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USCC: 25 Years and Growing
The People, Programs and Conditions that Shaped the Organization!
You may remember the early 90s—our first introduction to the world-wide-web, the Gulf War, the retirement of Magic Johnson and the Rodney King trial; Silence of the Lambs and “Achy Breaky Heart”.
Narrow your focus to the environmental movement and it will begin to come back to you.
In 1987, the Mobro garbage barge was making its way up and down the East Coast in search of a home.
BioCycle Magazine was still a gleam in the eye of Ina Goldstein, whose husband Jerry had been publishing Compost Science. The ingredients that led to the first industry organization for composting were present.
In this environment, the second gathering of the SWCC occurred, but conversations had begun to escalate that year about separate collection of organics—which became the topic of an after-hours meeting at the 1993 BioCycle magazine conference. The group that met was called SCOR.
The SWCC put more emphasis on source separation after the SCOR members joined the board. It was an interesting mix between the corporate “suit and tie” members of the SWCC and the advocates and program/facility operators who came to the table through SCOR. It was a new experience for some of them to sit at a gleaming corporate conference table with fellow board members who represented multi-million dollar companies, Rhonda remembered.
In the mid-90s, a total of $30 million dollars in investment, according to Charlie Cannon, executive director at the time, was used largely for studies and reports from scientists like Frank Gouin, Rufus Chaney, Pat Millner, and Eliot Epstein.
The money was also spent on education and training. Rhonda and staff member Rebecca Roe worked on the Composting Council’s National Backyard Composting Program, a “train the trainer” program.
Another accomplishment that lives on: Phil Legge, a Proctor and Gamble employee working on USCC projects, wrote the first Compost Training Manual.
Jeff Gage remembers meeting in Seattle to flesh out the first “in person” training, that eventually became the Compost Operations Training Course.
“Oley Sheremeta and I worked on curriculum for the first courses using the new manual; we met a local pub went through chapters and shared our experiences in the subject chapters, and put our own test together,” Jeff remembers.
Meanwhile, though, the sense of urgency for the corporate participation in the new USCC was flagging. Momentum around MSW composting and the garbage crisis faltered and Proctor and Gamble’s funding shrunk to $2 million in 1998 to $750,0000 in 1999.
Jack Hoeck, of Rexius Industries, one of USCC’s past presidents, decided to try out one of the Composting Council’s conferences in 2000, and got a rude awakening at the sparse attendance. “We went to this conference expecting to learn from all these experts, and we looked around and there weren’t many of us in the room,” he remembered. Sharon Barnes was another new person whom he met at that meeting. She had convinced her team at Barnes Nursery to try composting.
“Ohio only had three sites so I had to go look for information nationally, I had made some phone calls in 92 prior to my first annual meeting,” she said. She spoke about her research at the conference, and was treated like a rock star, she remembers. “It was because I was asking questions of all these people before I came, about composting hog hair,” she said. “People at the conference kept talking about ‘the composter from Ohio’, and I looked around and said, who are they talking about?—imagine my shock when I realized it was me.”
“When I raised my hand and started asking questions, people treated me like a rock star. They were so excited,” she said.
The shrinkage of the Composting Council’s active members and budget continued at an accelerated pace after that.
Longtime board member Wayne King said it was a nervewracking time. “The biggest difference after P & G pulled their funding out, was we went back to a membership driven organization, and trying to put the wheels back on the wagon and get it rolling again. Those were the rough years…Rod Tyler and Sharon Barnes did an incredible job; Sharon paid for a lot of it out of her own pocket.”
A transition committee of Will Brenton, Jim McNelly and JH Dane joined Sharon and Rod to figure out next steps for the depleted USCC, whose treasury dropped to $18000 and members to 50)
Rhonda Sherman remembers, “The Composting Council just seemed to collapse and go away; but Sharon and Rod were trying to stick their finger in the dyke. Ginny Black and Sharon held everything together; Ginny used to practically run the conference.”
Listen here to Sharon tell why she decided to step in.
Cary Oshins, now USCCs director of education and advocacy, remembers the days. “I came to the council in around 2000, when Sharon was the volunteer E/D. I was working for Rodale Institute and my boss nominated me for the board. We were at our nadir; we were down to about 50 members.”
Leadership changes eventually settled in with Stuart Buckner, who had been board president, becoming Executive Director from his location in Islip, NY.
Ron Alexander, who had entered the industry selling and brokering compost in 1984, remembers the decline.
The shrinkage, he said, forced a rethinking of the organization’s mission. “When I was a board member I tried to be very vocal about our members being our customers; what do our customers need? And what do we need to do to grow the industry? If you’re an organization like ours and you are not helping the industry grow, what are you really doing?”
