September 22, 2008 | General

Value Of A Pile

BioCycle September 2008, Vol. 49, No. 9, p. 21
Climate Change Connections
Sally Brown

IN my last column, I managed to turn the Pixar animated feature Wall E into a diatribe about soils. This time, the second part of my thesis on Wall E, the focus is on opportunities. Wall E, the robot in the movie, is tasked with compacting waste, and waste is pretty much all that is left of the Earth. Mountains and piles of waste. The piles that Wall E has gotten to are nice, rectangular and compacted. The rest is just in unstable mountains.
Is this really going to be how it ends up here? Probably not. Materials once considered waste are increasingly becoming viewed as valuable resources.
Years ago, I would ride around with Henry Campbell, then of Biogro (a residuals management company in Maryland) in his search for piles. He was always on the look out for a pile, recognizing the value that others were missing. This value was both in the money paid by the generator to take the stuff away as well as what that pile might be worth in a different market. The value of a pile is no longer a foreign concept in industry and agriculture. And that value is shifting away from the takeaway fee to the fee associated with the actual value of the stuff in the pile.
Sawdust is one example. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we may lack sunshine and days with temperatures over 70°, but one thing that we haven’t historically lacked is sawdust. All of those giant fir trees cut up for houses and paper left mountains of sawdust. I am not talking about generic sawdust. You could specify that you only wanted Douglas Fir sawdust, Cedar sawdust and so on, and you got paid a tip fee for taking it. No mixed wood and certainly no “used” sawdust from things like storm clearing or ground up pallets. Only the pure stuff could pass muster here for composting operations.
Now, however, designer sawdust is in short supply and people are actually selling it. The composting community is besides itself. There are new businesses sprouting up that offer used sawdust, typically for a fee. We have a set of test piles curing that were made with used sawdust, as a way of showing the composting community that life in this new world can go on. Quality compost can still be produced. This is the new reality – the opportunity of the pile has been recognized and money is being made. Wood is ending up ground to customer specifications and delivered for an additional charge, instead of ending up in a landfill. Wall E has no place in this world.
Industry pretty often gets the value of a pile – this recognition turns a liability into an asset. Agriculture is getting there too. It seems that it is just the residential and municipal sectors that haven’t quite caught on. This is largely still a world where the vision of Wall E holds sway.
I’m currently on one of Washington State’s Climate Action Teams (the one about waste, if you can imagine). We are working with Dave Sjoding from Washington State University’s Energy program about what would be necessary to make anaerobic digesters economically viable in a state where, in addition to wood, hydroelectricity is also abundant. We talk about the materials currently being landfilled that have high potential for digestion and he gets a gleam in his eye. “They’ll be fighting over this stuff very soon,” he says. And to me, this upcoming fight is one of the last big opportunities for those who look for underutilized piles.
For the home/apartment/dorm dwellers, those piles that they make and put out on the curb every week have no value. They are a pain. These are the inspiration for Wall E. It is just a select few who home compost that understand what food scraps can become, for example. Trained and conscientious people recycle, but most do this on principle rather than for any economic incentive.
For the vast majority, there have to be ways to make the need to recycle hit home. There are options, such as public education about the value of the waste stream. Making the connection between recycling and polar bears is an option, since saving the earth is always a good deal – no one really objects to. Teaching why there are three bins instead of just one can go a long way to doing that. Stop Waste in Alameda County, California has a terrific ad campaign to publicize food scrap diversion, and participation rates are increasing (
Another option is instituting a sort of negative value. This is being done in different communities in the European Union. An increase in the landfill tip fee to more than $200/ton has made throwing stuff away very expensive. In England, there are garbage police and citizens are limited to how much they can put on the curb every week. By putting those cans, bottles and food scraps where they belong, they may not make money but will save a fortune in fines and collection fees. To me, a combination of these plans makes a whole lot of sense. High fees provide the resources to build digesters, composting and other recycling industries. Education lets people realize that the onerous fine is there for a reason.
But for many municipalities it can be hard, especially where doing business as usual – typically hauling the piles off to disposal – isn’t costing them $200/ton. How do you transform the notion of generic waste piles into a vision of opportunities? Most likely, that is not going to be easy. But what may be easy, or at least feasible, is to approach municipalities and offer to take their pile away, not to bury or burn, but for a good cause and a profit – and to do it in a dependable fashion. To those of you that look for piles, this may still be a mountain of opportunity.
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. E-mail Dr. Brown at

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