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FROM THE ARCHIVE: Hot to rot
At the risk of preaching to the converted, I should start by saying how excited I am to be writing this article on composting. No, honestly, I am – that’s the problem. Because I don’t mind admitting that I haven’t been excited about composting for some considerable time. For as long as I can remember, I have always had a compost heap and, as a result, composting was a normal, natural part of growing up. My father had one when I was a child – we used to put all the egg shells and vegetable peelings on it and, every once in a while, the resulting compost would be dug into the vegetable patch with largely successful results. In fact, the whole system worked so well that I saw no reason for doing any different. Composting became the norm and it wasn’t until I moved to a city that I discovered this wasn’t the case for everyone.
In writing this article, however, I realised that things have changed. People are getting excited about composting, and with good reason. As a result, a whole host of organisations, from companies to community groups and from scientists to festival-goers, are reaping the benefits.
From an environmental perspective, composting is ideal – not only does it divert waste from landfill, it also closes the loop by providing a useful end product. No wonder it is gaining in popularity. Indeed, according to the Composting Association’s Jeremy Jacobs, developments are in the pipeline that could boost its popularity further.
If put into practice, the Quality Protocol for BSI PAS 100 compost, which is currently undergoing public consultation, will mean that compost will be classified as a product, rather than a waste, with some significant results. “If this is implemented, it will mean that there are less barriers to enable compost to be spread to land – the most common use for composted green waste,” says Jacobs. “Currently compost requires a waste management license exemption to carry out this process, which has significant cost implications to both the producer and farmer.”
Add to this a growth in infrastructure, employment and processing, and there is clear cause for optimism. It seems as if the message about the potential of composting is finally beginning to get through.
Just as importantly, composting is also becoming linked with a host of developments designed to improve the sustainability of 21st century living. Take rockdust, for example. Tucked away in the wilds of Highland Perthshire in Scotland, a small but dedicated team at the Sustainable Ecological Earth Regeneration Centre is working tirelessly to champion the case for rockdust – a quarrying byproduct that would otherwise be landfilled – as a means to promote soil remineralisation.
Advocates of rockdust argue that it has many benefits, including long-term increases in soil fertility, enhanced plant growth and vigour and increases in the nutritional value of produce. Crucially, it is also said to boost carbon sequestration by the microbial communities in the soil, thus complementing efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. In short, if rockdust lives up to its claims, it could have a major role to play in improving soils worldwide and combating climate change. There is also evidence that rockdust can increase microbial activity in some materials and, therefore, its incorporation as a feedstock could prove beneficial to composting.
Dr Robin Szmidt, coordinator of the SEPA-sponsored Remineralisation Forum, has been involved in much of the research into rockdust. He believes that, if used correctly, rockdust has tremendous potential and that it can work successfully in tandem with composting. “There’s no question that the two together are better than the sum of their parts, but you have to getthe source of the materials right,” says Szmidt. “Rockdust from granitic or basaltic rocks works best but, unfortunately, there are charlatans out there who will try and promote what is effectively just sand from demolition sites and, as a result, rockdust has a bad name in some circles. But, get it right and it works very well.”
Szmidt believes that, if we are to realise the full potential of rockdust, there is a desperate need for a proper programme of research and a greater partnership with industry because, for rockdust to be used on a commercial scale, the quarrying industries must be convinced of its benefits and the economics must be made to add up.
While the government has historically devoted large sums of money on research into fertiliser and peat use, very little money has ever been spent on organic farming, composting or rockdust. Consequently, it is difficult for researchers to provide sufficient evidence to encourage people to take up such alternative technologies on a commercial scale.
“It can also be difficult to convince farmers to use these materials because it can sometimes be two or three years before they see the benefits,” says Szmidt. “Obviously with conventional fertiliser, the gains are more immediate. In some ways, our whole approach to using materials on the soil has to change. The point is that you can’t just dismiss these techniques until we have a whole programme or work in place to research this properly.”
For those involved in composting, it is perhaps no surprise to learn that governments have not always been supportive. For example, it can be difficult to compost when, in many cases, landfill remains a cheaper option. Rob Kearle, Rubbish Manager for Glastonbury Festival and the team from Network Recycling have successfully introduced composting to the festival, but they have faced some considerable challenges along the way. As part of the 2004 licensing agreement for the festival, Rob and Network Recycling volunteered to match Mendip Council’s recycling rate of 27 per cent. Introducing composting seemed the ideal way to do this. A system was set up so that traders had to sort their rubbish into pens for cardboard, tins and bottles and, in addition, separate skips were provided for compost and non recyclables. Festival goers themselves were also given three bins – one for compost, one for dry recyclables and one for residual waste. “We had wanted to do the whole range for a long time, but we couldn’t get sufficient quality and quantity of biodegradable food containers for the whole site,” says Kearle. “We couldn’t introduce composting over just a part of the site as it would lead to crosscontamination, so we had to wait until we had enough to do it site-wide. Eventually we found a Scandinavian company who could provide us with good quality cutlery at the right price, so then we were able to swap from using plastic.” To reduce the chances of contamination, traders had to buy biodegradable cutlery from the wholesalers on site. This ensured that plastic plates, knives and forks were kept out of the waste stream.
