The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

D.C.’s Big Compost Fail

April 3rd, 2012 · 5 Comments · Posted in Sustainability, urban agriculture

Personal composting operation

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray says his administration is all about making the nation’s capital more sustainable. But in at least one important aspect of the food chain, that’s just lip service. The District of Columbia, my home town, is a dismal failure when it comes to municipal composting.

A recent article in the  Washington City Paper points out the glaring absence of any large-scale composting facilities in either the District or the surrounding area. American University, trying to be a good citizen had collecting its food scraps campus-wide–500 tons annually. But recently its composting program had to shut down because the facility where the scraps were being hauled–Recycled Green, in Woodbine, Md.–closed its gates. So did other Maryland facilities, meaning organic waste would have be hauled at least 100 miles to Delaware.

A local composting service–Envirelation–also was stung by the Recycled Green closure. Two other facilities it used in the past also have been forced to close after running afoul of Maryland storm water runoff regulations. I’m quite familiar with Envirelation–I got a big load of their finished compost for my garden two years ago and we saw a season of monster vegetables. Now owner Walker Lunn fears he could be forced to shutter his company at any time.

In terms of grown food sustainably, compost is the beginning and end all. As the Chineses and other Asian cultures have known for centuries, you cannot take nutrient out of the soil for long without replacing them. Chinese farmers maintained the nutrient cycle by using any organic material they could get their hands on and spreading it on their fields–including human feces. We moderns, on the other hand, have completely forgotten this fundamental principle. We routinely flush valuable nutrients down the toilet and instead rely on chemicals and elements mined from the ground.

That simply can’t last forever. You can’t have sustainable urban agriculture without compost.

What’s the solution? I don’t expect my neighbors to abandon their toilets any time soon. But at the very least, Mayor Gray and his hirelings could start a conversation about how we can better utilize the other organic materials at our disposal. Last I heard, all those leaves and yard trimmings people put at the curb in plastic bags are going straight to the landfill. Surely, there must be a place within the D.C. borders where we could compost these and other organics instead.

City’s like San Francisco and Portland, OR, have started city-wide composting programs. Why can’t we?

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  • Brian Parramore

    Isn’t there a great big building in the middle of DC that is currently being misused by a bunch of politicians? How about clearing that out and composting in it? It already has a deep layer of bovine fecal material as a starter course.

  • Joanne Rigutto

    Don’t go getting too excited about Portland, Oregon’s food waste composting program. It’s only going because a composting company talked the city into mandating that homes collect their scraps. It was the composting company’s way of capturing a free stream of feedstock for their plant.

    And, the way Portland enforces the scrap collections is that they made the garbage haulers only pick up regular garbage twice/month but the scrap collection is weekly.

    So if you’re going to praise anyone, you should praise that company for using the city of Portland to force the residents into providing them with free raw materials for the product that they’re producing for a profit.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love compost. I don’t even have garbage service because everything that can break down goes into the compost pile and the rest I can take to a recycler or burn for ash for the planting beds. I just don’t like people being forced to participate in composting under threats by the city.

  • Ed Bruske

    But that’s what laws are for, aren’t they Joanne? To enforce certain modes of behavior? Just like there are laws or building codes in place requiring your home to have toilets, so all that wonderful human waste can be disposed of at a sewage treatment facility rather than going back into the soil where it belongs.

  • Picodon

    Your article makes it sound a little as if Chinese and other Asian cultures had developed composting or the grasp of soil depletion and enrichment… Did they?

    I suspect that, long before it became a post-modern fad embraced by rebellious yuppies, composting has probably been the common-sense self-evident norm around the world ever since humans started growing plants and raising livestock. Of course, nobody was preciously discussing the quality of their compost “tea”, using expensive contraptions (motorised even!) or reading prophetic books about it. People were simply discarding their scraps on a pile at the rear of the backyard and later getting humus out of it (you may recall that, in those times, the sound of the word “humus” did not evoke a trendy Middle-Eastern recipe). I do not doubt that, in many parts of the world, this is still done by plenty of people in the suburbs or the countryside, and they don’t feel special for doing it, no more than we do when we’re hauling our trash to the curb.

    Don’t get me wrong, that’s not to knock the adoption of composting by affluent urbanites who are otherwise perfectly happy to pay to have their grass clippings and fallen leaves hauled away, and then drive to the big-box store to buy expensive top-soil. What I find more problematic is the rhetoric about it, which first presents it as something extra-fancy (“Save the earth! Feel good about yourself!”) or exotic (“Your great-grandmother knew! The Chinese and before them, Yoda, did it for millenia!”) and then proceeds to heavily market it. I’m not suspecting you of any ill intentions, by the way. It’s just that I don’t see the need to invoke exotic or nostalgic dreams to promote common sense. But then, of course, major e longinquo reverentia… 😉

    With apologies for being a bit off-topic (and possibly wrong too!), and with sincere appreciation for the article and your work as a whole.

  • Ed Bruske

    Picodon, the Chinese (Asian) illustration is simply a famous example. They definitely were not the only ones who knew about composting, but may be among the few that practiced it on such a huge and methodical scale. There are many contra-examples of countries and civilizations that did not pay attention to their soil and now are sitting in deserts. In Colonial America and early U.S., for example, farmers who used livestock and composting to build their farms were called “improvers,” in contrast to others–particularly cotton and tobacco farmers in the South–who found those practices impractical and simply used their soil up, then moved to a new location. At that point in time, there was still enough cheap land available to do such things. Not any more.