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Industrial Composting: Background and Overview
Table of Contents
Background and Overview
Operations and Technology
Environmental Regulations
Reasons for Change
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Composting is the biological decomposition of organic material into compost, a soil amendment rich in humic compounds (often called "humus"). Composting is a natural recycling process and consists of two key steps:

  1. The aerobic (with oxygen) decomposition of biodegradable materials
  2. The maturation of decomposed organic material to reduce potential phytotoxicity

When these two steps are executed properly a quality dark-brown earthlike product called compost is generated.  Compost has distinct chemical, physical and biological benefits in soils.

Composting is an aerobic process, which use microorganism such as bacteria and fungi to breakdown the organic material under controlled conditions, therefore optimizing the decomposition process.  This process can occur naturally or more rapidly depending on the method and technology used. These microbes require oxygen (O), moisture (H2O) and a feedstock with the proper carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratio in order to grow and multiply.  Heat, water vapor and carbon dioxide are generated as outputs of the composting process  by both chemical changes in the compost pile and by microorganisms as they transform the raw materials into a stable soil conditioner (compost). Active composting is typically characterized by a high-temperature or thermophilic (45-70’C) phase that sanitizes the product through destruction of pathogens and weed seeds, followed by a lower temperature or mesophilic (20-45’C) phase that allows for the product to mature while completing the decomposition process (also known as curing). Compost can be produced from many different feedstocks, including off-spec products, source-sparated biodegradable solid wastes, water and wastewater  treatment residuals, animal manures and carcasses, and landscaping and land clearing debris.  State and federal regulations exist to ensure that composting, as a waste management technique, is properly sited, designed and operated, and that only composts that meet prescribed standards for metals, inerts and pathogen levels are allowed to be distributed.

An ancient technology, compost dates as far back as the Akkadian Empire 2350 B.C. It was documented on a set of clay tablets that the people of Mesopotamian Valley used manure during the agricultural process. The 18th century Romans, Greeks and the Tribes of Israel referred to compost as “dung” and “dunghill”. “Dung” was referred to as “fuel” or “manure” and during this time was spread directly onto the soil and composted with street sweeping. They viewed compost as a key factor for maintaining healthy soil and essential for productive agricultural.

The use of compost is also sited in the Bible –Luke 13:8- the parable of the fig tree. The gardener pleads for the delay until he can “ dig about it and put on manure”. This parable speaks of digging holes about the roots and filling the spaces with manure; this technique was used for fertilizing trees.  This custom is still practice in Italy today.

Compost was also sited in literary works such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet “And do not spread the compost on the weeds to make them ranker”. Also William Caxton, a 15th century painter  “…by which dongych and compostying the felds gladeth”.
In the early settlement of United States it is document that the Native Americans and Europeans used stable manure as a form of compost. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were strong advocates of preserving the land as well. Washington thought the best compost was made of “sheep dung and from the Gullyes on the hillside which seemed to be purer then other” (the Rodale Guide to Composting). Jefferson on the other hand used manure to maintain the fertility of his fields.
George Washington Carver; botanist-chemist-agriculturist advised farmers to “Make your own fertilizer on the farm. Buy as little as possible. A year-round compost pile is absolutely essential and can be had with little labor and practically no cash outlay” found in an agriculture bulletin entitled “How to Build Up and Maintain the Virgin Fertility of Our Soil”.

Best known as the father of organic method; Sir Albert Howard; British scientist found the Indore method of composting while living in Israel; between the years of 1904 to 1934. Through experimentation he found the best compost consist of three times as much plant matter as manure layered in a sandwich fashion and then turned or mixed by earthworms during the decomposition process.
In 1942; J.I. Rodale introduces the American community to the composting methods of Howard. He is known as the pioneer of the organic method in America. Howard published a monthly article called “Organic Farming and Gardening”; using it as a vehicle to share Howard’s methods and expanding the knowledge concerning composting as further experimentation developed.
In the early 1970s composting was practiced through-out the U.S on an individual basis; however industrial composting facilities struggled due to lack of buy in among market users; financial problems; and inconsistent results. During the late 1980s and early 1990s the interest of industrial compost expanded due to federal regulations banning yard trimming going to state landfills and the growth of waste diversion and recycling initiatives and mandates.



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Hub Last Updated: 3/10/2009