Is it really a good idea to make compostable waste go away and never come back?
Each year, taxpayers collectively spend millions of dollars to burn or bury compostables. Much like a tribe of ubiquitous Gollums, they just want garbage — the biodegradable and putrefying fraction of the municipal solid waste stream – to go away and never come back.
The desire to make disagreeable discards disappear into fiery furnaces or burial mounds is understandable. But is it wise? Is it fiscally responsible? Is it really a good idea to make organic waste go away and never come back?
Nature recycles everything
Rocks weather and erode, creating sediment. With heat, pressure, and time, that sediment becomes rock again. Plants and animals feed and drink from the earth, die, and decompose to replenish the soil that will sustain future generations of flora and fauna. Water drops from the sky as rain, filters down to aquifers, upwells and evaporates back to the clouds to fall once more.
In a fantasy land, it may be possible to keep using resources without a thought to replenishment. But in the real world, organic waste – the decaying residuals of once-living things – must be recycled back to the soil to maintain life-critical soil functions.
Some seem to think the destruction of organics to make energy is more important than rebuilding soil. But pushing an organic-waste-to-energy agenda by sacrificing the soil makes no sense. Humans managed to survive for millennia without electricity and centralized energy systems. Without soil’s life-essential contribution to food and clean water, people face extinction in weeks.
So, which is more important, energy or soil?
Make energy and rebuild soil?
Organic waste from developed societies includes all types of vegetation, food, manures … even compostable plastics. When turned into a quality compost, these once-lost resources can be used by anyone anywhere to replenish depleted soil.
Happily, making energy and building healthy soil does not have to be an either/or proposition. It is possible to extract energy from organic waste without destroying the beneficial properties that make it valuable to soil. The organic waste streams from these processes can then be used as feedstocks in the manufacture of compost products.
Unhappily, energy production from biomass is one of the most expensive ways to make energy. Even solar and wind power can be more cost-effective.
Furthermore, bioenergy technologies based on anaerobic digestion of organics are still too pricey to be practical in many places. Where they do exist, the waste stream (digestate) is not always put to highest and best use (i.e. composted). Instead, residuals may be landfilled or relegated to low-dollar-value reuse.
But one day, as more communities opt to restore natural soil replenishment cycles and energy generation technologies become more efficient, extracting energy from biomass, followed by composting and compost use, can become the system of choice for organic waste management.
In the meantime …
The importance of healthy soil
Where humans live, topsoil has been scraped away or eroded. Nutrients are used up. Compaction has destroyed the pore spaces essential to the transport of air, water, and microbes. Without a regular infusion of new organic matter to correct these deficiencies, soil dies.
There are lots of processes for generating energy, but there’s only one way to replenish disturbed soils in developed areas – feed them a good, wholesome diet derived from organic waste converted into compost.
From farms to lawns to sports fields, soils require periodic applications of compost. There’s no other way to easily and economically provide soil with everything it requires to retain water, nurture vegetation, and create the type of environment soil microbes need to support nutrient uptake, contribute to disease resistance, and degrade pollutants.
The best news? In many metropolitan areas, efficient, high-rate composting – the type needed to successfully manage big, urban waste streams – costs no more than landfilling or incineration. Often, recycling at a modern, industrial composting operation can be more affordable than traditional disposal.
Composting makes organic wastes go away, but they come back as enriching soil amendments. Biodegradables need to keep recycling, just like they have since the beginning of time.
Breaking the natural soil cycle by incinerating or burying compostable waste is a bad idea that should go away and never come back.
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