IN cities and towns around the country, municipal compost facilities are becoming increasingly popular as a way to recycle organic waste. Currently, there are 800 to 1,000 compost facilities in the United States. At such facilities organic matter - such as leaves, branches, garbage, and manure - can be recycled into fertilizers and mulch. These facilities can serve as alternatives to landfills, where both recyclable and nonrecyclable waste is thrown together and piles up. Such waste can't biodegrade easily due to a lack of oxygen.
Twenty to 50 percent of the nation's waste stream is yard waste that can be recycled, according to Robin Woods of the US Environmental Protection Agency. States faced with overburdened landfills are placing restrictions on dumping organic waste. Currently, 10 states ban yard waste from landfills. New York is considering banning leaves, timber, and brush from its landfills.
In addition, communities are issuing bans on leaf burning to curb air pollution. New York issued a four-day statewide ban on all outdoor burning this fall.
``Clearly there is a strong interest in the state and at local levels to burn less trash, to burn less material that contributes to air pollution and which could be recycled and composted,'' says William Becker of the National Association of State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administration.
David Gurney of Resource Integration Systems Ltd., an environmental consulting firm, notes that over the past 10 years, composting has developed into a realistic alternative for organic waste disposal. RIS has drawn up a plan for a composting facility to be built in Los Angeles. If built according to the plan, it could be the largest compost facility in the country. According to Mr. Gurney, the Los Angeles plant, which could be completed in three to five years, would handle more than 1,600 tons of yard waste a day, which amounts to 35 percent of Los Angeles' total waste stream.
The city of Urbana, Ill., and its neighboring city, Champaign, started up the country's oldest compost facility in 1973. Sitting on 20 acres of an old landfill, the facility is seen as a model solution to the problem of yard waste taking up valuable landfill space.
``Other agencies thought we were putting money into it uselessly,'' says James Darling, Urbana's Public Works director.
Along with easing the burden of overcrowded landfills, compost facilities help pay for themselves. This is the case in Florida.
``There is a good market for compost here because Florida is a top-soil-poor state,'' says Steve Crosby of the Waste Recycling Division in Jacksonville, Fla.
Since Florida banned yard waste from landfills, Jacksonville has started a test program for composting. Mr. Crosby notes that composting is seen as an important component of Florida's waste program, which, much to the anger of environmental groups, includes incineration.
At the Urbana facility, as in other compost facilities, compost is sold as mulch to gardeners. Wood chips and fire wood from tree scraps are sold there as well. The tree refuse brings in over $15,000 to help offset a $180,000 total cost to operate the facility each year.
In addition, over $95,000 is generated from a $3 per cubic yard dumping fee for people who bring in waste. The balance of the facility's cost is paid for by city and county agencies.
The location of a compost facility is an important consideration. Many municipalities, out of space constraints, are setting up compost facilities on landfills.
New Jersey refused to renew a permit to operate a facility it deemed hazardous in Bergen County. The facility, which sits on a landfill, is near a pipeline, water pipe, and railroad track.
``In this case we are concerned with the proximity of the landfill to the surrounding hazards,'' says Terry McAdams of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The issue is still pending in court.
Turning yard waste into mulch quickly is essential to keep compost centers running efficiently. Environmental experts acknowledge equipment makes the difference. Expensive European tiller machines which continually rotate organic matter and monitor temperature levels of the compost shorten the process from two to three years to just 12 to 16 weeks.