Blog – McGill Compost https://mcgillcompost.com Tue, 24 Nov 2020 15:43:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.5.3 True sustainability requires a system https://mcgillcompost.com/blog/true-sustainability-requires-a-system Tue, 24 Nov 2020 15:43:55 +0000 https://mcgillcompost.com/?p=158599 True sustainability requires a system, not marketing-speak Sticking a bird’s head on a spider does not transform that organism into a creature capable of flight.  Adding energy generation to incinerators and landfills doesn’t make them sustainable systems for organic waste management, either.  “Sustainable” is one of those words that has been co-opted by Madison Avenue, […]

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True sustainability requires a system, not marketing-speak

Sticking a bird’s head on a spider does not transform that organism into a creature capable of flight.  Adding energy generation to incinerators and landfills doesn’t make them sustainable systems for organic waste management, either. 

“Sustainable” is one of those words that has been co-opted by Madison Avenue, slapped on everything from dog food to baby toys, and flung about willy-nilly like insults on nighttime reality TV.

It seems every product, process, and entity with even the smallest claim to the word uses it, because “sustainable” has finally caught the attention of the general public.

But the term, when applied to waste management choices, may be just as misleading as the words “natural” and “organic” on supermarket shelves.  What’s behind the label can still be the environmental equivalent of junk food. 

Admittedly,  people have become so adept at generating waste that the world has a never-ending supply have the stuff.  Ergo, any disposal or recycling technology could legitimately claim its feedstocks are sustainably sourced – even landfills without methane capture and plain, old incinerators.  

But that doesn’t make the total system sustainable or economically prudent or environmentally sound.

If pears are grown in compost in South America, shipped to Asia for processing, and transported back across an ocean to the U.S. for distribution and consumption, are those pears a sustainable choice?  

Using compost is better than not using compost.  But, c’mon, folks.  Did that pear earn the right to call itself sustainable?

Of course not.  Neither do disposal options that burn or bury compostables … even if they do result in energy generation.

Currently, only technologies that recycle or divert organics for use as a soil amendment (in farming, landscaping, turfgrass management, etc.) can claim true sustainability.  They close a loop, and when properly managed, do no environmental harm in the process.  

It remains to be seen whether some of the emerging re-uses for organic waste like building highways and formulating cleaning products will help or hurt the effort to recycle biodegradables back to the soil. 

Making new products from waste can be a swell idea.  But if those products can’t find their way to recycling at end-of-life, if the reclamation process renders them too toxic or otherwise inappropriate for composting, or if that reclamation generates a waste stream that cannot be efficiently returned to the soil, these types of reuse projects will likely – albeit indirectly – contribute to further soil depletion, more polluted runoff, increasing stormwater problems, and atmospheric carbon overload.

When government decision-makers are asked to evaluate new systems for organic waste management, marketing-speak has no place in a serious discussion.  One or two sustainable components does not make a sustainable system.

True sustainability cannot be conferred by feedstock source alone.   For organics, returning nutrients, organic matter, carbon, and beneficial microbes to the soil in an efficient, cost-effective manner makes composting and compost use a true sustainability choice – no marketing-speak required.

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FAQ: What’s the difference between compost and peat moss? https://mcgillcompost.com/blog/faq-difference-compost-peat-moss Fri, 13 Nov 2020 17:10:01 +0000 https://mcgillcompost.com/?p=158592 What’s the difference between compost and peat moss? Compost is manufactured from recycled materials derived from plants and animals.  Peat moss forms naturally over many, many years – also from decaying plants and animals.  Both are rich in organic matter.  But it takes so many years for nature to form peat moss that the product is […]

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What’s the difference between compost and peat moss?

Compost is manufactured from recycled materials derived from plants and animals.  Peat moss forms naturally over many, many years – also from decaying plants and animals.  Both are rich in organic matter.  But it takes so many years for nature to form peat moss that the product is not considered “sustainable.”  Peat also tends to be too expensive to be used in large projects.  Fortunately, compost can be substituted 1:1 for peat in any media mix or soil recipe.  

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McGill named to influencers’ Top 40 list https://mcgillcompost.com/blog/mcgill-named-to-top-40-influencers-list Thu, 12 Nov 2020 17:49:24 +0000 https://mcgillcompost.com/?p=158587 McGill named to 2020 Influencers list Thank you, Feedspot, for including McGill among the “Top 40 Compost Blogs, Websites & Influencers in 2020.”  We are honored to be one of the few industrial composting operations on the list.

