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Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

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On-farm Composting of Municipal and Commercial Organics as an Environmentally and Socially SustainableResource Recovery Scheme for Rural Communities

June 2003,
Environment Australia


4 Setting the Scene

The collection and on-farm composting of source separated organic materials was designed as a pilot project, hence was aiming to establish the organics collection and composting operation only on a trial scale. The extent of the trial was ultimately determined, apart from financial constraints, by regulatory and technical matters. The composting operation was restricted to process no more than 200 tons of feedstock per year (for more details see Section 4.4.2) and the organics collection was limited by the capacity of the employed vehicle (one collection round only).

As far as the collection of organic materials is concerned, the following operational framework was established:

It was clear from the outset that the organics collection and composting scheme would not continue beyond the trial phase as the scheme was not deemed to be viable on the small scale of the trial and council was also unwilling to expand the scheme while in the process of developing a regional waste management strategy together with neighbouring shires.

4.1 Selection of Trial Area

Broadly speaking, Highfields was considered an area of high environmental awareness within Crows Nest Shire. Residents were already participating in a kerbside recycling scheme for paper, glass, metal and plastic. Most properties in Highfields include large gardens, which generate substantial amounts of organic residues. The fact that Highfields is located in close proximity to Toowoomba was also an important factor, as this minimised travelling time for collection vehicles. In addition, there was a weighbridge in Highfields that could be used to determine quantities of collected organic and other materials.

Crows Nest Shire Council and the waste collection contractor, J.J. Richards & Sons Pty Ltd selected a suitable trial area within Highfields. Major roads (New England Highway and Highfields Road) bounded the trial area on two sides, and on the other two sides the boundary of the selected area represented the end of the built-up area. A layout of the trial area is shown in Figure 18.

The selected trial area in Highfields comprised 386 residential homes as well as various shops, buildings owned by church and recreational organisations and business premises of a feed merchant. As for the whole of Highfields, most houses in the designated trial area were on large blocks (1,000-4,000 m2) with extensive gardens. A visual impression of the Highfields trial area is given in Appendix I.

Trial area for kerbside collection of organics in Highfields

Figure 18 Trial area for kerbside collection of organics in Highfields

4.2 Public Education and Introduction of a Kerbside Collection Scheme

As with any recycling scheme that relies on the segregation of reusable materials at source, the support and active participation of waste generators were also critically important for the success of the envisaged kerbside collection scheme for organics. Therefore, public education and motivation of Highfields' residents were given high priority.

Figure 19 provides an overview of the staged introduction of the organics kerbside collection scheme and the various activities it entailed.

Time frame for the introduction of kerbside collection of organics in Highfields

Figure 19 Time frame for the introduction of kerbside collection of organics in Highfields

4.2.1 Information campaign

Broadly speaking, the public relations work was split into an information and an education campaign. The information campaign provided general information about the scheme and sought to make the wider community aware of the organics collection and composting trial. The information campaign addressed all residents in the Crows Nest Shire and surrounding communities and employed the following media to disseminate the message:

Television   - Win TV Toowoomba
Radio - regional - ABC Toowoomba
  - local - Highfields Community Radio
Newspaper - regional - Toowoomba Chronicle
    - Rural Weekly
  - local - Highfields Herald

All stakeholders, including the Environment Protection Agency and the media, were invited to visit the on-farm composting site on September 10th 2002. This opportunity was used to demonstrate the on-farm composting process, to present the finished compost as a high quality product and to provide an update on the progress of the project.

Visit of on-farm composting operation by stakeholders and the media

Figure 20 Visit of on-farm composting operation by stakeholders and the media

4.2.2 Education campaign

The education campaign was specifically targeted at households in the trial area and sought to:

The education campaign started off with a letter from the mayor of Crows Nest that was delivered to all households in the designated trial area during the last week in February 2002. The letter (see Appendix II) outlined briefly the dilemma of ever increasing amounts of waste going to landfill and the need to address this issue. The mayor went on to point out that Crows Nest Shire is actively addressing the problem by looking for and trialling potential solutions. The mayor stressed the importance of the trial and asked residents for support and help in conducting the organics recycling project.

Two weeks after residents had received the mayor's appeal for support, each household in the trial area was visited. The doorstep visits were considered very important in ensuring the successful introduction of the new source separation scheme for organics as they served to:

Information brochure

Figure 21 Information brochure

Both personal contact with residents and provision of the comprehensive information brochure were key factors in the education campaign. Development of the information brochure gave rise to the 'Highfields Organic Recycling Project' (Figure 21). This name for the organics collection and on-farm composting trial facilitated identification and support for the scheme among residents in Highfields and the shire. However, providing the project with an identifiable and easily repeatable name also aided presentation and promotion of the project outside Crows Nest Shire.

