Matching promise and practice to scale (The Secretary’s Desk)
(Editor’s note: Douglas Fisher is the New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture.)
Recently, I was at the Rutgers EcoComplex in Columbus, where the New Jersey State Board of Agriculture was holding its monthly meeting. While there, I noticed a conference taking place on composting, hosted by the New Jersey Composting Council.
The official title of the conclave was “New Jersey’s 3rd Annual Organics Waste Management Summit.” Residents used to “composting” being a reference to a small area in their back yards where they mix food waste, leaves, and other organics would be surprised at how many applications to which the word “composting” can be applied.
Indeed, this matter encompasses a wide spectrum of activities that has risen to center stage on a number of fronts. Food, food sovereignty, food insecurity, climate change, food deserts — they all tie together when we think of how carefully managed waste of any resource can enhance the efforts of doing good for people and the planet.
According to Hudson Soil Company, which was an attendee the conference, “Composting is a climate change mitigation strategy. The process is the aerobic decomposition of food scraps and other organic materials by microorganisms. The resulting product, compost, is a rich, crumbly soil amendment teeming with life.”
The subject is very timely, and how composting is dealt with going forward is so important.
Farmers, of course, have always been at the forefront of this issue. Managed correctly, this tool enhances our tilth, enriches our soil, and generally converts an unwanted byproduct into a viable component in the agricultural or energy space.
Even the simple act of “discing under” the remnants of a harvested field, or an entire crop for which the farmer could not find a viable market, is a form of composting that puts nutrients right back into the soil for better conditions the following season.
Several communities, as well as businesses and government entities, are now engaging in the whole organics waste movement because they see value that only a few years back was not truly understood. It’s a bit of a slug, though, to shift the entire models to incorporate these practices into workable and successful plans.
The easiest thing to do in the world of waste is to just call a hauler and contract to get rid of whatever byproducts we are not using. Pay someone to get rid of it. Simple. But because of that mentality, which was the norm for decades, we were snubbing the future and burying our heads in the sand. A full 50 percent of our current waste stream could be composted. Garbage is being shipped hundreds of miles to landfills, where after decomposing, it releases emissions that must be captured or burned off in flares. Clearly, that is less than helpful to our efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Now, however, innovative trailblazing players have come onto the scene that are changing the landscape of waste into building blocks.
A few of many examples:
A community-wide collection of food scraps and municipal drop stations culminating with residential compost distribution.
Compost blending of mixed materials consisting of wood chips, leaves, manure, and food residuals.
Decentralized community composting sites in dense urban areas commissioned with specialized and community-designed and scaled equipment managed with no odor or pest issues.
A sewage-treatment plant where food wastes from nearby processors are fed into a digester, generating additional revenue for the treatment plant and natural gas to be turned into electricity to reduce the plant’s reliance on energy from utilities.
Back on the farm for just a moment, I want to address one caveat, and it is really a big point.
Many farms have the capacity to accept organic waste materials being trucked to their operation to be used as soil amendments or livestock feed. When properly managed, this is a good thing.
However, there are some bad actors who reverse the tables and see farms as endless pits for their refuse and try to invoke Right to Farm statutes beyond the scale of what is reasonable for a neighbor or community to expect when balancing all interests.
That is not good for the environment, nor for agriculture, and the farming community which is held in such high regard by the trusting and supportive public can have that esteem lessened by these actions.
So, according to their own materials, what is the foundation of the New Jersey Composting Council approach? “Vision: We believe compost manufacturing and compost utilization are central to organics recycling, creating healthy soils, supporting community gardens, clean air and water and a sustainable society. Mission: The New Jersey Composting Council, a nonprofit industry group, advances compost manufacturing, compost utilization, and organics recycling to benefit our members, society, and the environment.”
As one vendor at the conference, Java’s Compost, touted on their calling card: “Sometimes breaking down is good.”