June 19, 2009 | General

A Tale of Two Jacks

BioCycle June 2009, Vol. 50, No. 6, p. 43
Climate Change Connections
Sally Brown

THIS column, aka tale, is about two Jacks. The first Jack needs to be nimble and quick to jump over the candlestick. We are going to have to be nimbler and quicker if we have any shot at getting CO2 emissions low enough to avoid the potential scorching by the candlestick. The other Jack is Jack Nicholson, not the one from the Bucket List but a much younger one. The Jack I am referring to figured out how to get a slice of toast in the movie Five Easy Pieces when the official time for the breakfast menu had passed (
There have been a number of instances in the last several years where I’ve been astounded and frustrated by certain rules and regulations, formulated or guided with potentially the best interests, that seem to distinctly miss the forest for what I would call a small shrub, let alone some trees. Then there are also the regulatory turf wars. The ones that regulate air are often different from the ones that regulate waste and none of them have any idea about the ones that regulate soils and agriculture. We have become so compartmentalized that you can have several different departments in the same agency attempting to manage the same thing from different angles, each making and spinning its own little wheel. The point is, for us to be nimble and quick and get over this upcoming flame, we will likely need to change some of our current regulations or change how we do business. Increased flexibility and a view of the bigger picture are going to be essential.
A major example is what is considered waste and how it is regulated. Waste is generally one lump sum category that has traditionally been governed by rules that were established to protect public health from disease and explosions related to fugitive gas migration. In some areas, these concerns have led to rules that require certain collection frequencies for MSW for public health reasons. It is really difficult for an organics diversion program to be cost-effective if you still have to pick up all of that residual material that doesn’t decompose every week. The intentions here were good – public health is always a good thing. But think about that next step. If you have taken the stuff that rots out of the trash, it really might be okay to leave the rest of it there a few more days.
Landfill gas collection requirements are another example. They were designed to prevent the neighbors’ houses from blowing up, not to prevent the atmosphere from heating up. Now we have the realization that it is more likely to be concerned about the atmosphere rather than the neighbor. Why? There is the greater impact of the atmosphere blowing up and the low likelihood of a neighbor being anywhere near one of our modern sanitary landfills. Realizing that the atmosphere threat is the big one, many places are considering or requiring earlier gas collection. The related realization, viewing the broader picture, is not putting stuff that generates the gas in the landfill to begin with.
There are reasons for hope. I was just forwarded a story about composting in Illinois, where it appears the regulators are both nimble and quick. They just changed a regulation so that food scraps are no longer considered to be garbage, so they don’t have to be treated as dangerous wastes. Prior to this regulatory change, composting food scraps involved treating that operation as though it were handling garbage, with all of the public health protections in place to assure safety. In other words, it was prohibitively expensive to create composting sites, effectively blocking smaller scale operations. With this change in classification of what food scraps are, it is now possible to open small scale composting sites at a significantly lower cost. How clever was this? You can still protect people from garbage, and at the same time, enable people to compost. All this by moving food scraps over a little bit into a different category.

Here’s another case of wheels spinning. There is a pit in Washington State that needs to be reclaimed. No problem, use biosolids compost. This has been done time and time again. However, the water division of the Department of Ecology has concerns about using the compost. This is despite the fact that the biosolids division in the same agency has blessed the use of compost, and that you can just call up the company that makes the compost and order a retail delivery of any size. In the meantime, the biosolids program has been at a loss as to how to move forward. This is an opportunity for a local demonstration of the efficacy of composts to restore soils. One could also argue that there are better things to do with research dollars.
Here in King County, a gravel pit restoration project is not stalled. Luckily, King County has its own version of Jack. This Jack is named Bob Fuerstenberg and I am fully confident that he would be able to order toast at any restaurant at any time of the day. Bob had a vision that soils play a key role in the County’s carbon mitigation strategy. He also recognized that the organics generated in County could be a key to maximizing both the carbon sequestration potential of soils as well as the sustainability of soils. Bob has managed to get the Solid Waste, Wastewater, Parks, Ecology, Roads and Forestry divisions of the County all talking and it seems, even working together to restore another pit, in a highly visible well-to-do area. He has done this by emphasizing the big picture and by getting publicity.
So the point of these stories and the references to the two Jacks is to encourage you to be nimble and quick and also a little bit sly. Bureaucracy tends to be well intentioned and well entrenched. We need bigger visions and clever ways around the traditional regulatory framework to get people to realize that focusing on the big picture doesn’t mean that all of those little shrubs will be trampled. It means that they’ll be given a chance to grow into a big forest.
Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – is a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board, and authors this regular column on the connections of composting, organics recycling and renewable energy to climate change. Email Dr. Brown at

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