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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.

VIEW THE SLIDESHARE:  Addicted to convenience

art-pencil-apple-dividerWhen it comes to diverting food waste , there’s still a long row to hoe.

North Carolina released a 2012 study revealing an annual food waste generation rate of over a million tons in the state.  The volume represented at least 12 percent of NC’s municipal solid waste stream. It was slightly lower than the U.S. as a whole, which was around 14 percent in 2010.

As a nation, we’ve made solid progress in recycling some materials.  But food waste isn’t one of them.  The national food waste recovery/recycling rate is only around 3 percent.  What remains — 33 million tons — goes to landfills and incinerators.   North Carolina is doing a bit better than that.  It diverts about 60,000 of those 1 million-plus tons generated or about 6 percent.  But that still puts 94 percent into the disposal stream.

Scott Mouw, North Carolina’s recycling program director, calls food waste “the next frontier for reducing landfill dependence.”  We say it’s that and more.  Food waste, when composted and used as a soil amendment, is a key to reducing stormwater volumes and related pollution.  Its use cuts dependence on chemicals and foreign oil, saves water, and so much more.

Landfills and WTE — diverting food waste?

Burning and burying resources are wasteful and environmentally-unfriendly practices.  Plus, these types of disposal can be more expensive than recycling systems with composting as the core technology.

It’s time to abandon the exuberantly wasteful practices and technologies of the old century and get on with the new.  Building a modern waste management infrastructure is both environmentally and economically responsible.

A Fredom Lawn still needs compost

The Freedom Lawn still needs a little compost.

Yale professors “invented” the Freedom Lawn in the early 1990s.  It’s a concept rooted in low maintenance residential turf areas. No watering, chemical management, or power mowers allowed.

Freedom Lawns replace the intensively-managed suburban lawn. They offer joyously weedy landscapes as a more environmentally-responsible option.

You’ll note the word invented is in quotes.  Some forward-thinking homeowners have long used this method of lawn care. But growing awareness of “greener” practices draws more and more people to the Freedom Lawn.  It’s an intentional lawn management method designed to protect ground and surface waters.

Unfortunately, great ideas don’t always work quite the way visionaries expect.  There’s a difference between the drawing board and real life situations.  So, the Virginia Turfgrass Council’s  journal added a caveat to the no-maintenance lawn.

The intention of the Freedom Lawn may be right for the times.  But research shows the reality can do more damage to water quality than traditional care.  In a nutshell, it says Freedom Lawns can be environmentally irresponsible.

Use Compost

The article offers a few tweaks to correct the failings of the no-input Freedom Lawn.  At no surprise to us, many of these suggestions include the use of compost.

Among 12 Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Sustainable Lawns are the following tenets:

  • Add a 1″-2” layer of quality compost before seedbed prep to benefit lawn health and aid water infiltration.
  • Repeatedly apply organic matter via the compost. Builds topsoil, binds nutrients and water, and promotes soil aggregation. This improves water infiltration and compaction resistance.
  • Add two compost applications per year at 100 lbs./1,000 sq. ft. (500 lbs. per application of compost for the typical 5,000 sq. ft. suburban lawn). This provides all the fertility the lawn requires and limits any potential P or N runoff.
  • Phosphorous (P) does not leach if there’s enough clay and/or organic matter in the soil.  Leaves, clippings, and compost add organic matter.  Because it’s slow-release, compost can help with N runoff, too.

High maintenance lawns are fast becoming as passé as the era of poodle skirts from which they came.  Learn to love those dandelions. Rejoice to find ourselves, quite literally, in the clover.  It’s important to remember the role healthy soil plays in maintaining a healthy lawn and planet.

Use chemicals or not, embrace species diversity for your lawn or not, mow it or not.  But do maintain soil organic matter.   Healthy soil makes any lawn care regime an environmentally-responsible effort.

Access the full article:  Are Freedom Lawns Environmentally Responsible? It’s well worth the read, even if your lawn is still stuck in the ‘50s.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE this blog post:  Fixing patches in a centipede lawn — why use compost?