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McGill named to 2020 Influencers list

Thank you, Feedspot, for including McGill among the “Top 40 Compost Blogs, Websites & Influencers in 2020.”  We are honored to be one of the few industrial composting operations on the list.

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Lab test lingo: How much is 1 PPM? https://mcgillcompost.com/blog/lab-test-lingo-how-much-is-1-ppm Tue, 20 Oct 2020 13:17:44 +0000 https://mcgillcompost.com/?p=158576 Lab test lingo:  How much is 1 PPM? Test results — compost analytical reports included — often convey constituent concentrations in parts per million (ppm) or milligrams per liter (mg/L).  Both state the fraction of the tested substance found per one million units of gas, liquid, or solid. But what does that really mean?  Is […]

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Lab test lingo:  How much is 1 PPM?

Test results — compost analytical reports included — often convey constituent concentrations in parts per million (ppm) or milligrams per liter (mg/L).  Both state the fraction of the tested substance found per one million units of gas, liquid, or solid.

But what does that really mean?  Is 1 PPM a drop in the bucket or a thimble of water in an ocean?

Such infinitesimal amounts can be difficult to visualize, but here are a few examples found on the web that may help:

PPM

PPB

Sometimes, even smaller concentrations may be reported as parts per billion or micrograms per liter (μg/L).  When you see this term, correlate to:

Know the limits

One of the best analogies is 1 ppm equals one large mouthful in a lifetime of eating.  But it must be said:  just a small bite of the wrong thing can be one bite too many.

That’s why it’s important to always correlate reported concentrations  with the limits deemed safe by regulators and other jurisdictional entities.  Typically, for easy comparison, these ceilings will be reported in an adjacent column on the lab report.

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FAQ: Do I have to rake fall leaves? https://mcgillcompost.com/blog/faq-fall-leaves Thu, 15 Oct 2020 13:35:00 +0000 https://mcgillcompost.com/?p=158570 FAQ: Do I have to rake fall leaves? Nature drops fall leaves for a reason, and it’s not to give sightseers an excuse to tour the countryside.  Those red, yellow, and gold gems will eventually decay to help fertilize the soil for the coming season.   So, no, leaf raking is not a necessity.  Know, however, […]

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FAQ: Do I have to rake fall leaves?

Nature drops fall leaves for a reason, and it’s not to give sightseers an excuse to tour the countryside.  Those red, yellow, and gold gems will eventually decay to help fertilize the soil for the coming season.   So, no, leaf raking is not a necessity. 

Know, however, that the fall leaf drop can wreak havoc on stormwater systems.  One should, at the very least, make the effort to keep those leaves well away from stormwater inlets and  flow pathways.

Use a mulching mower to break up the leaf mat and accelerate biodegradation once that colorful blanket starts to fade.

If you can’t get through October or November without grabbing a rake, rough chop some of those leaves and use them to mulch planting beds and gardens.

The remainder can go to composting, of course.  Add them to your backyard compost pile, or prep them for curbside collection following your municipality’s guidelines.  And, please, do remove plastics, metal, glass, and other contaminants before moving those leaves to the curb. 

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FAQ: Is fall a good time to use compost? https://mcgillcompost.com/blog/faq-is-fall-a-good-time-to-use-compost Wed, 07 Oct 2020 18:28:13 +0000 https://mcgillcompost.com/?p=158554 FAQ: Is fall a good time to use compost? Most definitely, yes.  In fact, some believe the fall season is the best time to add compost to lawns and gardens.  For grassy areas, sprinkle a little over the surface and rake in.  For planting beds, add compost and work into the top layer of soil.  […]

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FAQ: Is fall a good time to use compost?

Most definitely, yes.  In fact, some believe the fall season is the best time to add compost to lawns and gardens.  For grassy areas, sprinkle a little over the surface and rake in.  For planting beds, add compost and work into the top layer of soil.  Alternatively, just leave the compost to sit on the surface of the planting bed and allow Mother Nature to work her magic over the winter months.  Cover the surface with leaves or other mulch to help retain moisture.  When spring planting season rolls around, the soil will be ready for you.  Compost products will vary, so always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations about exact amounts to use for specific applications.  You can find McGill’s recommendations here.

