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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.

Ruth King

Ruth King

I grew up on a tobacco farm in Eastern North Carolina and will turn 60 this year. (Wow!)   My parents worked hard, and we lived off the land. Talk about sustainability — food waste went to the hogs; chicken manure went on the land.  My father took corn to the grist mill where the corn was ground and put in flowered cotton sacks. The sacks were laundered, and my mother made dresses for me. I watched her ring chickens’ necks for Sunday dinner. We had a cow for milk and butter and planted huge gardens where all kinds of vegetables were grown for canning and freezing. In the winter, we butchered hogs. The farmland was worked by hand. Some chemicals were used, but mainly, my siblings and I had hoes in our hands.

I remember one summer night watching the television with my parents when the astronauts walked on the moon. I can remember watching the cartoon show The Jetsons and truly believing that, by this time of my life, we would be scooting around in space.  Technology, medicine, energy, social media — all the changes in my lifetime are almost overwhelming.

Twenty years ago, I worked for a waste company and helped people put their waste in landfills. Today, I work with McGill and help people put compost made from biodegradable waste in yards and gardens, along roadsides and (ironically) on the faces of landfills so grass will grow to stabilize the slopes.

When people think of compost they think of the small compost barrel in their backyard. They do not think about large warehouse facilities taking tractor-trailer loads of wood, food, paper, biosolids, green beans or cotton gin waste, materials that, through our manufacturing process, are converted into a nutrient-rich soil amendment.

Farmers are a large part of my customer base. I sell to grain farmers, produce farmers and to pasture land farmers. I just love my farmers, and as a farmer’s daughter, I speak their language. I also feel their frustrations and worries. It is so great to convince a farmer to use our compost instead of chemicals. I tell my farmers that the chemicals are for the plant one time, and one time only.  Our compost continues to build up the soil year after year.

I also work with the DOT, athletic field managers, golf courses, military bases, developers and everything in between. The coolest aspect to my job is that I am helping Mother Earth.  I am very proud to be a part of McGill Environmental Systems. I feel as though I have gone full circle, from helping people put waste into landfills to now, composting and building a better earth.

— Ruth King