January 19, 2007 | General

Editorial: The Whole Picture

Nora Goldstein
BioCycle January 2007, Vol. 48, No. 1, p. 4

The unusually warm weather during December and continuing into the New Year has prompted many to worry that we are experiencing the effects of climate change. Some argue the warm weather is due to El Nino; others attribute it to global warming. Whatever may be the cause, the universal assessment is that the planet is warming and dramatic steps need to be taken today and in the long-term.
On January 2nd, we received a phone call from Bill Obear, owner of Bear Path Farm in Massachusetts. Bill is very concerned about the impact of compost production – positive, negative, neutral – on climate change. He followed up with an e-mail outlining some specific questions and concerns. “As I write this note it’s currently 42°F on Jan. 2nd, which is not totally unusual,” Bill wrote. “But so far, it’s been like that to date (or warmer) virtually all winter. It’s supposed to be in the mid-50s by the end of the week. I can’t do any compost field work because the soil is too soft to try to attempt to turn anything. What does all of this mean? What should our industry do, or is already doing, to help avert a climate change disaster? If most composting processes are beneficial to the CO2 balance, the world should know about it and the compost industry should be credited for their positive work. If some processes are not beneficial, what do we need to do to change?”
Bear Path Farm produced about 2,000 cubic yards of finished compost from horse bedding, dairy manure, and food waste in 2006. These raw materials were mixed, formed into windrows on a soil pad and turned about eight times. Bill has records of his diesel fuel usage related to compost production and the transportation of raw materials and finished product. “The question that I have is, with this information and more, can I determine if producing compost at my scale (or on any scale for that matter) is positive, negative or neutral relative to global warming?,” he asks. “Are there adjustments that I can make in my production methods to become more carbon friendly? Could somebody put together a fairly easy-to-use carbon calculator where inputs such as cubic yards or tons of compost produced, types and tons or cubic yards of raw materials used, production method (windrow, aerated static pile etc.), fossil fuel inputs etc., are entered and a rough CO2 balance can be calculated? I’m encouraging you as a spokesperson for our industry to try to find out some answers, promote appropriate research and quickly disseminate the results so that adjustments can be made and compost operations can be looked upon as carbon friendly, which can only help in marketing our products, permitting future compost sites and increasing the interest in composting as an appropriate waste management process.”
BioCycle welcomes this challenge. We shared Bill’s e-mail with several colleagues who are very involved in assessing the impacts of composting and compost utilization on greenhouse gas emissions and will be reporting on their responses. We also are contacting researchers who are studying the potential for carbon sequestration in soils amended with organic matter. Via the pages of BioCycle, our website, our monthly electronic bulletin BioCycle Alert, and at BioCycle conferences, we will be asking and answering Bill Obear’s questions, as well as many others. Sessions at the BioCycle West Coast Conference in San Diego will present research findings and highlight how organics recyclers and renewable energy producers are plugging into California’s greenhouse gas reduction mandates. We encourage you to contact us with more questions and thoughts as we help each other evaluate and understand The Whole Picture.

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