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FAQ: How does compost protect drinking water? https://mcgillcompost.com/blog/faq-how-does-compost-protect-drinking-water Thu, 17 Sep 2020 17:12:03 +0000 https://mcgillcompost.com/?p=158542 FAQ: How does compost protect drinking water? Primary sources of drinking water include wells, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers.  Compost will protect drinking water sources by breaking down pollutants and reducing erosion/siltation in runoff.  Microbial activity and absorption of rainfall energy are among the mechanisms at work. Soil microbes break down many chemicals — like petroleum […]

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FAQ: How does compost protect drinking water?

Primary sources of drinking water include wells, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers.  Compost will protect drinking water sources by breaking down pollutants and reducing erosion/siltation in runoff.  Microbial activity and absorption of rainfall energy are among the mechanisms at work.

Soil microbes break down many chemicals — like petroleum products – during feeding activity, severing molecular bonds and reducing complex compounds into simpler, more benign forms.  In fact, compost is used to remediate petroleum contaminated soils at airbases, underground storage tank removal sites, highway accidents, and similar clean-up projects.

Compost’s organic matter content cushions rain or irrigation water.  When water hits the ground, that energy is disbursed, and fewer particles are dislodged.  That same organic matter also absorbs more water, resulting in less runoff.

In addition, the use of compost reduces the need for chemical input on farms, turfgrass, and in the landscape, which also helps to protect drinking water sources.

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Estimating volumes for composting https://mcgillcompost.com/blog/estimating-volumes-for-composting Tue, 23 Jun 2020 13:44:40 +0000 https://mcgillcompost.com/?p=158465 Estimating organic waste volumes for composting  Imagine you’re the facilities manager for a large commercial building or institution, staring at a row of overflowing carts or roll-off boxes sidled up to the wall in the alley or back parking lot.  They’re filled with crumpled paper, reams of old reports, food leftovers, used coffee pods, an avalanche of plastic bottles […]

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Estimating organic waste volumes for composting 

Imagine you’re the facilities manager for a large commercial building or institution, staring at a row of overflowing carts or roll-off boxes sidled up to the wall in the alley or back parking lot. 

They’re filled with crumpled paper, reams of old reports, food leftovers, used coffee pods, an avalanche of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, and pizza boxes with paper napkins stuck to the remnants of a variety of cheese toppings.    

You know all of those discards can be recycled and/or used as compost feedstocks.  Since most of that waste is compostable, diverting the organics from the landfill to composting could save money.   

The problem is, few composting operations will accept mixed waste loads.  The resulting compost is just too contaminated to use and winds up in the landfill anyway.  And if you want to develop an on-site composting project, knowing the volume/weight of compostables influences everything from sizing to siting to process selection. 

Source-separation – removing recyclables and compostables from the disposal stream at your location – is not as difficult as it sounds.  A good education program supported by a healthy dollop of (re)enforcement usually does the trick.   But before investing time, money, and brainpower in the project, you know the decision-makers will want to talk dollars and sense.  They’ll want assurances that the economics work.   

The first step is to determine how many pounds or tons of compostables are being generated each year.  Then, you can begin the planning process and start to gather cost estimates. 

Routes available for developing estimates all come with advantages and disadvantages, mostly related to things like people-power, total generation volumes and required degree of accuracy.  A web search will offer lots of ideas.  Here, we look at 3 broad categories: 

Route 1 – Develop estimates based on published norms and averages 

The easiest, fastest, and cheapest method to estimate compostable volumes is to glean “typicals” and “averages” from the web.   

The U.S. EPA says about 61% of the total MSW stream is made up of food, paper and cardboard, wood, and yard trimmings.  If your commercial or institutional stream is similar, this method could work for you.  Couple this percentage with known weight capacities of the specific receptacle in use, and the result is a baseline number you can use to calculate weekly or annual tonnage.   

Simply convert those gallons or cubic yards to pounds (based on container weight limits), divide by 2,000 to get tons, then multiply that number by .61 or 61%.  This is the estimated weight of all compostables. 

There are also sources that will provide weights based on generation rate per defined unit.  Example: 41 pounds MSW per week per household or 200 pounds per week for each fast food restaurant employee.  Again, convert pounds to tons and multiply that number by .61 for a rough estimate of compostable tonnage. 

Want to count bins or carts?  Contact your waste hauler for specific container sizes/weights or use a more generic number like 180 pounds for a 96gallon cart (from one online resource). 

