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Home > Feature Articles > Landscaping > Plants and Habitat Strategies for Sustainable Landscaping

Composting California for Healthier Landscapes and Food

Compost is both a backyard and industrial contribution to restoring soil quality in California.

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Composting California for Healthier Landscapes and Food

Solutions Executive Summary

  • All businesses can use compost to reduce water and energy consumption (and cost)
  • Composting restores soil quality, water quality, and air quality
  • Composting food and landscaping scraps reduces waste and increases conservation
  • Cities can provide the curbside food and green-waste composting system
  • Even offices can compost food scraps!
BFI Organics compost operatiion> <br clear=

Photo courtesy of BFI Organics.

Food Is a Basic Foundation of Industry and Community Stability

There are many ways to maximize food and land conservation. In America, we don't think much about shortages of food, but with the new ethanol challenge of "food or fuel", food availability has reentered our business dialog. Higher prices for food are beginning to emerge. Soil quality and erosion are issues in California's agriculture regions. Cost of living affects wages and healthcare costs for employees. Water allocations between cities and agricultural regions are being adjusted.

Food matters. And food depends on soil quality.

Schools, restaurants, grocery stores, corporate cafeterias and commercial landscapers, farmers, even construction and development companies can participate in composting.

Food matters. And soil quality matters – both in urban and rural areas. But -- most businesses don't deal directly with food…or do they? The food cycle involves broader issues than a plate of veggies. Water quality and fresh water allocations. Chemical pollutants in the soil and water supply. Returning organic matter to the soil vs. burning it. And even composting the lunchroom's supply of coffee grounds and lunch scraps. All those business practices affect our longterm food supply and the shortterm quality of our food supply.

May is "Compost Awareness Month" and in researching this article we uncovered some intriguing stories. Did you know that worm composting (vermiculture) is going on in unlikely business locations such as the District Attorney's office in Alameda County? Did you know that quality compost actually provides an antibiotic for plant health in your campus landscape?

Commercial scale compost is processed using plant debris as well as food waste. All businesses can use compost – whether it is for container gardening, indoor plantscapes, corporate grounds…or commercial agriculture. The benefits of compost to the end user include water conservation through reduced evaporation, healthier plants, lower water consumption from irrigation…and lower emissions through lower mowing and maintenance that uses fossil fuels.

Jepson Prairie Organics in Vacaville, CA collects food waste from schools, grocery stores and other sources to create industrial-scale compost.

Schools and restaurants provide the "green" part of the Jepson compost recipe.

Compost ingredients are sorted and aerated for consistent quality.

The end result is fine, nutrient-rich soil amendments that add beneficial structure to rebuild humus in soils.

Photos courtesy of Jepson Prairie Organics.

Food Waste Collection in Alameda County

Restaurants, health care and residential facilities…and even companies with lunchrooms can feed the compost treasures of California by handling their food scraps within a sustainable system. Alameda County offers a visionary example how how the public and private sectors can work together.

Teresa Eade, Senior Program Manager of, reports that through their incentive program to cities in Alameda County, twelve out of fourteen cities now offer food waste collection from restaurants and high-volume facilities, as well as residential curbside recycling bins. gave one-time subsidies to cities to implement the programs and help promote them with advertising.

Certified Compost Sourcing

"Recycling plant debris is part of sustainable landscaping. This green waste is growing…it's now 12% of our waste stream. Businesses can look at their recycling programs to prevent waste in the first place through sustainable horticultural processes. A couple ways to save on both cost and waste include not over-watering…and not over-fertilizing. Both common practices stimulate growth and disease – and a lot of unnecessary waste material going into the waste stream," she explains.

"Using compost is a great way to close the loop on recycling organic materials. Compost actually prevents health problems for plants. It is loaded with beneficial microbes that help plant systems defend themselves against pests like aphids and diseases. The antibiotic quality is for plants…not people! But 95% of microbes are beneficial and they strengthen plants to out-compete pests."

The US Compost Council conducts a "Seal of Testing Assurance" program that compost producers can enter. Lab analysis certifies the quality of their compost. You can improve your landscaping practices by asking for products that are "STA Certified by the US Compost Council."

There are different grades of compost. Some compost is made from "urban waste" which can include ground up tree trimmings, wood and even construction debris. That compost is not suitable for edible gardens. Certified "organic compost" is processed organic waste from organic agriculturer…and provides compost without chemicals from pesticides or fertilizers, etc. This "Certified organic compost" is suitable for edible gardens.

Resources to help you identify your compost solutions include:

Labs that certify compost...and can help you locate certified compost sources in your area:

A&L Western Laboratories

Soil Control Lab

Soil and Plant Laboratories -Southern California Office

California companies that provide "Seal of Testing Assurance"...

BFI Organics- Newby Island Compost Facility 1601 Dixon Landing Road
Milpitas, CA 95035
Attention: Hilary Gans
Phone: 408.945.2836

BFI-Organics is one of the largest composters in the US. The San Jose location (pictured above), collects and processes 1,000 cubic yards/day of yard trimmings and wood wastes from Bay Area cities into soil amendments. Compost and colored mulch are some of the products sold wholesale to large landscapers and material yards.

