Editorial: The SocioEconomics of Composting

Jerome Goldstein
BioCycle August 2012, Vol. 53, No. 8, p. 4

On occasion, BioCycle will reprint editorials written by Jerome Goldstein, our founding editor and publisher. This editorial was originally published in March-April, 1975 Compost Science, and has been edited to fit this page. (BioCycle’s original title was Compost Science.)

Five miles a way from our Compost Science editorial offices, a new composting plant has begun grinding refuse and forming windrows. The plant was built and is being operated by the Lehigh County (Pa.) Authority. It’s a major step toward the recycling of garbage from the residents of Allentown and surrounding communities.

Only a few years ago, neither the Lehigh County commissioners nor Allentown city officials even considered the composting method. But in 1975, a composting plant operates on a county-run basis!

The CBS-TV program, “60 Minutes”, featured the controversy over a Michigan organic farmer’s legal battle to use the agricultural value of sludge on his land. (See “The American Farmer and His Right to Apply Sewage Sludge to His Land”, Sept.-Oct., 1974 Compost Science) A spokesman for CBS reported the program drew a surprisingly high response. One week later, a Public Broadcasting Service station televised the action-and-reaction over applying Philadelphia sludge to Pennsylvania farmland.

Farm business publications, agricultural extension reports, and newspapers announce the “new” economics: “160-Bu. Com with Sewage Sludge” (Successful Farming); “Manure is Worth Money Again” (Country Guide); “Demand for Feedlot Manure Reaches All Time High” (San Angelo (Tex.) Standard); “Manure Is New Farm Gold” (Minnesota Ag Ext. Service).

But the improved economics for wastes-in-farming are not only due to the 14 + cents-per-pound nitrogen, 13 + cents-per-pound phosphorus and 6 + cents-per-pound potash. These rising fertilizer prices are definitely part of the dynamically-changing picture, but the rising cost of alternative waste treatment methods [i.e. landfill and incineration] join in.

Consider Allentown, for example, whose garbage is now being composted in a county-run treatment plant. Its City Council had previously voted to build a new incinerator to replace the old smoky one which had been ordered closed by the state Department of Environmental Resources. The vote changed when the proposed incinerator bid came in at 3 times the original estimate. Landfill was the next choice of the City Council — but the problem then was no landfill site within the city limits.

And that’s where the socio factor enters the picture. A landfill, no matter how well conceived, would have been unacceptable to the supervisors of the township in which the proposed treatment area was located. But, because composting was the treatment method chosen, the township’s environmental activists rallied support of neighbors to get the elected supervisors to vote approval for the county to create a regional recycling installation.

Instead of the usual cries: “Don’t dump it on us!”; “If it’s so good, let the city people keep it!”, the neighbors are proud to have an environmentally-rational, economically-sound recycling plant that already is attracting visitors from all over the nation.

And — simultaneously with the rising costs of alternative treatment methods and fertilizer prices is the growing consciousness for a low-energy U.S. agricultural system. The same forces that demand resource recovery also demand an interrelationship between farms and cities, between food production and wastes-on-the-land, between city streets and crop rows.

The issue of waste management has left the confines of the engineering department. Waste management is now interwoven within the entire fabric of our society.

When we speak of economics and economic incentives for composting, it is absolutely necessary to include factors which reflect the intricate network of wastes touching such seemingly disparate factors as water quality, land use and oil prices, and the political realities associated with using wastes-on-the-land.

The question is no longer whether the socioeconomics are right for composting. Instead, it’s when our nation’s and the world’s policy-makers will make the discovery.

 


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