. It is usually too fine or soft to
stage 3: turning and respraying put through a shredder or grinder but is suitable for
a screening (e.g. flip screen) process. A rotating drum
After 4-6 weeks, the piles are uncovered, spread and trommel with a 26mm mesh results in an excellent
re-examined to remove any physical contamination finished product. Larger particles that are screened
that might have been missed at the beginning of the from the compost can either be reprocessed into the
process. By this stage the piles have slumped by about next compost batch or stockpiled until a shredder or
a third and the Biobags, food scraps and smaller items grinder becomes available.
have disappeared. Smaller pieces of contamination,
Any last remaining physical contaminants should be
as well as those that may have been enclosed in the
removed prior to screening or final processing. To
Biobags become easier to see as the compost has
facilitate stabilisation, piles can be screened and left to
taken on a uniform texture and dark colour.
mature.
The compost is then mixed, re-wet, resprayed with the
Under correct storage conditions, the longer the piles
inoculants, re-piled, recovered and left for another 4
are left to mature, the better the compost becomes.
to 6 week period. A similar early spike in temperature
We have observed the Cation Exchange Capacity of
(around 65-70 °C) followed by a longer period at
finished compost increase from mid 20s to 73 after
around 50-55 °C and an associated pH level of 3.5-
storage for several months.
4.5 can be expected during the second fermentation
stage. This provides the second opportunity for
pasteurisation and ensures material that was previously
on the outside of the pile has been re-incorporated and
processed.

 Processing City to Soil collections with the Groundswell Composting Process


About the MaxAir IITM bins and BiobagsTM VRM Inoculants and Odour Management
The Groundswell project utilised the MaxAir II system Composting is generally understood as either an
which combines a 6 litre vented plastic bucket and aerobic or anaerobic process. One of the remarkable
rolls of 10 litre compostable bags. The combined characteristics of the VRM Photon Composting
MaxAir bucket and bags are designed to prevent inoculants used in the Groundswell Composting
odours and putrification of food waste by retaining Process is the lack of odour produced even though it
food scraps in an aerobic state. The breathability of the is essentially a two phase static pile system. In over
bags and bucket promotes ventilation and evaporation two years of continuous processing of combined
of moisture, resulting in a weight reduction of up to food scraps and garden waste, the composting sites
25% in five days and 40% in seven days. Initial trials, at Goulburn and Condobolin have never produced an
research and market testing indicate high levels of odour problem or any noticeable odour. This situation
householder acceptance of the product. The MaxAir has been replicated at more than seven other council
bins and BioBags are currently used in over 200 sites with even more high-risk materials including
municipalities globally. biosolids and commercial food waste. The Groundswell
Composting Process recruits microbiology that are
Trials undertaken by the Groundswell Project Team
both aerobic or anaerobic or both.
in early 2008 tested the performance of the MaxAir
Bins and Biobags in a monthly collection scenario. In
this trial, compostable bags were filled with a range
of ‘high risk’ food scraps including fish carcasses,
meat, left-overs and rotten fruit and vegetables. Bags
were then placed in a number of 240 litre MGBs
with varying amounts of garden waste. Bins were
monitored over a 4 week period. At no stage during
the trial were offensive odours detected inside or
emanating from the bins. The compostable bags
appear to assist greatly in keeping food scraps aerobic.
Odours were considerably less than might be expected
from putrefying food waste enclosed in plastic bags in
residual waste MGBs.
The BioBag has a very high penetration barrier against
bacteria, viruses, spores and mould. BioBags also
ensure safer and more hygienic conditions for waste
collectors and composting facilities. BioBags are fully
compostable and certified according to the European The VRM Inoculants include Effective Microorganisms
Standard EN13432 and the US standard ASTM (EM) which are used around the world to treat
D6400, which is compatible with sewerage, waste water, food waste, municipal waste,
the Australian Standard AS4454. and improving or rehabilitating agricultural soil.
Together with a range of other formulations all
cultured in Australia, VRM Inoculants include seed
populations of purple non sulphur bacteria and other
photosynthetic organisms. The VRM inoculants also
contain families of fungi, (eg actinomyces), yeasts,
and other aerobic and fermenting bacteria (e.g.
lactobacillus, cyanobacter and ray fungi). The key
families of bacteria responsible for the management
of odour in the Groundswell Composting Process are
photosynthetic bacteria in general and purple non
sulphur bacteria in particular.

 Processing City to Soil collections with the Groundswell Composting Process


The photosynthetic bacteria (which perform the pile. Purple-non-sulphur bacteria directly compete
photosynthesis anaerobically) are integral to the with sulphur reducing bacteria for sulphate, do not
Groundswell Composting Process because they produce sulphide compounds and can be cultured in
support processes which transform putrefactive the composting pile without difficulty.
substances such a hydrogen sulphide into useful or
The result is a complex interdependency of biological
benign compounds such as oxygen, water, hydrogen
families which each create the conditions for the
peroxide or carbon dioxide. In the
others and protect against the
right conditions, some photosynthetic
dominant biological process in the pile
bacteria use the heat (rather than
becoming putrefactive or odorous.
sunlight) generated in the pile as
The process is perhaps more easily
energy and hydrogen from hydrogen
understood as akin to a silage process.
sulphide, methane gas, indol, skatole,
methyl mercaptans and other organic The Groundswell Composting Process
acids and compounds produced is attracting significant interest from
during the decomposition of organic other councils and processors. To
substances. Creating the conditions help build the knowledge base about
for photosynthetic bacteria to flourish this new approach to composting,
during composting simultaneously the NSW DECCW has contracted an
breaks down odour producing odour study to ascertain exactly what
compounds such as hydrogen sulphide, emissions come off the piles. The
out-competes sulphur reducing result from this study will be available
bacteria and generates oxygen within in early 2011.

For updates and more information on the Groundswell project go to: www.groundswellproject.blogspot.com

Written by Simone Dilkara, 2010. Graphic design/illustration by Carolyn Brooks The Groundswell Project
was assisted by the NSW
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Government through its
Attribution 3.0 Unported License and can be reproduced Environmental Trust
providing the Groundswell project is acknowledged as
the original source.

 Processing City to Soil collections with the Groundswell Composting Process