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Composting, a key component to the Circular Economy
By Tim Duggan

Composting has attracted much attention as a viable and sensible alternative for treatment of organic waste.

Filed under
Waste Management
October 7 2021
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The conceptual development of resource management over the past few decades has been accompanied by a fundamental shift in the approach to solid waste management from “getting rid” of waste to a resource management approach seeking to capture value from waste material through reuse and recovery. This embodies the concept of Waste as a Raw Material.

Studies have shown that up to 60% of the municipal solid waste (MSW) in most cities in the GCC Region is organic. This organic material can be used to make compost which can be subsequently mixed with soil to provide valuable plant nutrients and improve soil structure. This sustainable organic fertiliser can be a substitute for imported chemical and peat-based fertilisers.

Background to the waste problem

The countries of the Middle East have some of the highest per capita waste generation across the world. It has been estimated that the total volume of solid waste generated in the GCC region is around 120 million tons per year of which little is recycled or processed.  Statistics indicate that organic waste accounts for over 50% household solid waste in some nations. 

Logic and intuition should dictate that this material would be readily used to produce compost. The reality is the opposite for a number of reasons – lack of regulation, poor or no standards, cultural, financial, a prevalence of cheap chemicals and poor organic substitutes, poor/limited data, market inertia (“it cannot be done”). What is lacking is a cogent and integrated waste framework in which decisions are made on the basis of science, proven technology and best practice and not on the basis of short-term aspirations.

The scientific basis of this is well understood; successful application of these principles requires experience as is more or less true for all applied sciences. It must be borne in mind that composting is an aerobic process by which organic materials are degraded through the activities of successive groups of micro-organisms; it is an environmentally sound scientific way to reduce organic wastes and produce organic fertiliser or soil conditioner. 

Composting has attracted much attention as a viable and sensible alternative for treatment of organic waste. To do this effectively it has to be done on an industrial scale, it should be under-pinned by a legal framework based upon scientific criteria with properly enforced regulation with proven tracible standards. Such a framework will encourage market development, economic stability and business planning.

The process of composting 

A range of composting systems can be designed to manage the decomposition process to yield a high-quality compost product without creating a negative environmental impact.  Given the tonnages and volumes of wastes being produced, delivering a high-quality high-volume product makes it necessary to move away from a small-scale process to a level and scale which necessitates investment in plant and equipment. This is a major shift from the current market which is entirely price driven with low standards being the norm.

When considering the macro approach, composting is useful in addressing environmental problems. When  compost is added to soil it acts like a carbon sink. The long-term effects of poor waste management are damaging to ecosystems and climate change, the effects of which in turn will affect the sustainability of the region

The financial sustainability of MSW management is a major issue for the Middle East. The focus of waste is upon collection of waste with investment by the waste company being in the transport and transfer. In order to achieve financial sustainability, the important first step is to develop an understanding of the actual cost of MSW services. Once the cost is defined, the financial gap can be calculated and target revenue levels can be defined. Currently there is no clear vision of costs and revenues particularly as they pertain to deploying technologies with high capital or running costs. If domestic waste remains a free service then there can little encouragement for the private sector to develop the necessary business models for materials recovery or introducing modern infrastructure. The funding system for waste management seems mainly characterised by the absence of financial incentives and effective cost recovery mechanisms, 

The  development of composting infrastructure 

From our experience the development of composting infrastructure has four interrelated phases. 

  • Phase 1 being the modernisation of collection vehicles, equipment and methodologies. 
  • Phase 2, the regionalisation of collection and transport services centred on regional facilities, e.g. additional infrastructure to handle primary wastes separation through Mechanical Biological Separation
  • Phase 3, the construction of industrial scale composting plants . This is lacking, the typical method of municipal waste disposal in most of the region is dumping,
  • Phase 4, the adoption of integrated and holistic strategies including developing of quality assurance schemes, compost specification and green procurement policies..

Waste management is not free and a model has to be produced whereby investment in 1-4 can be financially justified. The interdependence between these phases is crucial. This is sometimes forgotten when introducing a Phase 4 technology when there a lack of links or interdependencies with other Phases. Investing in a new plant is useless in the absence of joined up thinking.  

Reducing waste to landfill & developing sustainable organic resources

In order for a facility to operate at an optimum level a number of different criteria must be met:

  1. Technology that allows control of key composting parameters based upon accurate tonnages and composition data.
  2. Detailed understanding of both the chemical and physical elements to support the micro biological activity.
  3. Competent well-trained staff that understand customer needs and the science of composting
  4. Mobile plant and machinery suited to the specific needs of the compost facility and not off the shelf solutions
  5. Tried and testing maintenance regime to eliminate unscheduled down time.
  6. Understanding of quality and safety protocols and how these are best met.
  7. Any composting facility should be run to high standards to allow for treatment of a range of bio-wastes and animal bi-products; it must meet the highest environmental and horticultural standards. Failure to achieve this undermines market strategy.

The end result is certified compost that can be utilised by horticultural and soil industries and used as a valuable natural fertiliser. By recovering high quality raw materials from waste which are then processed and transformed and returned into the economic cycle we tap into innovative sources which can be used as a substitute for fossil fuels and produce fertilisers and soil improvers. 

Environmental Benefits

The best approach for dealing with MSW is by implementing an integrated and sustainable management approach that defines the role of state agencies and ensures the good health of the society and the environment. Diversion from landfill ensures that valuable natural resources are not lost. By incorporating compost with soil the performance of the soil is increased resulting in less requirements for both chemical fertilizer and water, which in turn improve food security. 

Enrich is a successful, award winning composting and soil blending company. Based in Ireland and has extensive experience of composting in the UAE.

*The author is the Managing Director at Enrich.