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Penn State program encourages large-scale organic waste recycling and composting


News from
Pennsylvania State University

By Jeff Mulhollem, PSU Staff
February 9, 2007

UNIVERSITY PARK - A recent waste audit in Pennsylvania showed that of the material we throw away -- more than 9 million tons annually -- 34 percent is easily composted organic material and another 33 percent is paper, a substantial portion of which could be recycled and composted.

Two professors in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, working with farmers, municipal officials and businesses, have started a campaign to boost composting in the state. The researchers are promoting the European model in which farmers and agricultural interests help to separate and utilize organic materials and nutrients from the municipal trash stream and reduce the need for landfill space.

"One need only stand by any of the major highways in the commonwealth and watch how many garbage trucks go by, either going to or coming from landfills," said Bob Graves, professor in the Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department. "The numbers are staggering. But in Europe, farmers make some land available for composting to help communities recycle organic material, and they send much less than we do to landfills. I think it is a business model that would be good for everyone if it would be implemented in this country."

Graves knows what he's talking about. He is one of the designers of a highly acclaimed composting program that combines leaves and landscape trimmings from upkeep of Penn State 's huge University Park campus in Centre County with kitchen and food service wastes from the university. The result is a rich compost that is used in landscaping around the campus.

Supported by a USDA International Science and Education grant, Rick Stehouwer, associate professor of environmental soil science, and Graves have teamed up to educate solid waste officials around the state about better strategies for handling organic solid waste.

"One of the reasons we haven't worried about this much in Pennsylvania is that we have an abundance of landfill space and very low tipping fees, so we have seen little innovation," Stehouwer explains. "But our system is not environmentally sustainable. Europeans seem to take a much longer view of things such as waste management and landfills."

Stehouwer and Graves last year took 12 professionals -- including farmers, composters, extension educators and municipal officials from across Pennsylvania -- to Europe to meet with their counterparts in solid waste management and learn more about large-scale composting. As part of the trip, the Pennsylvanians agreed to try to implement some of what they learned into local solid-waste operations.

"There are a variety of models for diverting organics from the waste stream," Stehouwer says. "In Germany, they tend to use larger-scale, technology-intensive systems run by larger authorities. In Austria , they use smaller, low-tech systems and work with farmers. But they both achieve much higher organic recycling rates than we do."

Local officials can't improve the situation alone, Stehouwer conceded. "But we need to start somewhere," he says. "The European Union has a landfill directive that mandates each of the member states achieve a 65 percent reduction in the amount of organic material they are landfilling. Austria and Germany have gone a step further than that, declaring that no unprocessed organic material can go into a landfill, and less than 5 percent of material going into a landfill can be organic. I think we need that kind of government leadership here, too."

For this type of program to be successful, everyone must be committed to quality, according to Graves. Homeowners, restaurant workers and grocery stores must be committed to source separation of organic materials and keeping unwanted materials out of the composting stream.

"No one wants to use compost on their garden or cropland that is contaminated with broken bottles, plastic or cans," says Stehouwer. "Producing high-quality compost can be an economic advantage to Pennsylvania agriculture, whether it is used to grow crops to feed people or animals or sold as a soil conditioner.

"We all must make the effort to make this happen," Graves says. "An advantage to this kind of partnership is it draws a connection -- the farm down the road is no longer seen as that smelly operation, but instead, 'they are the folks who take our waste and offer compost that I can use.' This could help smaller farms maintain their cash flow and be more rofitable."

Stehouwer agrees. "If municipalities are paying to dump stuff in a landfill, then why not pay farmers to take food and yard waste and compost it instead?" he says.

But this kind of change won't be a quick fix for the state's solid

waste problem, Stehouwer warns. "This is no silver bullet -- we have to attack the solid waste problem from every direction," he says. "But the amount of solid waste keeps rising per person -- we have to find ways to reverse that trend. We just hope our program can be a catalyst for change."