Some US Composting Council (USCC) members and staff have been on conference panels with our colleagues in the traditional recycling industry during the past year, and we've heard some harrowing tales. Tales are circulating of the cancellation of glass programs, the suspension of curbside recycling contracts, and of the costly retooling of materials recovery facilities to integrate increasingly complex sortation lines in order to meet the requirements of foreign markets to accept recyclable materials.
Creating local markets for recycled materials is not an easy task, and we in the composting industry empathize. Composting is fortunate in its place as a local microcosm of any community's circular economy. But we certainly are not smug about it.
So why is composting "local" by definition? A variety of markets exist in every community - from stormwater, erosion control and highway construction projects, to farms and brownfield sites, to golf courses, corporate campuses and sports stadiums and fields. These end users keep composters busy with sales and marketing in their local region. Compost is a recyclable material that demonstrates the circular economy right in its own market - by using a community's discarded organic materials and quickly providing them back to the community in useful forms.
Also, the economic barrier to entry for the compost industry can be easier to overcome than in the capital-intensive traditional recycling industry. In composting, there is a larger pool of potential entrepreneurs already trained in soil science, landscape construction and nursery operation, and the feedstock is readily available. A smart businessperson can work hard to engineer viable markets for compost end-product, which with consistent nurturing will respond better than markets for a well-manufactured recycled product.
This all assumes the entrepreneur, launching or diversifying an existing business into composting, is well trained - through the Compost Council Research & Education Foundation or a university-led course emphasizing proper operation - and is working towards certification of their managers, and their product, to demonstrate their knowledge to skeptical neighbours and regulators.
But being local does not inherently guarantee success. The infrastructure gaps that we are all working hard to solve in the compost industry - primarily in the southeast, mid-Atlantic and Midwest U.S. - wouldn't be a problem if local markets were the entire solution. Low landfill tipping fees, outdated zoning codes and state regulations can provide a barrier to entry for the industry, even when entrepreneurs are ready to move.