Waste Investment

"Do not spread the compost on the weeds."
-- William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene IV, Line 158-159.

Waste disposal has proceeded in much the same way for decades; however, as the U.S. population grows and produces more waste per person, federal, state and local agencies are finding new solutions in waste management strategies that do not rely on landfill disposal. These new techniques attempt to alter the status quo in fundamental ways. As society's needs change, business and industry respond with modifications. Because the altered needs of society are typically not readily apparent, management may take decades to implement society-driven innovations. However, the issues concerning landfills reaching capacity and the lessening of available property for landfills demands attention, and government and industry are responding as never before.1 Many of the solutions concern alternatives, such as recycling, re-use and composting. Regional composting efforts can divert a significant amount of organic municipal waste, and markets are beginning to develop and encourage its use and production.

Diverting the Waste Stream

Research has shown that more than 25 percent of waste stream can be broken down through composting techniques. In turn, this waste can be returned to the soil, since compost is recognized as being an excellent soil amendment.2 In recent years, federal, state and many local governments have built programs in an effort to bring alternatives to landfilling landscape, wood and food waste.3


There were perhaps 20,000 active municipal landfills during the early 1970s in the United States. In 1986, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) counted 6,034 active landfills and predicted the number would decrease to 2,000 over the next six years. Several agencies and organizations conducted follow-up surveys, which resulted in different numbers. However, the available number of landfills was on the decline. The states of Texas, Wisconsin and Alaska faced the greatest closures. A 1995 capacity study indicated that most states had more than 10 years of capacity remaining, and many states were beginning to address capacity shortages through a variety of alternatives.4

Alternatives include recycling and composting, but others spark controversy. For example, in 1997, residents of Lewisville, Texas, opposed a plan by Waste Management of Texas to raise the height of the existing landfill. The public discontent was so great that it caught the attention of the city council and the local media.5 Even though the landfill expansion was negotiated, friendly alternatives seem to be more preferred with the general citizenry.

Guidelines concerning sanitary landfills in the United States have evolved for many years. Early open dumps became havens for disease, and issues of air and water pollution became critical.6 In 1965, the federal government passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act, moving municipal solid waste from open dumps to sanitary landfills. By 1976, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was authorized, creating a permit system for hazardous waste. A decade later, RCRA's Subtitle D was amended to prevent landfills from contaminating water resources and degrading the quality of the environment.7 The well-established consumer oriented society encouraged legislation for the final disposal of all waste. The thought of reusing or recycling any form of "garbage" was temporarily lost.8

Today, a growing population that lives by the motto of a disposable lifestyle contributes to an ever-growing waste stream. In 1990, it was estimated that an average American citizen generated five pounds of waste per day. This was an increase of more than three pounds from 1970 estimates.9 In a recent tabulation, the North Central Texas Council of Governments reported a waste disposal rate of 7.5 pounds per person per day. While this figure was down by nearly half a pound from 1990 disposal rates in Dallas/Fort Worth (D/FW), it illustrates that more strategies for waste disposal alternatives are needed.10

Waste streams entering landfills vary with respect to the time of year, and it is region-specific. For example, the mowing season contributes a substantial amount of yard debris to landfills. In Texas, the waste components are reported as follows: paper 41.1 percent; yard waste 14.8 percent; food wastes 10.2 percent; plastics 8.3 percent; metals 7.2 percent; glass 4.8 percent; household hazardous waste 0.6 percent; and, miscellaneous constituents 12.7 percent.11 More than half of this waste would be diverted from landfills through composting and recycling.

Landscape Waste Management Practices

Many communities are beginning to develop waste management strategies for organic waste. One method gaining popularity involves composting or "the biological reduction of organic wastes to humus."12 Source material for compost includes 25 percent of the waste stream, with nearly 15 percent being yard waste. Composting programs include backyard composting, vermi (or worm) composting and centralized composting.13 Another method of landscape and yard waste management is "chipping," which involves rapid slicing of brush into smaller debris producing biodegradable wood chips.14

Home and Backyard Composting

Backyard composting seeks to stop waste at its source - the home. The Composting Council, based in Alexandria, Va., promotes a national backyard composting program. The group offers a series of workshops and maintains a resource list helping people find publications on composting, equipment suppliers and promotional items.15

Composting has become increasingly popular in California as governments have sought to educate citizens and raise public awareness. Monthly workshops included 3,000 citizens from 1992-1993 in Los Angeles. Households actively composting saved the city $29.20 per year. In four years since Alameda county began promoting backyard composting, nearly 19,000 people have been educated, over 20,000 bins have been sold and 200 community volunteers have been trained as master composters.16

Composting programs in Seattle, Wash., have also found success. Over the last decade, nearly 35,000 bins have been distributed to area citizens.17

In Port Colborne, Ontario, Canada, every home was given a free composting bin in 1993. Citizens were provided education materials and 80 percent committed to try home composting. By 1995, a 23 percent diversion of residential waste was achieved.18