Jepson Prairie Organics
6426 Hay Road
Vacaville, CA 95687
(800) 208-2370
Kim Carrier

The compost produced by Jepson Prairie Organics is made from a diverse feedstock including food scraps from San Francisco's finest restaurants. Over 1,400 businesses and thousands of San Francisco residents provide food scraps and other compostable material as part of the composting program. In addition to marketing its compost to the organic farming industry, JPO sells its material to retail soil bagging operations, landscape material yards, highway erosion control projects, and vineyards.

The US Composting Council Provides Certification Programs

You can learn more about composting resources at the US Composting Council's website:

EPA Composting information

The US EPA encourages composting for both residential and business applications.

There is a balancing act to consider. Too much nitrogen in the compost mix emits greenhouse gases. As with everything...there's a method to doing it right!

Compost contains both carbon and nitrogen sources, which can be simplified as browns for carbon (e.g., leaves, straw, woody materials) and greens for nitrogen (e.g., grass and food scraps). Adequate sources of carbon and nitrogen are important for microorganism growth and energy. The ideal ratio is 30 parts brown to 1 part green. Odor and other problems can occur if the ratio or any of the factors discussed below are not in the correct balance.

Microbes in the pile create considerable heat and essentially "cook" the compost. Temperatures between 90 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit are common in properly maintained compost piles, but may not reach these levels in backyard compost piles. These high temperatures are necessary for rapid composting as well as for destroying weed seeds, insect larvae, and potentially harmful bacteria. When the compost is finished, it has a crumbly texture throughout the pile.

Composting Facts and Figures

  • Red wigglers (i.e., the worms used in vermicomposting) eat their weight in organic matter each day.
  • Almost 60 percent of the municipal solid waste produced in the United States (including paper) is compostable material.
  • There are more than 3,200 yard trimmings composting facilities nationwide.

Environmental Benefits of Compost

Compost use can result in a variety of environmental benefits. The following are a few of the most important benefits:

Compost enriches soils

Compost has the ability to help regenerate poor soils. The composting process encourages the production of beneficial micro-organisms (mainly bacteria and fungi) which in turn break down organic matter to create humus. Humus--a rich nutrient-filled material--increases the nutrient content in soils and helps soils retain moisture. Compost has also been shown to suppress plant diseases and pests, reduce or eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers, and promote higher yields of agricultural crops.

Compost helps cleanup (remediate) contaminated soil

The composting process has been shown to absorb odors and treat semivolatile and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including heating fuels, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and explosives. It has also been shown to bind heavy metals and prevent them from migrating to water resources or being absorbed by plants. The compost process degrades and, in some cases, completely eliminates wood preservatives, pesticides, and both chlorinated and nonchlorinated hydrocarbons in contaminated soils.

Compost helps prevent pollution

Composting organic materials that have been diverted from landfills ultimately avoids the production of methane and leachate formulation in the landfills. Compost has the ability to prevent pollutants in stormwater runoff from reaching surface water resources. Compost has also been shown to prevent erosion and silting on embankments parallel to creeks, lakes, and rivers, and prevents erosion and turf loss on roadsides, hillsides, playing fields, and golf courses.

Using compost offers economic benefits

Using compost can reduce the need for water, fertilizers, and pesticides. It serves as a marketable commodity and is a low-cost alternative to standard landfill cover and artificial soil amendments. Composting also extends municipal landfill life by diverting organic materials from landfills and provides a less costly alternative to conventional methods of remediating (cleaning) contaminated soil.

Yard trimmings composting. Composting also occurs on a large scale, operated by private sector firms or community public works departments. At these sites, the compostable material is taken to a central location. There, it is typically processed in aerated windrows, where organics are formed into rows or long piles. Some sites will add compostable MSW into the mix to keep items out of the landfill. The finished compost can be sold, given away, or used by the company or municipality in local landscaping projects.

Mixed MSW composting. Composting of mixed municipal solid waste is another option. This generally occurs at a medium-to-large scale facility, operated by private sector firms or community public works departments. Generally, mixed MSW is received at the site. Recyclables such as glass and aluminum, and non-compostables are removed early in the process. The remaining organic material is composted, generally using aerated windrows. In-vessel composting, where the material is left to decompose while enclosed in a temperature and moisture controlled chamber, is another possibility. Final screening steps remove any remaining plastic film and similar contents. The finished compost can be sold, given away, or used by the company or municipality in local landscaping projects.

Biosolids composting. EPA endorses the composting of biosolids (or sewage sludge) as a way of managing this material. EPA characterizes biosolids composting and offers guidance and technical assistance via the Office of Wastewater Management in EPA's Office of Water.


Teresa Eade
Senior Program Manager
Bay Friendly Landscaping

CASE STUDIES are found on the StopWaste website at:

US Composting Council's website:

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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