Monday, December 15, 2008

Is compost the answer?

That depends. What’s the question again?

CAPCOG is the state designated planning agency for solid waste management issues in this region, and since I’d really like to know what’s planned, I’ve been exploring their website.

Household compostables are still the forgotten stepchild, but there are some (too limited) facilities in place for composting presorted grocery wastes and food scraps from cafeterias through at least one public/private partnership. And it turns out that TxDot—the Texas Department of Transportation—uses compost in its roadside landscaping. In great quantities, even.

There’s a PowerPoint presentation about it—those folks do seem to like their slides—which is where the title of this post came from.

I find it hard to fathom that this really is a question, but a look at that presentation serves to remind me that not everyone is as much a fan of compost as I. Good or bad PR? Yikes! How could using compost possibly be perceived as a bad thing? But then there’s the boldface on these captions

Compost IS NOT:
raw sewage sludge or manure

Compost IS:
a pasteurized, pathogen free, organic soil amendment

(Note that “pasteurized” only applies to hot compost, though it is wholly correct to use here, and that the word “organic” is technically true though not, perhaps, in the same sense as it will be read.)

Which I guess answers the question—compost could be perceived as “unclean” by those who do not understand the process, who think that all trash is filthy, and all those things consigned to the bin or heap are dirty.

In the bad sense of the word. –G–

Are the pro-compost people unintentionally undermining my small efforts, and those of my larger-scale peers, with their compost=pasteurized material equation? Possibly, though not necessarily; bokashi can be thermophilically treated, it simply need not be.

But I wonder if that equation might be part of the reason that Austin, unlike other green cities, does not subsidize residential compost bins (traditional, anaerobic, vermicompost, and/or bokashi).

Hmm. An answer leading to new questions; somehow, that fits.



Bokashicycle said...


Actually, compost is not good and certainly not a sustainable process that will do the planet any good. I've provided the scientific arguments against composting on our Blog at The scientific facts are clear but there remains a lot of confusion and misinformation about this process. Bokashi anaerobic fermentation, a very different way of treating solid waste will prove to be a much friendlier, faster, and efficient way of getting nutrients back into the soil. And it costs a lot less.

Best Regards,
Larry Green

D. S. Foxx said...


Thanks for visiting. I've checked out your site, and you're certainly very passionate about the bokashi process--as am I--but I'm afraid I cannot espouse your all-or-nothing approach.

Composting is far better than landfilling, and it is quite possible to grow plants without any petro-chemicals by using fertilizers/soil amendments/plant foods produced by any of several methods, including BUT NOT LIMITED TO bokashi fermentation.

The TxDot program that prompted this post used cow manure from a source that had previously been treating that matter as hazardous waste. Could they have fermented it instead? Sure. Would they have then been allowed to use it for anything? Maybe; maybe not. The regulations are written for compost produced aerobically, with a strong bias toward "hot" compost. Which is something that may need to change, but until it is...

TxDot needed more than a fertilizer; uncomposted fermented waste probably wouldn't have been as successful (even were it allowed) in some of their various situations: filtered compost is applied to the surface of slopes, used it to fill in ditches, as a mulch and cover layer, in net casings to make runoff barriers, etc.

I'm afraid I can't speak to their particular composting process, whether they harvested any generated heat or added any water, etc., but composting need not release pollutants into the environment, nor even smell bad. Different problems require different solutions; bokashi is often, but not always, that solution.


Bokashicycle said...

Hi D.S. Fox,

I think we need to look carefully at the science to get the correct answer. Composting does pollute and there is no debate about the release of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide and heat. This does not even take into consideration the massive amounts of lost water vapor that occur with composting, a waste of a very precious commodity that we need to preserve.

You can ferment with manure too and get a superior end product. This is already being done in many parts of the world.

There is no debate about getting out of the landfill..there we both agree.

The problem with fertilizers is that they are indeed toxic, by damaging microbes and making the soil less fertile over time, as is evidenced by reduced yields with sustained fertilizer use. They are derived from petrochemicals, a product we should try to reduce in our consumptive ways, and are not generally in the form that is most conducive for plant growth.

The use of manure makes sense, but not by should be fermented.

Let's be clear we are speaking of a very specialized kind of anaerobic low pH. At the reduce pH, the microbes involved in hydrogen and methane production do not survive, indeed they are destroyed. You don't have to sterilize to get rid of bad actors; they are destroyed by other organisms that feed on them.

Finally, this issue of hot composting is because composting occurs at nearly neutral pH where most pathogens prosper. That is the reason it is recommended to get the temperature high enough to sterilize. But this is a misleading statement because the temperature never gets high enough to kill all organisms (wouldn't come close to requirements for sterility in a medical facility). As you know the conditions in any compost pile are heterogenous....a very undesireable situation.

Again, I remain convinced based on the scientific arguments that fermentation is far superior and am certain that as more people study the facts they will realize that we are polluting by composting.

In our blog I sited a few of the authorities in the UK who now recognize and site these problems. Even Defra, their equivalent of our USDA has now questioned the wisdom of promoting composting as a way into the future.

Sorry......composting is a method that was not fully understood in its beginning and technologically is inferior as a means of sustainable growth.

Larry Green

D. S. Foxx said...

Bokashi may, in fact, prove to be better for some situations/applications than, say, Indore composting--but there's a lot of research yet to be done on that front. And until then, it's unrealistic to ask municipalities to forgo proven methods.

Again, I admire your zeal, but many of your arguments relate specifically to poorly managed "hot" composting (properly managed composting in any form captures more nutrients and reclaims resources).

And even the poorest form of composting has some benefit when the alternative is landfilling. The most recent report I've seen (_Trends in Greenhouse Gaseous Emissions_, circa 2006), calculated that composting, in all known forms, contributed less than one percent of greenhouse gas globally--so even if the only calculation is compared to _transporting_ the manure away for landfilling, this project makes environmental sense.