The first official Board president of the era echoed that feeling. Kevin Tritz: “The emphasis was to build up the membership and the annual conference.” (Kevin Tritz was president 2002-2004) “We also wanted to see the USCC run as a business; in the past, every entity was doing its own thing, but we worked to consolidate it.”
Ginny Black, along with Sig Shirley and Dave Benke, was one of the leaders of Minnesota’s push in the 90s towards source separated organics composting by facilitating equipment grants for screens and other processing equipment. The purpose: to help counties separate high-value feedstock. The national “wind” began to change, she remembers, when the corporate members in USCC began to withdraw their participation due to a drop in focus on landfill space. In the end, it turned out to be what was needed to allow the smaller, source-separated compost industry to gain a foothold. The conferences, small as they were, were critical in bonding what became the core of the industry.
Listen to Ginnys recollections here.
COMPOSTING COUNCIL CONFERENCES OVER THE YEARS
Noel Lyons has always made sure McGill Compost was represented at USCC Conferences. “That first conference was very helpful, proof positive that we were not alone.,” he remembers. “Things like access to knowledge in the early mid 90s— pre universal access to internet information. We would find out technical info about compost performance; and learning about the equipment that was available was always an important thing to find out through conferences.”
Seal of Testing Assurance: The Standards that Have Kept the Industry Aligned
The Seal of Testing Assurance Program, launched in 1999, became a positive focus point for a Council in rebuild mode. It was the direct fruit of the corporate members’ research investment made in the first years of the council.
Companies that have thrived and grown in the decades since the USCC began credit the research and confidence in the standards set by the STA program with providing a platform to present quality compost to regulators, customers and consumers.
Said Kevin Tritz (see video here) “When I got into the business, you could hardly give compost away; working on the STA program gave USCC the continuity and a huge drive to get compost to the level it is at today; before there was no standard that ties across the whole country.”
McGill Compost has embraced STA compost as the standard for all of their products. “If and when we look back 100 years from now and we pick out a half dozen major milestones, that has got to be at the very top,” says Noel Lyons. “Everybody is on the bandwagon today talking about how we need to be shaping ourselves and presenting ourselves and operating as a manufacturing business. The standards and the STA program are totally pivotal. There’s no product with any market that is not successful without standards.”
At the same time the group was swelling with new grassroots-oriented membership, advocacy for the industry became a priority . Composters suddenly had to contend with the fallout from ccurrences of Persistent Herbicides (the crisis struck in the late 90s) a class of herbicides called “pyridine and pyrimidine carboxylic acids” that was designed for use in hayfields, horse pastures, agricultural crop production, golf courses, right-of- ways, and lawns to kill off unwanted weeds and to remain effective for several months to years. These herbicides do not impact grasses, but once ingested, can pass through mammals into their manure, urine or bedding chemically intact.
The first incidents of herbicide contamination in compost were reported in 2000 in Spokane, Washington, where compost produced from yard trimmings contaminated with clopyralid damaged vegetable and garden crops. The City of Spokane suffered an estimated $4 million in damages and the facility was forced to close. The City had joined a class-action lawsuit with other composting operations against Dow, but only received $23,000 in compensation. At Washington State University, the cost from two years’ lost sales, analytical testing, and liability claims paid to growers whose tomato crops were decimated by clopyralid-contaminated compost totaled approximately $250,000. A year later, organic growers in Eastern Washington State lost their certification due to clopyralid contamination.
Ginny Black remembers the shock waves it sent through the industry.
Landfill Ban Overturns
As the pressure on landfills eased (the garbage barge finally ended its long-haul up and down the Atlantic Coast in 1999) the political outcry for recycling and landfill diversion waned. Waste companies used the opportunity to pressure municipalities to reverse their early bans on yard trimmings and green waste in landfills. “There were attempts to repeal them in the late 1990s and 2000s; the issue really was, if regulations have changed and we are required to collect methane gas, why do we need to compost this material anymore, when we can collect the methane,” Ginny says. “The USCC didn’t buy that.” Instead, the organization banded with state organization partners to advocate the value of continued yard waste bans, and were successful everywhere except Florida.
Wayne King was past president at the time.
“When they tried to overturn the yard waste ban, …I got heavily involved; when it happened here in the SE and in my own backyard and in FL I had been serving on the LEAC having been past president for a couple years and knowing a lot about what was going on, we were able to rally the troops and put some funding together to fight the battle. We were successful in a lot of areas; we lost a few battles.”
New Frontiers in the New Millenium
During the last decade USCC has expanded into new areas.
Sarah Martinez of Eco-Products, board member 2016 and 2017:
Cedar Grove is a longtime council member that has taken a leading role in helping tackle compostables and contamination in the compost stream.
Susan Thoman, who spent many years in various roles at Cedar Grove, discusses the relationship between compost manufacturers and products businesses: “There’s a lot of people working on this. I always said it’s easy to see yourself in a singular system, folks that sell packaging and food service items and composters are part of the same system.
