Monday, April 19, 2010

Producing Sustainable Soil: Does Large-Scale Composting Work?

A friend was visiting from Toronto, a large urban center in Canada. She ate an apple, then looked curiously under my counter. “Where’s your green waste recycling bucket?” she asked. By that I assumed that she meant the compost bin. We’ve experimented with several kinds of composting in our home, from backyard bins to bokashi to worm bins. Our goal is to reduce the food waste that we produce, but our ulterior motive is to create sustainable soil for the garden. It can be hard to find good organic soil for a vegetable garden, and it seems sensible to make our own.

Green waste recycling was a new concept to me, however. What she was looking for was similar to a recycling bin, a recycling bin for compost. In her city, the city government sends trucks around to pick up the yard waste, fruit and vegetable peelings, and even the Halloween pumpkins. The compost is trucked to main composting facilities where it is turned into soil. The public then buys this soil for their gardens, should they so desire.

Does this composting concept really work? Yes, the city is producing sustainable soil, but the process seems a little ridiculous. Trucks burning fossil fuels move through neighborhoods, causing air pollution. Then trucks carrying people from the suburbs head over to the local composting center and pick up a load of soil. Municipal composting can also be a large expense for cities, adding to the tax burden on already-drained citizens.

Municipal composting is convenient, but is it logical? Yes and no. Municipal composting programs do create a huge opportunity for reducing green waste, and they create soil from materials that would otherwise produce methane in landfills for years. While it makes the most sense for individuals to produce their own soil at home, composting is an activity that has a lot of barriers. It might not seem difficult to collect fruit and vegetable peels and move them into a bin, but many perceive it to be too time-consuming. There’s also a cultural barrier connected with the formation of soil: some perceive it to be dirty and smelly. Oddly enough, many people also view composting as a socially-responsible effort rather than a common sense one, since they do not use the resulting soil in a garden.

As a municipal composting program begins to move into my city, I alternately rejoice and despair. I am pleased because there have been times when I have been unable to compost, and I want an opportunity to reduce my waste. I am sad because it will become easier to throw peels into the recycling than to use them in the garden, and many people will lose a valuable way to support locally-grown food.

What do you think? Is municipal composting a good idea?

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