Just focusing on food waste?  A cubic yard of food waste weighs about .5 tons. 

This method of estimating volumes for composting is probably best for low volume generators, because the total volume and weight of any “error” will be relatively small.  For everyone else, use this type of generic data for rough estimates only. 

You can find charts to help with weight estimates in our SlideShare title:  Estimating volumes of food waste and other organics for composting. 

Route 2  the DIY waste audit 

This method relies on statistically representative random sampling to develop a picture of the total waste stream.  There are several sample size calculators available online to help you get it right, and they come in handy for evaluating validity of other types of surveys, too. 

The following examples were calculated using the SurveyMonkey tool: 

Let’s say you counted a total of 40 trash cans in your office building.  Using a confidence level of 95% and a 5% margin of error, the calculator suggests a sample size of 37 trash cans. 

If you have a larger building with 400 trash cans, using the same confidence level and margin of error, the sample size is 197. 

Trying to pin down the generation volume of a city of 40,000?  The sample size is 381. 

Once you know how many units you need, identify a representative subset for sampling.  A human can do this, but to be totally unbiased in the choice of trash cans, let a computer randomize the list.  Using the 40-can building as an examplecreate a list of all trash can locations in a spreadsheet.  Then randomize the list Randomizing is easy … this site is just one of many with step-by-step instructions.   

Once the list is randomized, use locations 1-37 for your audit: 

  • Assemble supplies (gloves, aprons, scales, etc.) and identify helpers. 
  • Pull all 37 trash cans at the same time on the same day and move to your audit location. 
  • Provide training to any helpers who might not be able to distinguish compostable from non-compostable.
  • Separate can contents into those two piles.  If conducting a full waste stream audit, further subdivide the non-compostables into glass, metal, plastic, etc. 
  • Weigh the compostables pile and divide by 37 (sample size) to get an average weight per can.  Multiply that average by 40 cans (total building) for a daily average.  Multiply the daily average by the number of workdays per year to arrive at an annual weight and divide by 2,000 to convert pounds to tons. 
  • If you’re just doing compostables, you’re done.  Otherwise do the same calculations for each waste group you wish to audit. 

Advantages of this method are improved accuracy and the fact that audits can make good group projects.  But the audit is only as accurate as the volunteers, and auditor safety (masks, gloves, etc.) must be a top priority.  

Also consider, as an alternative to the internal DIY, the resources of a local university where a researcher, class or student may be looking for a project.  Some private companies and governmental entities also offer free audits.  Just make sure they understand the focus is compostables, not just the more traditional recyclables like plastic and glass. 

Route 3 – professional waste audits 

Sometimes, only a professional audit will do.  This will include sizeable and/or toxic waste streams where the expense of professional expertise is warranted.  Typically, these will be engineering firms and other specialists with experience in waste management. 

Professionals can charge by the hour or by the contract.  If taking this route, choose a reputable firm and make sure there is a clear set of deliverables, as well as a timeline, spelled out in the Scope of Work agreement. 

As might be expected, this option can require a healthy budget.  But on the plus side, using professionals can be more accurate than any other when estimating volumes for composting.  If composting costs less than landfilling in your region, the audit may well be a money-saver in the long-term. 

READ MORE: 

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Global warming — Earth’s ‘carb’ overload  https://mcgillcompost.com/blog/compost-use-fights-global-warming Tue, 16 Jun 2020 13:44:31 +0000 https://mcgillcompost.com/?p=158447 Global warming — Earth’s ‘carb’ overload  Whether the basis for climate change is over-reliance on fossil fuels, loss of jungle canopy, too many chemical fertilizers, a natural phenomenon, all of the above, or none of the above – the fact remains that global temperatures are showing an upward trend.   Some claim the climb is caused by industrialization.   Others disagree and […]

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Global warming — Earth’s ‘carb’ overload 

Whether the basis for climate change is over-reliance on fossil fuels, loss of jungle canopy, too many chemical fertilizers, natural phenomenon, all of the above, or none of the above – the fact remains that global temperatures are showing an upward trend.  

Some claim the climb is caused by industrialization.   Others disagree and point to a Medieval Warm Period and other episodes of global warming through the ages.  But the crux of the matter is that, unlike our Middle Ages counterparts, the humans living in this era possess the skills, knowledge, and wherewithal to temper the impacts of rising global temperatures. 