The full content of the information brochure can be seen in Appendix II. The brochure provided residents with key information such as

Apart from providing verbal and written information, doorstep visits were also used to provide householders with kitchen tidy bins (for more details see Section 4.3.1). Each household received an information brochure and a kitchen tidy bin, regardless of whether they participated in the organics recycling scheme or opted not to do so.

Once the doorstep visits were completed, and delivery of organic recycling bins was imminent, the project was officially launched on Thursday, March 21st 2002 in conjunction with a Crows Nest Shire Council meeting. The Mayor of Crows Nest Shire launched the Highfields Organic Recycling Project. Other brief speeches were made by the Mayor of neighbouring Rosalie Shire, the project manager and the farmer who was going to process and utilise the organic materials at his farm. All key stakeholders in the project were invited to the launch as well as the local and regional media (Win Regional Television, ABC Radio, Highfields Community Radio, the Toowoomba Chronicle, the Highfields Herald and the Crows Nest Advertiser).

Delivery of the organics recycling bins on the following Saturday (23.3.2002) provided another opportunity to promote the Highfields Organic Recycling Project, to answer questions, to discuss certain aspects of the scheme if they were raised by residents and to accept notification from residents if they were not willing to participate in the trial.

By the time all bins were delivered, 67 residents had declared that they did not want to participate in the organics recycling scheme. Reasons given for non-participation ranged from full on-site use of all organic materials to fear of having to pay for the bin once the trial was completed. However, 319 out of the 386 households in the trial area were willing to participate in the Highfields Organic Recycling Scheme. This represents a participation rate of 82.6%.

The first 'News Update' was disseminated to residents in the trial area in early August 2002. It reported on developments and future activities within the organics collection and on-farm composting project. A subsequent information sheet was supplied in early September; it contained a calendar with highlighted future collection dates. The last 'News Update' went out in early November. It informed residents not only about progress being made and forthcoming activities, but also about the completion of the organics collection trial and the imminent retrieval of the organics recycling bins. This last 'News Update' was also used to thank residents for their active support of the project and their efforts in reducing waste going to landfill, whether it be through the use of the organic recycling bin or by on-site use and home composting.

See Appendix II for all 'News Updates'.

Highfields State High School was located outside the designated trial area and initially was not part of the project. However, the school joined the program in June as it wanted to reuse organic residues both from the school ground and classrooms. Class 5 students (and their teacher) organised and maintained the collection of organics from kitchen tidy bins that were placed in classrooms. The organics collection in the school was an excellent teaching tool and also a good means of reinforcing the organics separation message in the trial area as well as in the wider community. At the end of the organics collection, the students were rewarded with a trip to the farm to see what happened with the organic material they had collected. For many students, this was their first visit to a farm and the first time they had seen and touched farm animals even though they lived in rural surroundings.

4.3 Provision of Receptacles

4.3.1 Kitchen tidy bin

As mentioned, each household in the trial area received a kitchen tidy bin to facilitate separation of food scraps in the kitchen. Presentation of a 'free' kitchen tidy bin to residents at the outset of the project was seen as an important gesture that usually resulted in:

Kitchen tidy bin and organics recycling bin

Figure 22 Kitchen tidy bin and organics recycling bin

Some manufacturers of waste collection receptacles offered purpose built kitchen tidy bins. Generally, their capacity ranged between 7L and 10L and they cost between $8 and $10 per piece. Purchase of purpose built kitchen tidy bins at the above mentioned price did not seem justified for the eight-month collection trial. Alternatively, 5L ice cream containers with a handle and a tight fitting lid were purchased at $2.33 per piece. Additionally, self-adhesive 'Organic Recycling Only' stickers were purchased ($0.37 / piece) and stuck on the ice cream containers to transform them into kitchen tidy bins (Figure 22) at a cost of $2.70 per piece.

Even though the provided kitchen tidy bins were not as sturdy as the purpose built products, not a single household reported problems with the kitchen tidy bin or that it was broken at the end of the eight-month collection period (see Section 10.3).

4.3.2 Organics recycling bin

Each participating household was provided with an additional wheelie bin that was designated for the collection of garden and kitchen organics.

The earlier audit of Highfields' waste had shown that it contained more than 60% organic materials that could be potentially diverted from landfill through an organics collection scheme. The high organics content, the weekly waste collection in 240L bins and the anticipated fortnightly collection interval for organics made the provision of 240L organic recycling bins a necessity.

