Green Waste Recycler Finds Profit in Organic Compost and Big Picture Thinking
January 2, 2013 | Melonie Magruder
When our second American president, John Adams, visited England on a diplomatic mission, he famously walked right to the compost pile of his distinguished host’s barnyard, plunged in his hands and said, “Well, this may be good manure, but it’s not equal to mine.”
Like our early forefathers – who were farmers before they were politicians – companies like Ventura, California-based Agromin recognize the importance of good dirt to our nation’s ongoing health and prosperity. For some 20 years, Agromin has been taking municipal and county green waste from Orange County to Santa Barbara and converting it into a variety of soil amendments that are organic, nutrient-rich and friendly to the earth.
Company CEO Bill Camarillo said Agromin started as a simple soil company in 1972; but by the time he came onboard 20 years ago, a new eco consciousness was pushing the company into a recycling business model that was profitable for the corporation, but a boon to the local economy as well.
“We gradually went organic thanks to a couple of legislative bills like AB 32 (California then-Assemblywoman Fran Pavley’s groundbreaking “Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006,” which mandated reduction of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions),” Camarillo said. “We contract with cities and counties and take 40 percent of their waste stream that is organic material and we recycle it.”
Thanks to strategic partnerships with Southern California’s substantial agricultural interests, such as the strawberry growers around Oxnard, as
well as large municipalities like Los Angeles, Agromin is able to divert some 380,000 tons of green waste from local landfills.
Its processing facilities in Orange, L.A. and Ventura counties then turn everything into a product line that includes soil amendments and blends, compost, potting mixes, mulch and landscaping barks. Even though some material comes from yards that have been chemically treated, Camarillo said the amount of traceable fertilizers or pesticides in their tonnage of waste product is so insignificant their soil amendments can be labeled organic.
“Our compost is tested every 5,000 cubic yards for purity,” he said. “Our goal is truly to create completely sustainable management of biodegradable resources. Mother Nature doesn’t create waste. So we feel that it’s all about using the resources that are already here so we don’t have to use new stuff.”
Agromin is so in tune with the ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ mantra that the company recently took delivery of an anaerobic digester to help convert food waste to renewable energy. The digester, which looks like a mammoth shipping container with a complicated series of pipes and fittings on one end, converts food waste to methane gas that will be used to power their processing facilities. Camarillo said he expects to produce 100 percent of his electricity needs by the second quarter of 2013, recycling tons of waste and saving the company mighty energy bills to the county.
“I think it’s an example of doing good and doing well at the same time,” Camarillo said. “It’s a gift from the sun and the earth we might as well use.”
Agromin has also developed progressive partnerships with large corporations, like that with supermarket giant Albertsons parent company Supervalu. They are taking all the food waste from southland Albertsons outlets, converting it to organic compost, then selling it back to the company as “Albertsons Brand Potting Mix.”
It is a process that Rick Crandall, director of environmental stewardship for the large chain, hopes will soon lead the 133 stores in his district to zero waste.
“We have already achieved zero waste with 86 of our stores in California and Nevada,” Crandall said. “Each store averages 10 tons of green waste a month (trimmings, food spoilage, cardboard). By turning it into potting soil, it’s the ultimate recycle and reuse plan. Our shoppers like to see this kind of environmental awareness. Plus it ends up putting people to work. It’s a win – win.”
Crandall said his stores have composted more than a million pounds of food waste since last April. Combined with their Fresh Rescue program, which donates soon-to-expire perishables to food banks, Crandall hopes that their partnership with Agromin leads all of his stores to zero waste by this time next year.
This kind of big picture planning has kept Agromin running profitably. Camarillo said the company has grown by an astonishing 25 percent annually over the last 20 years. The biggest challenge, he said, was continuing to manage its scale.
“We have to continually watch for contamination, like plastics mixed in with the green waste (he urged readers to make sure their Christmas trees are completely stripped of lighting and ornament hangers before hauling it out to the curb),” Camarillo said. “But here’s our plan: to reduce CO2 emissions, to conserve water and landfill space, prevent soil erosion and decrease chemical use. And I think we’ll reach our goal of a million tons of organic waste recycled each year. We’re on it.”