In terms of compost quality, in the UK there is still no statutory standard, but the voluntary BSI PAS 100 is used as a basic benchmark. As markets continue to grow so does quality assurance, with more than 850,000 tonnes of material complying with one independently certified standard.
When it comes to diverting biodegradable municipal waste from landfill, composting continues to play an increasingly important role.
According to Mary Messer, technical officer at the Composting Association (CA), the waste management industry is not used to selling products. "It is more used to shovelling wastes into a hole or burning them," she says. Subsequently, this lack of familiarity with all things commercial means the waste industry is not good at manufacturing, marketing and selling.
In terms of meeting the UK's landfill diversion targets, a cottage industry approach is clearly not what is needed right now. There is no point in composting if the end product has no market.
Unsold, it will not only have attracted the cost of the composting process but then faces landfill tax as well.
At the beginning of May, the CA - which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary - published its latest survey, The State of Composting in the UK 2003/4.
The report showed that of the 1.97 million tonnes of material composted over those two years, 73% was household waste, 4% municipal non-household waste and 23% commercial waste.
The survey recorded the manufacture of approximately 1.2 million tonnes of composted products, of which the largest fraction was soil conditioner (61%) followed by mulches (16%).
Compost products are distributed to several markets and, of these, agriculture was both
the largest and fastest growing outlet, taking around 40% of products.
"As in any other manufacturing business, assessing and developing the market for the product is just sound business sense," says Messer. "The two key factors that will govern the viability of a composting business of any scale is selling the product for the best price and having a secure supply of suitable feedstock."
In turn, she adds that these two factors will go a long way in helping to identify which biological treatment system will be suitable.
However, whatever the treatment or combination of treatment may be, it must take into account local and regional conditions, be sustainable and economically viable.
"The bottom line for waste disposal authorities is that if composting is not viable as a business it will not be sustainable as a waste disposal strategy," says Messer.
Key issues include identifying the target market, establishing the quality and quantity that the market can absorb and then consider the type, the security of supply, the quality of the feedstock and then the process required to meet those specifications.
"The ultimate question is, however, what is the size of the market?" she says.
Just to complicate matters, once the business plan has been established, planning permission has to be obtained, which is the issue that generates the most delays and grief, according to Messer. Much of the information required by the planning autho