The state of Texas promotes backyard composting as a voluntary landfill diversion campaign. Education programs train master composters with 20 hours of classroom exercises and 40 hours of community service.19

School composting programs are also increasing in popularity. Stonewall Jackson Elementary School in Dallas, Texas, received a state grant implementing an outdoor composting science lab. Science teachers incorporate composting into their lessons, while students analyze their observations from the compost process.20

Worm Composting

Vermicomposting has gained popularity in schools and municipalities. In Boston, Mass., Josiah Quincy Elementary School received a grant to build a roof top organic garden. The students maintain garbage eating red wiggler worms to break down fruits and vegetables. Once processed in the bin, the compost is applied to the garden.21 A revolutionary worm-use concept is promoted in Orange County, Fla., where worms stabilize biosolids to a "Class A pathogen standard."22

Centralized Composting

Centralized composting reduces high volume organic waste. West coast farmers began centralized composting over three decades ago. Today, utilizing turned-windrows, composters transform hundreds of tons of organic waste to rich compost in only a few weeks.23 In Eaton, Colo., tea leaf waste from Celestial Seasonings, brewery residuals from Coors Brewery and yard waste is composted in a large centralized operation.24 The Summit Retirement Community in Austin, Texas, organized efforts to start a centralized composting operation to reduce costs associated with disposal services. All compost produced is applied as a "top-dressing, soil amendment or mulch."25 The Morgan County Regional Correctional Facility in Tennessee diverts nearly 50 tons from the landfill through a comprehensive recycling and composting program. The compost is provided to area farms, which saves money from both disposal fees and fertilizer expenses.26 Efforts in Texas to divert brush from landfills dropped disposal rates by 75 percent since 1992. A booming centralized composting industry is largely responsible for the diversion. Both private and public facilities are responsible for the change, and state officials are pleased with an estimated savings of more than $32 million.27

International Composting Processes

Anticipating a european community (EC) standard, Germany implemented legislation limiting the amount of organic matter being sent to landfills; no disposed material can contain more than five percent organic matter. Recent estimates show EC members annually produce 2.5 billion tons of waste. Of this figure, yard waste and forestry byproducts account for 550 million tons, while food residuals account for 250 million tons.28

In Switzerland, composting peaked in 1975 when 10 percent of the country's garbage was composted. By the mid-1980s, compost contamination from chemicals became a concern. The solution was to separately collect yard and solid waste. As a result, clean compost was produced at a rate, for individual plants, up to 25,000 tons per year. Market acceptance of the clean compost produced a high demand. It is now applied to vineyards and to fruit and vegetable agriculture. Compost is so popular that domestic production only satisfies 10 percent of the country's needs. The balance is imported.29

Ireland recently passed the 1996 Waste Management Act, bringing the nation's waste management goals closer to those of the EC. Early projects promoted Dublin's success through the composting of over 30,000 Christmas trees.30

The city of Bhaktapur, located in Nepal in the Himalayas between northern India and Tibet, is the only city in Nepal actively composting organic waste. Bhaktapur residents do not produce a significant amount of waste. However, composting is an accepted practice, and those families that do not home compost send their organic waste to the municipality for processing at the centralized facility. Presently, all compost is sold to local vegetable farmers. When other cities are happy to dump waste in local rivers and streams, Bhaktapur is benefiting public health by safely processing their waste at the centralized facility.31

Mulching and Chipping

Although sometimes incorporated into the practice of composting, mulching and chipping are processes in which grass and brush debris are chopped into small particles. In mulching, a special lawn mower chops grass into fine particles which are left on the ground to decompose. Mulching mowers can be regularly purchased, but in Arlington County, Va., a subsidized program in 1996 provided consumer assistance in purchasing these mowers. The program proved popular, exhausting in one month the $10,000 allotted for the program through 159 rebates.32 Similar to mulching, wood chips originate from the slicing of woody debris, such as brush. It can be applied to parks, gardens or as a top cover for fertilizers and/or compost. At the Hennepin County Tree Waste Recycling Facility in Maple Grove, Minn., 30,000 tons of wood waste are processed annually using a tub grinder and barrel chipper. Tipping fees are less than those charged at the landfill, creating an incentive for landscape waste management companies. Finished products are sold for a variety of purposes. For example, the Minnesota Department of Transportation regularly applies the chips to road projects.33

A Case Study: Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas

Recently, a Dallas/Fort Worth study quantified regional waste management practices for yard, landscape and wood waste.34 Throughout the 1990s, cities within the region developed independent programs, and more recently, partnerships formed to more effectively manage these wastes. According to the study, landscape waste management practices are on the rise within the northern central region of Texas. Of 39 cities, nine (23 percent) are actively composting solid waste or biosolids. These initiatives are primarily supported by cities that provide their own waste collection services. By and large, cities serviced by private collectors are not actively promoting strategies to reduce landscape and yard waste.35

