BioCycle October 2008, Vol. 49, No. 10, p. 4
Dollar For Dollar, Composting Wins
IN THESE days of carbon accounting, attempts are being made by private companies, city and county managers, project developers and operators, carbon credit traders and others to monetize the net benefit of options available to get our planet out of hot water. Everyone is seeking the bottom line number that levels the playing field for various solutions being proposed and implemented. The challenge is that scientists, economists and capitalists are trying to apply hard numbers to solutions that are not fully vetted in the undisputed data department.
Until recently, solid waste managers opting to compost rather than bury or burn organics had a similar challenge. There was a lot of wiggle room in the numbers used to calculate environmental and economic benefits of various MSW management alternatives. Fortunately, that situation has changed. Dr. Jeffrey Morris of Sound Resource Management in Olympia, Washington, spent a number of years developing a calculator that evaluates the environmental costs and benefits of composting, landfilling and combustion. After peer reviews and road tests in various jurisdictions, Morris released an Excel-based model called “Environmental Value of Recycling and Composting.” The bottom line? Dollar for dollar, composting wins.
An article in this month’s BioCycle, “Composting – Best Bang For MSW Management Buck,” (page 23) explains how Morris used life cycle assessment data to develop pollution estimates that are standardized into one measurement: US dollars. The monetary values are based on either the estimated real financial costs to society in terms of environmental degradation and human health impact, or the actual market value of a pollutant’s emissions established through trading schemes. This approach goes a long way to leveling the playing field.
The real beauty of the calculator, from a composting perspective, is the monetization of the value of using finished compost. Based on peer-reviewed research, Morris conservatively estimates that compost use on lawns and gardens is associated with a 50 percent reduction in pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use. The disposal and combustion options – even when energy is being recovered – can’t begin to match that value in environmental terms.
Having hard numbers to put into economic analyses being prepared for mayors, county commissioners, city councils, banks, bond issuers, investors, etc. will help immensely in making the case for organics diversion via composting. Furthermore, Morris’ calculator did not evaluate energy recovery potential during composting, or with anaerobic digestion ahead of composting. We expect that would make the case for organics diversion even stronger. It also would be terrific to have additional benefits added to the calculator, such as job creation. Numerous studies over the years have shown that recycling and composting create local jobs – far more than what are created at landfills and waste-to-energy plants.
In short, Jeff Morris has made a tremendous contribution to the waste management community. Government agencies and private businesses now have an accounting tool to help validate that their choices, going forward, are climate-friendly as well as fiscally responsible. – N.G.