We can pull less carbon out of those long-long-long-term storage deposits of coal and oil, plant a few more trees, and let cows eat grass instead of stuffing them with grain.  But we can also try to keep temperatures within our own Goldilocks Zone by sequestering more carbon in soils that won’t be disturbed for extended periods of time.   

Even if all new sources of carbon were reduced to zero, there’s still too much in the atmosphere now – and it has to go.  Scientists are working on numerous projects designed to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere, but soil sequestration remains among the simplest and least expensive solutions.   

First, it must be said that the much maligned “greenhouse effect” is actually a good thing.  It’s what makes this planet habitable for humans.   

In the atmosphere, radiation from the sun generates heat.  As it bounces around in the “greenhouse,” some of this heat is absorbed by the earth and some is released back to space.  But greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane absorb and trap heat.  When there is an excess of this type of gas in the atmosphere, too much heat is trapped and radiated back to the earth, resulting in global warming.   

Other greenhouse gases include water vapor and nitrous oxide.  Industrial chlorofluorocarbons are highly-regulated, synthetic greenhouse gases. 

But carbon dioxide (CO2) has become a primary focus becausits increase is associated with human activity.  Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have jumped from 280 parts per million to 400 parts per million since the mid-1800s, which coincide with the early days of the Industrial Revolution. 

To reduce carbon compounds in the atmosphere, science looks for ways to naturally or artificially sequester excess carbon for long-term storage. 

Putting the atmosphere on a low-carb(on) diet 

Limiting and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is the goal of carbon sequestration.     

Vegetation, oceans, and soils are examples of natural sequestration.  These carbon sinks naturally absorb atmospheric CO2.   

Carbon capture, ocean injection, and geological storage are examples of artificial sequestration.   Captured CO2 has a number of industrial uses, including the manufacture of fizzy beverages and plastic bottles.  Athe costs for these new technologies drop, their uses are expected to rise. 

As sinks go, compost use is among the best.  Amending soils with raw manures and biochar also sequester carbon, but neither offers such a wide range of other soil-enhancing benefits as does compost use.    

Almost everyone can contribute to carbon sequestration 

Regenerative agriculture can restore soil health and make a major impact on carbon sequestration.  In fact, the Rodale Institute says more than 100 percent of current global CO2 emissions could be sequestered if all pasture and cropland management was based on regenerative agriculture. 

But one needn’t be a farmer to create carbon sinks.  From backyard to utility easements to parkland, there is opportunity for every community to contribute to the reduction of the planet’s carbon overload.   

Know that things like soil type and local climate can influence carbon retention.  Tactics must reflect the region, because a good strategy for the arid west may not be the best choice for humid, subtropical Florida.   

Yet all sequestration approaches will have one thing in common – decades or centuries-long confinement of that carbon without disturbance: 

  • Establishing a lawn by incorporating compost?  Yes. 
  • Topdressing a garden plot that is tilled every year? Not so much. 
  • Using compost to amend a field that is plowed every season?  Not that great. 
  • Planting that same field with perennials or converting it to grassland?  Much better. 

Any patch of soil that can be amended, planted, and then left undisturbed for many years is a potential carbon sink.  This includes every community’s roadsides, athletic fields, and recreation areas. 

Bottom line:  Earth’s history is peppered with episodes of warming followed by ice ages.  Unless humans learn to manage carbon to moderate temperature extremes – no matter the cause — those who survive this era of global warming may learn the hard way that nature always seeks to return to a state of balance.    

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FAQ: How do I sterilize soil? https://mcgillcompost.com/blog/sterilize-soil Thu, 11 Jun 2020 13:43:47 +0000 https://mcgillcompost.com/?p=158439 FAQ: How do I sterilize soil? When making your own potting soil from native soil or trucked in topsoil, it’s a good idea to sterilize that dirt to kill things like weed seeds and diseases before mixing with compost and other ingredients.  Large swaths of ground can be treated in-situ (in place) using plastic and […]

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FAQ: How do I sterilize soil?

When making your own potting soil from native soil or trucked in topsoil, it’s a good idea to sterilize that dirt to kill things like weed seeds and diseases before mixing with compost and other ingredients.  Large swaths of ground can be treated in-situ (in place) using plastic and the sun, but it takes time.  Fortunately,  small batches can also be treated using kitchen appliances.  Here’s a how-to article.  

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