Regional Composting Infrastructure

PRC’s Program in Regional Composting Initiatives began in the fall of 2008 and had one overarching motivation: to maximize the regional environmental and employment benefits of the vast resource frontier of compostable waste. To that end, we have sought to help build, with partners, a composting infrastructure that maximizes

  • the amount of compostable waste diverted to composting;
  • the amount of compost sold to/used by
    • farmers to build their soils; and
    • groups to heal and build healthy soils on degraded land (vacant lots, mined land, brownfields, etc)
  • and understanding, engagement, participation in, and support for and in these ongoing, growing relationships


What is Compost?

Compost is ‘soil organic matter’: that part of topsoil that is or was once alive.

What Is Compostable Waste?

Compostable waste includes a wide range of materials that we currently throw away (to be buried in landfills) or burn (and goes up in smoke) that could become compost, the most valuable part of healthy soils:

  • Leaves; grass clippings; yard-waste; and wood-waste (if not painted or treated);
  • Paperboard, cardboard and a wide range of paper (if uncoated);
  • Food-waste (including meats, bones, dairy, sauces, etc)
  • Hay, straw, sawdust, manure (of herbivores)
  • Gypsum, waste drywall;

How Much of this Stuff is There?

Compostable Waste is a vast resource frontier. Taken together, compostables are the largest portion of our waste stream. According to both US- and PA-specific studies, it comprises over 50% of landfilled municipal solid waste. This comes to over 4.7 million tons per year not including waste from farms, sawmills, food-processors, sewage treatment plants, etc.

Landfilling this material does not involve the environmental risks of other types of materials (e.g. household chemicals, electronics), it may well be the greatest loss of potential opportunities. This is because compost is the single most important material input in

  • improving the long-term productivity of farmland;
  • in healing and building healthy soils on degraded land; and in
  • employing more people in these worthy and important tasks.

What Is Composting?

For hundreds of millions of years, long before humans composted (or were even around), a wide range of species evolved— bacteria, fungi, insects, beetles, worms— as ‘detritivores’. Their crucial role has been to break down the stuff falling from life, such as fallen leaves, branches, fruit, fecal matter, dead plants and animals, and turn it into the foundations of new life.

When humans consciously direct and manage these natural processes of decomposition for greater efficiency, it is called ‘Composting’.

What is Compost Good For?

1) Building Soils on Farmland

Pennsylvania currently has 7.7 million acres of farmland. Fully 55% is in pasture, forage or woodland. Only 29% is in grains, 1% is in vegetables and 1% is in fruit trees. Most cropland acres are low in soil organic matter: a result of our heavy rains and inadequate soil cover.

Compost is the single most important material input in building the long-term health, strength, productivity and employment potential of our farmland. Applying best-practice rates of compost to farmland over 2 or 3 years…

  • Increases yields (reduces losses) over wet and dry periods
  • Reduces need, use and expense of irrigation, synthetic fertilizers and biocides
  • Increases yields on marginal lands
  • Allow greater diversity of production to meet growing consumer interest in local and regional foods, especially when these are grown sustainably

2) Healing Degraded Soils and Building Healthy Soil on Degraded Sites

There are currently more than 200,000 acres of non-farm degraded land in Southwestern PA alone. This land includes old industrial sites (brownfields), formerly mined areas, and urban vacant lots.

Compost is the single most important material input in the healing and transformation of this land into healthful, attractive and productive uses (gardens, greenhouses, farms, parks, etc.), and in generating employment.

Soil Organic Matter and its Benefits

Soil Organic Matter (SOM) is that part of soil that is or was once alive. There are three types of benefits that soils gain when SOM increases from <3% to 5% or greater.

  • Structural. Compost increases soil porosity, and thereby a soil’s capacity to absorb and hold water, air and nutrients, as well as for these to circulate and exit the topsoil through roots, drainage, etc.
  • Chemical. Compost provides a wide range of macro- and micro-nutrients. While it does not provide nitrogen in the concentrations of commercial fertilizer, it provides all nutrients in forms that are accessible to plant roots and at concentrations that they can readily absorb. Compost also neutralizes pH (e.g. reducing acidity) and increases Cation Exchange Capacity, a soil’s capacity to hold nutrients.
  • Ecological: Compost increases the soil’s biodiversity, including a range of organisms that naturally control pathogen (disease) and pest outbreaks through predation and parasitism.

Program Achievements to Date

Since May, 2013, our program has:

  • Helped 8 farmers obtain composting permits from PA-DEP, with 4 more currently in process
  • Helped five of these farmers
    • Form a Co-operative
    • Plan, monitor and manage effective, no-nuisance composting
    • Obtain regular deliveries of compostable waste

Participating farmers have

  • Received over 9000 tons of compostable waste
  • Produced over 4500 tons of quality compost
  • Applied most of this material to build their own soils
  • Received over $133,000 in additional gross income




Program Supporter & Partners

PRC gratefully acknowledges the following foundations, companies and agencies for their past and ongoing support for this program:

  • The Colcom Foundation
  • The US Dept of Agriculture
  • PA Dept of Environmental Protection
  • Nova Chemicals

Key Program Partners to Date.

  • Penn State University Faculty:
  • Prof. Heather Karsten; Prof. Elsa Sanchez; Prof. Richard Stehouwer;
  • Wilkinsburg Borough
  • New Wilmington Borough
  • Chippewa Township
  • South Union Township
  • Beaver County Planning Commission
  • Lawrence County Planning Department
  • Lawrence County Conservation District
  • City of New Castle
  • Keystone Development Center
  • Anthony Adonizio, Attorney
  • Bernard Lamm, Civil Engineer
  • Prof. Vikram Khanna, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Univ of Pittsburgh