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Composting: dirty riches.

Most people just assume that landfills stink. But real connoisseurs of malodorousness, like composting consultant Clark Gregory, a soil scientist who has helped communities compost such noisome waste products as chicken manure and scallop guts, will tell you differently. Over the years, Gregory has been everything from vice president of the Woods End Research Lab in Mt. Vernon, Maine, to composting supervisor for Fulton County, Georgia, but he prefers to introduce himself simply as The Compost Man. And to his expert nostrils, landfills these days seem almost odorless. Sure, the garbage in landfills is rotten, The Compost Man admits. But it's not rotten enough.

If garbage were allowed to rot properly, developed countries would not be facing so serious a solid waste crisis, since up to three-quarters of what we throw away is organic, readily biodegradable material, such as food, leaves, and paper. Rotting isn't exactly easy, though, in the tightly packed mountain of garbage at a typical landfill, where organics don't have access to oxygen. Landfills are expanding instead of shrinking, and space is becoming both scarce and expensive. In a 1992 survey of American waste facilities conducted by the journal Biocycle, 22 of the 32 responding states estimated their remaining landfill capacity to be 10 or fewer years.

Resolving our waste crisis will depend primarily, of course, on a reduction of our trash output. But when it comes to managing the organic materials that we do discard, the obvious goal is to facilitate nature's tendency toward decay - which is exactly what composting is designed to do. Through composting, the bacteria and fungi that gorge themselves on organic matter can not only reduce the refuse's weight and volume by half within a few months, but also turn it into a rich soil product. And all you have to do is throw your organic waste onto a pile, stir it around occasionally, and watch it rot. Instituted correctly, on a municipal level, a comprehensive composting program - with glant-size piles - could address serious solid waste problems, produce cheap, safe fertilizer capable of replacing many of the chemicals now used in agriculture, and deliver a boost to both local and national economies. In short, it would be perfume to Clark Gregory's nostrils.

The last few years have at least established composting as a rising green industry, especially in the most populous regions of the developed world. In the United States, as recently as 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed the percentage of yard wastc composted in the entire country as "negligible." The EPA'S 1992 report, though, reveals a healthy 12 percent composting rate. Eight years ago, only 5,000 Germans had their organic wastes collected separately; by 1995, the ranks are expected to swell to 12 million. "Rot," says Gregory, "is hot."

The developed world's hodgepodge of composting programs, though, is too inefficient to divert any more than a tiny fraction of the compostable waste stream away from landfills and incinerators. Most municipal programs deal only with residences, and collect only yard trimmings. Occasionally, a private company tries to compost the commercial supply of food scraps and soiled paper flowing out of supermarkets, restaurants, and food manufacturing plants. But very few programs have tried to compost a wider spectrum of organics, even though Gregory and his fellow scientists have come up with successful recipes for almost any combination. Of course, not all organics should be composted. Paper that has not been soiled by food, for instance, should be recycled into more paper, in order to save trees. Still, though, the composting of soiled paper, yard clippings, and food scraps would recover a considerable portion of the waste stream-about 40 percent in the United States.

Unfortunately, the only past attempts at systematically composting a greater percentage of organics, most of which were initiated in Europe, have been ill-conceived in both environmental and economic terms. The typical approach of waste managers has been to establish huge facilities designed to accept the standard mixed stream of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) and then sort and compost the organics. Sorting is useless, though, besides being expensive: inevitably, the organics arrive at the plant already contaminated by common hazardous wastes such as motor oil, leaking batteries, and household cleaners. The key step of establishing agricultural markets for finished compost is impossible using mixed MSW, since contaminated compost would probably harm crops more than help them.

Mixed-MSW composters might have found it useful to consult the most obvious experts on agricultural marketing - farmers. Farmers, after all, have been making compost and using it to improve their soil's fertility ever since some ancient agriculturalist first saw weeds sprouting out of the local dungheap. When agricultural experts are left out of the early planning stages, composting programs either end up as failures (mixed MSW) or are blocked by inappropriate regulations. According to soil scientist Maarten van de Kamp, a colleague of Gregory's who works for the Massachusetts state government, the bulk of the responsibility for overseeing composting permits should fall not on the local department of solid waste but on the Department of Food and Agriculture. Such an arrangement has helped van de Kamp to implement a composting program that encourages townships to simply bring their yard trimmings straight to farmers, who then mix it with manure and make themselves some valuable fertilizer.

In general, the easiest way of improving the marketability of compost products is to monitor what goes into the recipe: it takes clean garbage to make clean dirt. Waste experts could arrange separation of organics from other refuse right at the source. The only contaminants to worry about in source-separated compost would be pesticides used on yards and fields, heavy metals collected on leaves exposed to polluted air, and perhaps scraps from the plastic bags in which garbage is sometimes stored. These are manageable concerns, and a recent study on the composting of source-separated yard trimmings by the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources revealed very low levels of contaminants. Such studies could lead to the establishment of safe, specific standards to regulate what goes into compost, how composting facilities are sited and designed, and what comes out as the end product. The economic aspects of source-separated composting are also compelling. The clean end products can be sold at high prices, and facilities don't need any expensive sorting devices. In Newark, New Jersey, a recent study showed that while it cost more than $108 per ton to put leaves in an already overflowing landfill, composting a ton of leaves, if they were source separated, cost under $30. Newark's publicly run operation also saves money by providing the community with fertilizer to be used in urban horticultural projects. Privately run operations save municipalities money, tool and the composting companies do quite well themselves: municipalities them to take away the garbage, and farmers and gardeners pay them for finished composts.

A truly comprehensive composting program would provide collection of source-separated organics, and would cover both residential and commercial waste flows of yard trimmings, food scraps, and food-solled paper. In places where recyclables and regular garbage are already collected separately, organics would simply become a third stream in the waste system. Additionally, municipalities could follow the example o such forward-looking cities as Seattle and Toronto, whose governments distribute subsidized compost bins to encourage homeowners to compost right in their own backyards.

According to Gregory, home composting might even turn out to be the key to the industry. Eighty percent of waste management dollars are spent on collection alone," he notes, "so there are considerable up-front savings to be made by composting organics at home." Already, waste managers are estimating that Seattle's home composting program is saving taxpayers about $17.75 per ton of organic waste and that each participating household is keeping about 554 pounds of "garbage" out of landfills every year. Some communities have even begun to offer a phone number for home composting advice - in Sacramento, California, it's called The Rotline.

Of course, many homeowners aren't interested in having piles of rot anywhere near their neighborhoods, let alone next to their garage - and Clark Gregory, for one, worries that such biases among the general public may represent composting's greatest obstacle. But he converts people every day, simply by helping them imagine banana peels, coffee grounds, and wet leaves being turned into beautiful, earthy compost. And if you use the right recipe, The Compost Man always tells people, it even smells good.
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Title Annotation:compost from organic waste
Author:Sachs, Aaron
Publication:World Watch
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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