By: Billy Mitchell and Hayley Wood
Maria and Michael of Code of Return (COR) Compost turn food scraps from businesses and homes into compost that feed the soils of the local farms that in turn feed their communities. On a peaceful afternoon out at their operation, Maria looked out over a beautiful pile of composted food waste and shared that they wanted to work and compost with the people in their community because “there are so many simple acts that you can do on your own accord, just within your household that can make a huge difference.” Located in Savannah, Georgia, COR Compost have taken the simple act of diverting waste from landfills and built it into a slightly more complicated, yet accomplishable, community-scaled composting operation.
They do this using a method called aerated static pile (ASP) composting. ASP uses a forced air system to maintain aerobic (oxygen) conditions at a minimum of 131˚ Farehinet for 3 consecutive days followed by adequate curing: allowing the pile to settle and finish the composting process. This process is one of the scientifically valid composting methods found in Subpart F of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule and ensures proper pathogen reduction. For Michael, it’s to ensure an increase of resilience within their community by creating a system that keeps “resources out of the landfill” and contributes to soil health.
Over the past three years, COR Compost has been refining and developing their systems. Their first step was crafting their idea and entering a startup business competition, their business pitch won them a prize and helped them to really think through what they wanted to do. Maria says she doesn’t like public speaking, but she found the pitch process to be a vital exercise because what they wanted to do as a business was “such a huge community endeavor” and it helped her practice communicating their message to a wider community. With the energy of winning, they started connecting with restaurants for food scraps and composting out at a local farm site near Savannah. The business was off to a great start and then, Michael remembers “we officially started in 2020 and then the pandemic happened.”
COVID-19 obviously slowed and stopped a lot of the restaurant scraps and, just like the farmers they knew, COR pivoted to a more residential focus. Their local farmers market stayed open during the pandemic and the market gave them space to set up a market stand that had 5 gallon buckets for shoppers to take home and fill up with food waste to bring back the next week. “People would see the buckets and get crazy excited,” Maria said, adding that “constantly people were coming up to us, what’s with the buckets?” She found that for the market community, it “was something positive when there was so much anxiety going on.”
In the FSMA produce safety rule, table wastes and leftovers, like the ones community members may have been dropping off in their buckets, are considered untreated Biological Soil Amendments of Animal Origin (BSAAO) and could pose a food safety risk. Therefore, the process that COR Compost uses to treat those table wastes and leftovers is crucial.
When Maria and Michael bring the waste to the farm, it arrives either in 5 gallon buckets or branded trash cans. They slowly pile up their collected waste with woodships (this helps create the right carbon to nitrogen ratio) and once they’ve collected a sizable amount they move it over to their composting area. COR’s system is solar-powered and the solar panel generator powers an air blower connected to a reused schedule 80 municipal water pipe pipe. The pipe has holes drilled in it and the end not connected to the blower is capped. The blower, which Michael describes as “a regular inflatable bouncy house blower,” turns on and off throughout the day to keep a steady stream of oxygen circulating in the pile. As the blower turns on, it forces air into that pipe and then out of the holes they drilled.
Michale said that when determining how much air and when to force the air through the pipe, that there are a lot of calculations you can do and, unless you are really good at math, it helps to buy a book about the process. It probably helps even if you are really good at math.
That process of blowing air is vitally important. Michale commented that “the oxygen depletes about 20 minutes after these piles have been stacked on itself because of compression . . . and the microorganisms that make up the decomposition team use oxygen extremely readily.” Unfortunately, he added, “when you don’t have the oxygen, you go anaerobic.” When that happens, you start to get what people really worry about when composting —the smell. Maria shared that “I feel like anybody’s previous experience with composting might have been something where it was just an experiment . . . it wasn’t that it was necessarily done badly, but it might have been stinky in aspects.” With a laugh she added “you say compost and people are like, ‘Oooooooh, smelly, gross.’ But if it’s done right it doesn’t smell.” Out at their site, because they took the time to set up and monitor a process that added enough oxygen, kept the moisture levels consistent, developed the proper carbon to nitrogen ratio, and maintained the right temperature, there was no icky composting smell people might suspect.
That right temperature – the hot part of hot composting – is as important as the forced air. Maria noted that “part of the process with working on these high volumes is you have to check the temperatures and if you want to make sure you’re creating a good finished product, you wanna make sure that you’re not carrying over any pathogens.” Using a compost thermometer, they ensure that the pile is always over 131 degrees for at least three days for the produce safety rule and for a longer time period to meet additional state regulations. Especially with their volumes and process, “you definitely do not have a problem with getting to 131” said Maria.
COR Compost is always committed to refining their systems and improving what they do, both for themselves, their farmers, and their community. Looking back on the past three years, Maria remarked that if she could go back in time, one piece of advice she would give herself is to remember that they were running a sustainable business and had to consider how to balance the resources they needed in order to circulate life back into the soil. She also added that it’s important to “understand your value” in considering your time as you begin to value what other people might see only as landfill waste. For COR Compost, and the community that works with them, Maria concludes that it’s all about “taking things that are perceived waste and realizing that they’re actually huge potential resources.”
For more producer focused stores and information, please visit the Local Food Safety Collaborative website along with the Food Safety Resource Clearinghouse for a curated source of food safety guides, factsheets, templates, and more. Don’t forget to follow LFSC on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates on the latest food safety news.
This project website is supported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award TBD totaling $1,000,000 with 100 percent funded by FDA/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by FDA/HHS, or the U.S. Government.