An article written for WasteAid by Ramón Plana, maestrocompostador.com
Although the first known compost handbook dates from the twelfth century, the concept has only become popular recently as a tool for urban waste management.
Composting on a community or municipal scale has needed to overcome two specific challenges:
- Firstly, citizens did not directly identify composting with any of the famous three “Rs” from the mid-1970s (Reduce, Re-use, Recycle – when in fact composting helps deliver all three). “Composting” itself has not been part of this discourse within the recycling industry and has therefore not reached the people.
- Second is a technical reason. Although there have been composting facilities to treat urban waste since 1931, the composition of household waste has changed significantly since the middle of the last century. The appearance and continuous increase in the consumption of diverse packaging materials, together with the non-separation and classification of household wastes, has led to increasing levels of contamination with non-organic materials. This in turn increases the difficulty of operating and financing such facilities. The presence of plastics, metals and glass reduces the quality of the final compost product, and results in higher concentrations of heavy metals. This decline in quality has had a negative impact on the demand for compost, amid a growing perception that the product is undesirable.
This situation shifted at the dawn of the world economic crisis, when the true potential value of secondary materials was recognised.
Despite organic matter being a major fraction in household waste at between 30% and 60% (World Bank, 2012), the perspective remained that it was little more than “garbage” requiring disposal. In most countries this perspective led to the establishment of strategies for the management of urban waste based only on economies of scale and centralization of facilities. In these strategies the production of compost was never a priority and, in many cases, considered technically a utopia. Nobody wanted it.
Nevertheless, the combination and coincidence of certain circumstances has led to a new era for localised composting. The global economic crisis, which seriously affected the investment capacity of municipalities, together with growing public environmental awareness and a shift in consumption patterns (including food and energy), has led to waste management strategies that are economically, environmentally and socially beneficial. By their very nature, they have included community-scale composting of household organic waste.
What is the appeal? Composting is the simplest and closest example of a circular economy for citizens. It is a natural biological process that can be perfectly understood because people can witness and participate in one way or another. It can be done at different scales: domestic, community and / or in facilities of very different size and sophistication. But it has been demonstrated that the closer the composting process to the community, the greater the benefits. Especially rich are those aspects that are difficult to measure economically, such as education and environmental awareness and the creation of spaces and activities for participation and social debate. In a society that tends to become increasingly individualistic, we are seeing practices such as community composting becoming the engines of social involvement in urban areas.
And community composting can also have a cross-cutting approach regardless of the economic level of each country or region. In low-income countries the percentage of organic matter in their urban wastes use to be the highest. There are many reasons for this, including that the other waste fractions (paper, scrap metal, glass, plastics…) have an immediate economic value, so are wanted and collected by waste-pickers. Nevertheless, it seems that organic matter is not of interest to urban communities.
But as always there are exceptions, like Revoluçao dos Baldinhos (Revolution of the Buckets) in Florianopolis, Brazil, where the collection of organic wastes in the favelas for community composting is not only a source of economic income through the production of compost for urban farming, but also a way to keep the neighbourhoods under adequate sanitary conditions. The programme avoids the presence of organic matter stored in containers in uncontrolled conditions, becoming a focus of pathogens and attraction to insects and rodents.
Like this, there are other examples in which organic waste is seen as a resource for the production and maintenance of fertile soils. These are the engines that can move us towards a circular economy at local level. And as the wise man once said, “act local, think global”.
The author, Ramón Plana, works as an independent consultant in waste management, specialising in the biological treatment of organic waste. He has more than 20 years of experience in the sector and since September 2007 has worked as an independent international consultant. His professional activity includes different countries in Europe, America, Africa and Middle East. Find him on the web: maestrocompostador.com and on Twitter: @RPlanaCompost.