Crows Nest Shire's waste and recycling collection contractor was asked to also provide the organics collection service within the framework of the project. The contractor agreed to do so, and, as with existing services, also supply the bins required for the organics collection service. This was factored into the offered collection charges of $1.70 per bin per fortnight (per pick-up).

For the above reasons, it was agreed that the contractor would provide 240L wheelie bins for the organics collection. However, as the set date for delivery of bins drew closer, it became apparent that the contractor was unable to provide 240L bins but only second-hand 120L wheelie bins. When this became apparent, it was too late to look for alternative arrangements and the only option left was to supply residents with 120L wheelie bins for the collection of garden and kitchen organics.

The second-hand bins were repaired and cleaned where necessary. Before delivery, each bin received a sticker that stipulated for 'Organic Recycling Only' (Figure 22). Organic recycling bins were delivered to participating residents on Saturday 23rd of March, slightly over two weeks before the first scheduled collection on April 9th.

4.4 On-farm Composting

Other than the kerbside collection of source separated garden and kitchen organics, on-farm composting of the collected organic materials and on-farm use of the generated products was the second key component of the project. In order to realise these project elements, a farmer had to be found who was willing to cooperate and who also had a suitable site where the composting operation could be established. A list of selection criteria regarding the suitability of farms and proposed composting sites was drawn up before farmers were actively sought to participate. These are outlined in the following sections of the report.

4.4.1 Selection criteria for suitable farms

4.4.1.1 Location

Distance from main source of organic input materials
The farm (composting operation) should be located as close as possible to the main sources of organic input materials to minimise transport costs. Ideally, travelling distance between the main collection area and the farm should be equal to, or less than, the distance to the landfill site. Travelling time should not exceed one hour.

Areas to be avoided for the siting of on-farm composting operations (Based on NSW EPA Guidelines for the use and disposal of biosolids products)
The following areas should not be considered for the establishment of a composting operation:

The following buffer zones to the above listed areas should be observed:

Flat (<3%) and downslope (>3%) - 500m
Upslope - 250m

Prevailing Winds (odour)
The composting site should be placed in a location where prevailing winds and cold air streams will not cause odour or dust problems for neighbouring residences. A sufficient buffer zone (>500 m) has to be observed.

4.4.1.2 Access

The route to the farm should be primarily along main roads and pass through residential areas as little as possible.

Heavy trucks (20 tonnes) have to have all-weather access to the composting site. The unloading area has to provide all-weather access unless an alternative wet weather unloading site is available.

The site should be accessible for deliveries during normal business hours, even though it may be possible to limit access to certain times. Access has to be provided during emergencies.

The site should be fenced to keep farm animals out.

The site may have to be dog-proofed to keep wild dogs out (if the same is required for landfill site).

4.4.1.3 Operational requirements
Machinery and Set Up
Processing

Putrescible and other organic materials that are likely to cause odour have to be mixed with other organic materials and composted in a controlled process at least within 24 hours of delivery. The composting process has to ensure that any pathogens or weeds contained in the input material are eliminated during the composting process.

Leachate and Run-Off

Leachate from the compost piles is required to be collected. It can be used for irrigation of the piles, disposed of into existing slurry lagoons or be treated adequately (e.g. reed bed) before discharge. The drainage and collection system has to be able to handle heavy rainfall events.

Management

Sufficient labour, machinery and other resources have to be available to adequately manage and perform composting and develop it into a successful operation and business venture. Composting has to fit with the overall farming enterprise.

Potential for Co-composting

It may be advantageous if the farm has a supply of manure or other agricultural by-products, either from its own or external activities, to co-compost with the municipal and commercial organic waste materials.

4.4.1.4 Agronomic aspects

The farm has to have sufficient land (preferably arable or row cropping) to be able to utilise the produced compost in a sound agricultural manner. Compost application has to be done in accordance with good agricultural practice and tailored to the specific soils and nutrient requirements of crops grown on the farm. It has to be ensured that the nutrients applied through compost are utilised by the crops grown during a rotation. The use of compost has to be accounted for in the nutrient budget for the entire crop rotation of the farm. The rate of compost application must not exceed current limits for heavy metals or nutrients (see NSW Biosolids Guidelines) and must not contaminate the land in any way.

A compost application plan should be developed which would be part of a more general fertiliser, cropping and farm management plan. Compost can be applied only at certain times of the year and these windows of opportunity have to be identified. Potential application times dictate the required storage capacity for finished compost.

To avoid nutrient runoff or leaching, compost should not be applied prior to heavy rainfall events.