Hear more from Susan in the video.
“There are a number of ways the industry is still young,” says Cary Oshins, staff to the Compostable Products Task Force. “The whole compostable products area, both the standards being used to judge whether a product is compostable or not and the composters who are taking those products, both need to learn what it takes to make a compostable product.,” he said. “We can’t blame composters for not taking products that are not compostable; we can’t blame the manufacturers for composters who don’t operate with the parameters those products are designed to operate in. Composting can operate in a wide range of circumstances in terms of moisture, aeration, how aggressive is the grinding, how quickly they make it All those technologies can make a decent compost but they can’t all compost products the same; part of our job is to educate compost manufacturers on what it takes to take those materials at the same time we educate the manufacturers what it takes for those composters to handle that.”
Creating New Markets
The USCC’s Market Development Committee took on many projects over the years besides the development of the STA program.
The Million Tomato Campaign of 2013 was a high visibility effort. It targeted compost producers, chefs and community gardens and reached its goal of growing 1 million tomatoes using compost donated by Seal of Testing Assurance participants within 6 months.
The USCC spearheaded the donation of 2,888 cubic yards of compost from 85 compost manufacturers –enough to fill 540 dump trucks. More than 100 community gardens participated, resulting in the harvest of more than 1.2 million tomatoes. The campaign united compost manufacturers, chefs, community gardens and food pantries to build healthy soil for sustainably grown, local food.
The Consumer Use program was another campaign of the Market Development Committee to put compost squarely in the minds of American gardeners.
The Consumer Use (CCUP) Program was also introduced in 2013, giving Seal of Testing Assurance members tools for customers about compost in landscaping projects and nurseries about using compost on lawns, flowers and trees and shrubs.
In more recent years, the MDC has worked hard to have compost required in government highway specifications; landscape architecture projects and stormwater and erosion control applications.
“We wanted to get more knowledge to the consumer and to the end user, about how to use compost,” said Frank Franciosi, a longtime MDC committee and Board member who is now executive director. “To me that was one of the most satisfying programs I have worked on.”
Drawing on the Early Years to Provide a Foundation for the Future
Veterans of the early Council all seem to agree that the compost industry took a necessary path. Appreciation of the organization’s beginnings helps to fully understand the capabilities that exist in the industry today.
Sharon Barnes is adamant that the organization would never be what it is today without the infusion of corporate support in the early years, even if its purpose (solid waste composting) is different from the priorities of most members of the organization today. Listen to her analysis.
Oley Sherimeta is another early compost industry leader and researcher who credits the success of the present to the work of the past. “We’ve been incredibly lucky that we had people like Rufus Chaney, Pat Millner, who have kept driving to fund meaningful research along the way. Yes, P & G is done with their dollars, but we are still fighting to make it better, and that takes people. Eliot Epstein, the Goldsteins, these are the people that are really the cement between these myriads of organizations and the science to move it forward and legitimize it.”
What’s the future of USCC and the Compost Industry?
“Certification,” says Executive Director Frank Franciosi with no hesitation. “This is another piece of that puzzle; the training component and certification. It’s a huge advantage for us in the future It raises the bar for us.”
Who is the Future of USCC?
The relationship between composting and related industries—food rescue and diversion, anaerobic digestion—is taking shape as the Council grow. Oshins said. Anaerobic Digestion is an industry that the compost industry should see as a partner to the future.
“A/D is something we need to embrace. For under the right circumstances, A/D makes a lot of sense, it allows you to harvest the energy in those feedstocks and at the same time make compost a little easier, because you’ve taken out some of the energy which is really the source of the odors.,” he said.
And the industry challenge that underlies all the others is infrastructure: how to make sure there is an accessible compost facility all over the USA.
The future is in forming chapters, new partners such as food rescue and climate change advocates, and young members–and new ways of looking at compost and sustainability.
It’s a good thing, says Susan Thoman. “We need to bring in a lot more young people; they know how to communicate and get things out….I remember the first fax, but I know now you can get on social media and touch thousands of people in a day.”
Noel Lyons of McGill Compost is bullish on where the compost manufacturing industry is headed. “When we look at the research going on, fabulous research in California about compost an climate change, and water, and the feedback from our customers is incredibly exciting, we want to go down the road after compost markets that are very demanding.”
Nora Goldstein sums up the expanded place at the table that compost manufacturing now occupies. “We can play in job creation sandboxes, build clean water by creating healthy soils, food production and food access, transportation fuels via AD, biogas, the list goes on..and we have to wrestle ourselves away from being an alternative to landfilling and incineration and mixed waste processing to really being this sector that is much more part of the resiliency discussion.”
What do you think is the future of the USCC? Comment below!
This project generously underwritten by:
History compiled by Linda Norris-Waldt, USCC communications manager