It is, unfortunately, society’s nature to discard the unwanted or forgotten. This tendency is on display across the globe, from slums of mega-cities to undernourished children in rural villages to the ugly endangered creatures that never receive attention. Nowhere, however, is this tendency more apparent than in our trash. We accumulate so much unwanted stuff that each city-dweller throws away an average of 1.2 kilograms of municipal solid waste per day. An individual’s trash puts all those unwanted items on display, whether it is an old love letter, a broken glass, or a half-eaten ham and cheese sandwich.
Pay Dirt, a new report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), outlines the benefits of that half-eaten sandwich. The report outlines the environmental and economic benefits of developing composting programs in Maryland. Composting is simply the decomposition of organic matter. It occurs naturally, but it can also be controlled and accelerated with human assistance. The end product – compost – has a variety of uses and is particularly valuable as a soil conditioner.
Economically, composting can provide a surprising number of jobs. Compost stays within the local community and thus prevents outsourcing of the associated jobs. On a per-ton basis, composting, including mulching and natural wood waste recycling, employs two times more workers than landfilling, and four times more workers than incineration. On a dollar-per-capital-investment basis, composting may sustain as many as three times more jobs than landfilling and 17 times more jobs than incineration. If the 1 million tons of organic matter currently wasted in Maryland were composted, almost 1400 jobs could be created.
Environmentally, composting can contribute at a variety of different scales. Backyard gardeners have long composted their own waste and then reintroduced the compost into their gardens, increasing soil productivity. At a larger scale, composting can help protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed – it reduces stormwater runoff by holding up to 20 times its weight in water; binds heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, reducing their leachability and absorption by plants; when added to soil compost can reduce contamination by urban pollutants by 60-95 percent.
Composting also means less waste is sent to landfills and incinerators, which translates to reduced methane emissions from landfills and lower potentially dangerous fumes from incineration. In addition, because of its high water retention, compost helps prevent soil erosion, and is being used on steep roadway embankments and as part of the growing trend of green infrastructure, which includes green roofs, bioswales, rain gardens, and vegetated retaining walls. ILSR argues that composting offers Maryland the opportunity to become a leader in green infrastructure and provide a model for other states to follow.
Maryland’s recycling has stagnated at around 40 percent for the past decade, and law mandates only between 20 and 35 percent recycling at the county level. While a 40 percent recycling rate is in line with the national average, Maryland lags behind several other states, such as California, which in 2012 enacted a bill mandating a 75 percent recycling rate by 2020. Composting is a natural partner for recycling – products such as yard waste and food scraps that cannot be recycled can be composted, and states that promote both would see drastic decreases in landfill and incinerator waste. However, in order to design and implement composting programs, the state and local governments must be involved, working alongside communities and individuals.
Homemade compost systems help backyard gardens flourish and reduce residential waste (photo courtesy of Bev Wagar via flickr).
A statewide workgroup in 2012 recommended that the General Assembly authorize the Maryland Department of the Environment to issue regulations for the design and operation of composting facilities, and exempt these sites from the same regulations as refuse disposal sites. The General Assembly authorized this in 2013, and has thus paved the way for an increase in composting infrastructure. However, there is much work left to be done, and the report offers some policy guidelines that are necessary to facilitate new composting facilities. The primary focus should be on a decentralized system that prioritizes home-based, farm-based, and community-based composting over larger-scale centralized facilities. Local composting minimizes transportation costs, and helps create a community culture of composting. As composting programs expand, regional facilities can be built in communities that have already embraced the benefits reaped from composting. The report also advocates targeting a variety of yard debris for year-round collection, as well as banning yard trimmings from landfills and incinerators.
ILSR argues that Maryland has the opportunity to model its composting systems on already established ones, such as San Francisco’s highly successful waste program. San Francisco mandates curbside pickup of three bins – one for recyclables, one for compost, and one for everything left over, which, due to the city’s extensive recycling and composting infrastructure, isn’t much. The city has achieved an 80 percent landfill diversion rate, and aims for zero waste by 2020. In addition to all the environmental benefits of waste diversion, California’s recycling laws have created 125,000 jobs. Austin, Texas is also being proactive about composting, trying out a pilot program for curbside compost collection, as well as requiring all restaurants to compost by the year 2017. If Maryland’s state and local governments provide the support for composting, the state could become a national compost leader, drawing ideas from cities around the country to develop a statewide infrastructure for proper waste disposal and reuse.