4.4.2 Licensing

Legally, composting in Queensland is considered as 'Soil Conditioner Manufacturing' and as such is an Environmentally Relevant Activity (ERA#53). According to Schedule 1 of the Environmental Protection Regulation 1998, 'Soil conditioner manufacturing is defined as commercially manufacturing soil conditioners (other than spent mushroom compost by a mushroom grower) by receiving and blending, storing, processing, drying or composting organic material or organic waste including for example animal manures, sewage, septic sludges and domestic waste in works having a design production capacity of 200 tonnes or more a year.' As composting is classified as an Environmentally Relevant Activity, an environmental licence under the Environmental Protection Act 1994 and/or development approval under the Integrated Planning Act 1997 has to be obtained if material is processed in works having a design production capacity of 200 tonnes or more a year. If any of the above materials are composted in works having a design production capacity of less than 200 tonnes per year, the EPA may still require an Environmental Management System in place to demonstrate that the involved activities are environmentally benign.

If a licence is required, a detailed management plan containing the following schedules has to be provided:

Schedule A - General Development Conditions
Schedule B - Air
Schedule C - Water
Schedule D - Stormwater Management
Schedule E - Land Application
Schedule F - Noise
Schedule G - Waste Management
Schedule H - Monitoring and Reporting
Schedule I - Definitions
Schedule J - Site Layout Plan

4.4.2.1 On-farm composting

Fundamentally, on-farm composting also falls under the above outlined legal framework. However, the EPA has delegated its responsibilities associated with the licensing of intensive animal industries such as feedlots and piggeries to the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (DPI). The Environmental Protection Act 1994 requires such animal production units to obtain an environmental licence, which can include and cover composting activities. Consequently, if feedlots or piggeries want to establish a commercial composting operation with a capacity of more than 200 tonnes per year, they have to lodge an application with DPI.

All other farming enterprises, including chicken and dairy farmers, that want to undertake composting on a commercial scale above an annual design production capacity of 200 tonnes have to lodge their licence application and negotiate over conditions with EPA, not DPI.

In 2001, at the outset of the project, responsibilities in a situation where a feedlot farmer accepted external organic residues for co-composting, e.g. sawdust or shredded garden organics as bulking agents, were ill defined and represented a legal vacuum. It was not clear whether DPI would retain responsibility and the composting operation was covered under the existing intensive animal industry licence or whether the farmer would need to apply for a new EPA licence under ERA #53. In the meantime, it has been ruled that no licence is required for on-site or on-farm composting of own and imported organic materials as long as all of the finished compost is utilised on-site (i.e. on the farm) and not sold for commercial gain. Charging of a gate fee is not seen as 'commercial gain'.

As a lengthy licensing process could have jeopardised the time frame of this project the on-farm composting operation that was to be used for the processing of kerbside collected organics had to be either covered by an existing licence, be small enough (< 200 t/year) not to require a licence or not be commercially manufacturing soil conditioners.

4.4.3 Finding a suitable farm

The response by farmers showing their willingness to consider cooperation in the organics recycling project by composting and utilising the source separated organic materials was considerably lower than anticipated. Crows Nest Shire Council advertised in the local newspaper for expressions of interest from farmers and word was spread in the local and farming community about this opportunity. Unfortunately there was no response. This was disappointing since farmers could derive considerable benefits from providing on-farm composting services (see Section 1). However, these potential benefits to farmers, not the least that of gaining supplementary income, were probably not promoted and stressed sufficiently in communications with the farming sector.

Anyway, staff at the neighbouring Rosalie Shire Council facilitated contact with a farmer who was prepared to participate in the scheme. A farmer who ran an organic dairy and chicken farm in Rosalie Shire was willing to support the organics recycling project as it realised the concept of returning carbon and nutrients from urban to rural areas and established sustainable cycles on a community and regional level.

4.4.4 The selected farm

The selected farm covered approximately 324 hectares, half of which was grassland and half cultivated. Approximately 70 hectares were irrigated. The farm supported approximately 150 head of cattle, including around 100 milking cows. In addition, about 500 pasture fed laying hens were kept at the farm.

The farm was located some 18 km from Highfields, exactly the same distance as the landfill site. The route to the farm was along main roads and went through one village. A gravel road provided all weather access to the proposed composting site at the farm.

The composting site was located next to the main gravel road leading into the farm, approximately half way between the milking shed (dairy) and the dairy effluent ponds ( The farm provided some cow and chicken manure for co-composting and dairy effluent for irrigation of windrows. The dairy effluent ponds were cleaned out in May 2002 and the dried pond sludge was subsequently also used for co-composting.

Guidelines for on-farm composting were developed and handed over to the farmer (see Appendix III). However these guidelines only provided a basic overview and focused on preventing environmental problems. The way in which the composting operation was organised is detailed later in this report.

Location of composting site

Figure 23 Location of composting site