September 16, 2009 | General

Tell Congress About The Power Of Organics

BioCycle September 2009, Vol. 50, No. 9, p. 4
Climate Change Connections
Sally Brown

THIS column is really about the Waxman-Markey bill that was passed by the House of Representatives in June (aka the American Clean Energy and Security Act), which will hopefully soon be the first U.S. legislation passed on climate change. But I’m going to start by talking about grocery bags.
Here in Seattle we just had a primary and on the ballot was a proposition to put a 20-cent tax on grocery bags (both paper and plastic). Now I bet that anyone who reads this column would be sure that I would be all in favor of this tax. Grocery bags are generally made of plastic. Plastic doesn’t degrade; it is made from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are bad things. Recycling rates for plastic grocery bags are not that high.
However, I’ve realized as I grow older that things that seem obvious on the surface can often be much more complex. The answer that seems right at first can sometimes not be right at all (something to consider if your kids are about to take the SATs). I decided that before I made up my mind, I would ask people that work at my two favorite grocery stores.
The guy at the check out of the first store had clearly spent time thinking about this. He said that this grocery bag tax was a first step in a planned attempt to reduce the amount of disposable plastic used including clamshells, meat packaging and so on. He thought that the bag tax would be very difficult to implement, hell for him at the work place, and not really the best way to eliminate bags. But since the overall goal was good, he said that he would most likely vote for it, as a necessary first step in an overall valuable plan.
At the next store the lady that checked us out was not in favor of this tax, and it bothered her that there was a piece of environmental legislation that she was against. She just didn’t think that the bag tax was the way to go. She listened to Bill Nye the Science Guy and based on what he said felt that plastic bags were bad, but that the paper ones were just fine. The paper came from tree plantations on disturbed forest lands and were good for the soil and renewable.
What was much better, she said, were the corn-based plastic bags used in other stores that degraded quickly. Her manager told her that they ripped and so were no good. We agreed that the reusable bags were the best option and left it at that.
So here we have the relatively straight-forward plastic bag tax that in fact is a quagmire of complexity. I am sure that the people who thought of this tax had the best intentions. I am not so sure that they talked to everyone in the industry and came up with the best option. I am also not sure that a simple, easy to implement option exists that would fully take into account these different considerations. And this is nothing compared to the ACES legislation.


The American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) is dealing with much broader issues and is likely to have a huge impact. On the whole it is a fabulous thing. The U.S. is finally, maybe going to admit that climate change is something worth paying attention to. But in this bill are many things that would harm the cause. Maybe not harm in a truly terrible way, but certainly not do as much good as can be done.
The main item that pertains to this column and the organics industry is a requirement in the bill for all landfills to install gas collection systems. Current requirements only require collection systems to go into operation between 2 and 5 years after waste is placed in a cell and only on landfills of a certain size. On the surface this is great. Everybody knows that landfills emit methane (CH4) and that CH4 is bad. Just like everybody knows those plastic bags are bad.
But what that requirement is likely to do is to put a powerful incentive in place for landfill operators to bring as much material into the landfills as possible, particularly material with as high a CH4 generating capacity as possible. Gas collection systems are expensive to install. They also can be expensive to operate if CH4 yield is low. Bringing in high octane organic wastes will yield more revenue and more gas, to help defray the expenses of installing the gas collection systems. In turn, this will likely result in a major disincentive for programs that attempt to divert these feedstocks from landfills to anaerobic digestion or composting.
This bill looks at the status quo and attempts to improve things by a slight modification of the status quo. It’s all inside the box – nothing leading to a fundamental change in the way that we do things. But a fundamental change is what we need.
Getting Congress to understand that need is no easy matter. Right now, they are trying to figure out the health care thing at the same time as the greenhouse gas thing, all the while dealing with the economic problems. These people likely have not spent months and months thinking about banana peels like I have. They more than likely don’t know the difference between in-vessel and windrow composting. When you say differences in windrows, they are likely to think you are talking about double pane or storm.
Still, members of Congress need to hear from us to understand the potential that wise management of organics can offer. And who best to hear it from than the people who understand organics and know what benefits they offer. We are the equivalent of those people in the grocery stores. Recently, the U.S. Composting Council hired a lobbyist to convey the message on Capitol Hill. The Cool 2012 campaign has a position paper on its website
This is stuff that you can do as well. Contact your Congressperson and tell them about the power of organics. Let them know about how organics can produce energy and enrich soils. I am sure that they want to do the right thing and with appropriate information, they just might.

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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