PHOTO: Flickr/by Susan Harris

Lipton

Organics recycling helps Lipton’s Suffolk, VA employees reach zero landfill goal.

When the plant manager of Lipton’s Suffolk, Virginia facility challenged his employees to improve their recycling program in late 2008, it yielded a surprising end—the plant become a zero landfill facility.

As Lipton employees worked to improve their recycling rate in early 2009, the plant manager realized they were quite close to recycling all of their excess materials. Still – “There were a few items we couldn’t find a home for,” said Michael Boone, Lipton’s warehouse supervisor, mainly, excess tea and some paper from the manufacturing process.   When the plant manager got in touch with McGill, he found a taker for these by-products, and Lipton officially became a zero landfill facility in May 2009.

Lipton puts all compostable materials in a compactor, then a hauler trucks them to McGill’s composting facility near Waverly, VA. Today, the company sends McGill about seven tons of organics per week, recycling the tea’s nutrients and helping make their business that much more sustainable. Which, really, is everyone’s cup of tea.

Wow.  It’s been 20 years.

When Jim McGill decided he was ready to give up his environmental consulting business and go build a composting business, I was the lucky guy he invited along on the trip without a roadmap.  My background in agricultural science gave me an appreciation for the power of microbes, but converting that first batch of poultry litter into a product converted me into a believer in the power of composting.

As the business has grown, I have been replaced in every position by someone who is better at the job than me.  Now I find myself in the position of president — the only position left — and there is nowhere I would rather be.  Today, I have the pleasure of working with a wonderful team of people doing something we all know makes a difference.  While there is the occasional problem which requires my attention, my energies are now overwhelmingly focused on opportunities for improvement and growth.

If there is one thing that occupies my focus, it is the tantalizing opportunity for compost to solve real and present environmental problems.  Of all the great benefits of compost,  its potential to replenish soil organic matter is what it’s all about.  Without topsoil, we have no future.  Taking all the world’s biodegradable materials, composting them and returning the organic matter to the soil is not the best option – it is the only option.  How to achieve that goal is what I think about most days.

At McGill, I have the pleasure of leading a team that creates opportunities for everyone to contribute to the restoration of the earth’s topsoil.  We work with Fortune 500 companies, farmers, major municipalities and small towns, landscape architects, engineers, construction companies, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation and erosion control companies, to name but a few.  Though each may have different immediate objectives, they all – through composting – contribute to a more sustainable future, both economically and environmentally.

In the early days of the movement, when meeting goals was a simple matter of personal choice,  sustainability was a lifestyle decision made by individuals and families with minimal influence on the larger community.  But today, decisions about sustainability result in big impacts, because the people making those decisions do so on behalf of cities, corporations and countries.

As a result,  sustainability is no longer about lifestyle choices – it’s about systems, the infrastructure upon which a sustainable society can anchor and grow.  Sustainability has become a very large composition made up of many technologies, services and policies.  Like the web of life, many of its components are interrelated and, sometimes, symbiotic.  If one component is faulty, undersized or missing, the entire system suffers.

Organics recycling is a subsystem of the larger whole.  Farmers, foresters and horticulturalists produce raw materials, turning the valve on a long and intricate supply line of goods and services flowing to consumers.  At every stop,  waste products are generated.  When collected and used as feedstocks in the manufacture of compost, those by-products and residuals transform into soil amendments, growing the next generation of raw materials, controlling stormwater, conserving drinking water and reducing chemical use.  This full circle is what makes it a recycling loop.

But even if the infrastructure does not yet exist for you to send your biodegradables to a community or regional composting facility, you can still make an important contribution to your region’s sustainability system.

How?  Develop a management plan which calls for the use of one cubic yard of compost in landscaping and turfgrass management for every ton of biodegradable waste generated at your facility — be it a municipality, a manufacturing plant or a military base – and you will balance the scales for your operation.  In so doing, markets for compost products expand, giving compost manufacturers competitive advantages in waste procurement.  This allows natural market forces – not laws, taxes and sustainability mandates – to do the heavy lifting,  and is almost always the faster, less painful path to progress.