tim o'neill engineered compost systems
Things are looking up for Tim O’Neill and ECS. They’ve expanded to Poland. Next? The rest of the world.

This story would be so much easier to write if Tim O’Neill made a gizmo. You know, a plug-and-play product that his 14-year-old company, Engineered Compost Systems, could sell. But it doesn’t. Come to think of it, that might make O’Neill’s job easier too. “We lose prospective clients all the time because we won’t give them a simple answer,” he says, smirking a little at his office in Interbay. “They say, ‘You guys give me a headache when you talk.’ ”

Listening to O’Neill describe what ECS does, you start to understand where the confusion could come from. As the name implies, Engineered Compost Systems is in the composting business. But it doesn’t compost anything. Instead it works with large private and municipal waste facilities that do compost. (O’Neill says he has about 50 active clients.) Sometimes ECS designs whole systems that range from concrete containment units with massive metal doors and industrial fans to open-air stalls that house piles of food and yard waste. Sometimes the company designs software for monitoring and automating a composting facility, and sometimes it just consults.

In other words, no two sites are the same. “Maybe they have a ton of land or neighbors right on their doorstep. Maybe they can discharge water freely through the sewer system or they have to handle every drop. You’ve got biosolids, yard and food waste, ag residue, wood waste—each has a very different biological trajectory,” O’Neill says. “So it’s a really complicated mixing board of levers to push up and down.”

And as anyone in Maple Valley and Everett will tell you, things start to stink if someone isn’t closely monitoring that metaphorical board. For two decades Cedar Grove has handled the more than 100,000 tons of organic waste that Seattleites produce annually, shipping it to facilities in those two cities. The company has been dogged ever since by complaints, lawsuits, and fines related to the odor emanating from its sites, and that may explain why this April it’s cutting ties with Seattle. Spokane-based PacifiClean Environmental will fill the void, but it’s already run into the NIMBY buzz saw. Neighbors of its proposed facility in Kittitas County kicked up a fuss last year, forcing the company to look elsewhere. (It’s still looking.)

But here’s the thing: PacifiClean’s contract is for 60 percent of Seattle’s haul. Lenz Enterprises, based in Stanwood, gets the other 40. You don’t hear much about Lenz, probably because no one’s complaining. And you know who designed its facility in 2008? Engineered Compost Systems. In fact, it was ECS’s first big job and the one that kick-started business. O’Neill won’t call out any composters by name—he grins mischievously as he dances around the topic—but he will say that most companies plagued by odors just don’t understand what it takes to control them. “The bar of entry to get into this industry is very low,” he says. “But the bar to being sustainable? It’s quite a bit higher.”