So far, the results have been very successful. At last year’s festival, 50 per cent of waste was recycled and 250 tonnes of compost was produced – a figure that accounts for 12.5 per cent of all the waste from the festival. As the compostable material contains meat, it cannot be composted on site and so it is sent to an in-vessel plant in Leominster, where it is composted alongside waste from a local abattoir. The resulting compost is then sold on, with much of it being spread back onto farmland in the local area.
Unfortunately, transport and separation costs mean that price is a big issue. “There is a lot of bureaucracy around composting on a commercial scale because so many people are worried about things like foot and mouth,” says Kearle, who estimates that recycling all the festival’s waste is costing £50,000-£80,000 more than landfill. “We’re lucky in that we’ve got the capital behind us to do it. We’ve had smaller events approach us who would like to do something similar but, often, the cost to them is too great.”
Network Recycling’s Ed Cooke agrees that festival and event composting has a big future. However, his experience of composting at organic food fairs and other events, such as the Surfers Against Sewage fundraising ball, has proved that setting up a successful system is far from straightforward. For example, one event used both plastic and cornstarch cups but, because the public didn’t understand the difference, the two waste streams got mixed up, resulting in high levels of contamination. “You can’t just send a bag of rubbish to a composting plant,” says Cooke. “Until mainstream goods come in compostable packaging, or unless you’ve got a completely closed system – as at Glastonbury – you’re going to have problems. Having said that, it can work very well and we’re going to do a lot of work on it this winter with a view to adding another big festival to our composting list soon.”
Festivals aside, progress is also being made on incorporating composting into more regular commercial projects. At New Smithfield Market in Manchester, Fairfield Materials Management has recently achieved BSI PAS 100 certification for the compost it produces. As a result, 99.5 per cent of waste from the market is now recycled and Fairfield can look forward to developing new markets for its compost.
“We’ve been talking to landscapers, local authorities and urban developers to promote the fact that we’ve now got a specification,” says Fairfield’s Helen Middleton. “Obviously the scale that we’re producing at means that we need to have commercial outlets for the compost and PAS 100 is helping us do that because we can now prove the consistency and reliability of our product.”
Meanwhile, FareShare, the national charity that works to relieve food poverty for disadvantaged people, has come up with a new solution to the problem of surplus food and drink. The charity has established FareShare 1st – a social enterprise that provides the food and drink industry with an environmentally sustainable means of disposing with surpluses.
In essence, surplus food from companies is offered first to FareShare’s network of 350 local charities, then for commercial resale – anything left is then disposed of in an environmentally beneficial way, that is, through composting.
“Obviously there are other waste brokers, but what makes FareShare 1st unique is that we have an extensive, respected and growing charity network who can consume large amounts of the food that might otherwise be wasted,” says FareShare’s Alex Green. “Effectively we are extending the supply chain for this food into areas that are often – for many complex reasons – not viable to the businesses.”
Although FareShare 1st was only established last July, responses have been overwhelmingly positive. Prior to its launch, the project was piloted for 12 months with a number of major manufacturers, including Kellogg’s, and more manufacturers are coming on board all the time. So far, 3,100 tonnes of food has been handled – most of which would otherwise have been sent to landfill – and 350 tonnes of this has already been distributed to charities for consumption. The remainder has been disposed of in a number of eco-friendly ways, with composting and animal feed being prominent end uses.
According to Green, it is hoped that 5,000 tonnes of food will be distributed into the FareShare Community Food Network in the first year of operation, with this figure rising to 15,000 tonnes by the end of year four. These are ambitious goals, but the enthusiasm for projects of this nature is such that anything is possible. It seems that composting has found its feet, and its strength is its diversity. After all, what other activity could be successfully performed by everyone from a householder to a social enterprise, or even a big corporate company? The truth is that we need more of composting in all its forms. Viewed in this way, the commercial windrow or in-vessel plant can happily exist alongside my Dad’s humble compost heap. And that’s got to be good news for all concerned.
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