Six cities (15 percent) have implemented local policies banning grass clippings from landfill disposal. Residents must either leave clippings on their lawns, or disposal must occur in special biodegradable bags.36

Two cities within the region actively participate in centralized composting of biosolids and landscape waste, while only eight cities compost landscape waste.37

Twenty-five cities (64 percent) promote educational composting programs. As mentioned earlier, these programs stop landscape waste at the source, and the trend is that educational programs are gaining in popularity around the region.38 The D/FW region clearly has a wide variety of programs. An integrated, regional approach seems to be the next rational step in this process.39

Composting Trends

Based on current national trends in waste management, expanded and improved programs for organic waste are becoming increasingly important, but there is significant opportunity for improvement. Yard and landscape waste accounts for nearly 15 percent of municipal solid waste being sent to landfills; diverting this waste component could save space in and substantially extend the life spans of many landfills. Integrating backyard composting education with centralized programs would be a logical first step toward accomplishing this endeavor.40

Regional partnerships could replace historically independent activity. Cost sharing would lower overall costs. Goal unification would enhance regional education of organic wastes, helping to promote centralized composting facilities. Additionally, regional policies could address grass clipping bans, as well as the separate collection of brush.41

Clearly, comprehensive programs for yard and landscape waste should be supported and promoted on a region-wide basis. As more cities begin to implement these types of programs, a steady flow of compost could be generated for large markets.

Large Markets: Agriculture and Forestry

Many markets for agriculture have already been discussed, such as applying compost to fruits and vegetables and using compost in the nursery and landscaping industries. EPA believes one of the largest markets for compost is the American farmer. Reports suggest there are 413 million acres of cropland and 1.3 billion if rangeland and forest land are included. Applying compost to these lands as nothing more than a soil conservation practice would not only enhance U.S. soils, but also support a tremendous amount of waste diversion from landfills.42 A study conducted in northeast Texas from 1996 to 1999 showed that an application of compost to loblolly pine trees not only improved tree survival rates during drought conditions, but also improved growth.43


Composting not only diverts waste from landfills, but generates revenue and saves money. A 1989 study compiled expenses associated with composting yard wastes versus landfilling. While there were composting costs, such as collection and transport, compost could be sold or applied as a soil amendment to public parks and roadways or used in various other ways. Savings were incurred from avoided landfill costs, such as tipping fees, thereby preserving valuable landfill space.44


Waste management programs encouraging the diversion of organic waste away from landfills are becoming more widespread. Whether it is through local composting or central facilities, people are beginning to recognize the value of composting and its potential to divert waste from landfills. Composting is increasing in popularity, and many small consumers exist, but larger markets, such as the farming and timber industries, are needed. Municipal leaders are promoting composting education, and would likely support contracts to further benefit urban areas by diverting organic waste away from area landfills.

End Notes

1 John Firor, The Changing Atmosphere: A Global Challenge (New Haven: Yale UP, 1991).

2 The Rodale Book of Composting. Martin, Deborah L.; Gershuny, Grace, Eds. (Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale P, 1992); Bert Whitehead, Don't Waste Your Wastes-Compost 'Em (Mesquite, Texas: Sunnyvale P, 1991) 17; Master Composter Program and Planning Guide (Austin, Texas: Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission-Clean Texas 2000 Project, 1994) 1-2; Summary of Markets for Compost (Environmental Protection Agency Solid Waste and Emergency Response, November, 1993).

3 Texas Municipal Compost Marketing Manual (Austin, Texas: Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission - Clean Texas 2000 Project, 1994) 1-9.

4 Repa, Edward W., and Allen Blakey, "Municipal Solid Waste Disposal Trends, 1996 Update," Waste Age May 1996: 171-176.

5 Bensman, Todd, "Mounting Opposition: Lewisville Neighbors, Landfill Firm Clash Over Piling Garbage Higher," The Dallas Morning News. 16 January 1997: 25A.

6 Whitehead, 9-16. Bernard J. Nebel, Environmental Science: The Way the World Works (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990) 427-440.

7 Jim Kundell, Laura Hagg Nelson, and Kelly Hill, "The Role of Government, Industry, and Consumers in Municipal Solid Waste Management," Solid Waste Paper Series to the National Conference of State Legislators, 1996: 1-2.

8 Ecology, Economics, Ethics: The Broken Circle. Bormann, F. Herbert; Kellert, Stephen R., Eds. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1991).

9 Nebel, 427.

10 Environmental Strategies for the Metroplex--Update 1998: Regional Solid Waste Management Plan for North Central Texas (Arlington, Texas: North Central Texas Council of Governments, February 1999) 14.

11 Municipal Solid Waste Plan for Texas-Executive Summary (Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, 1995) 4; Troy Stuckey and Paul Hudak, "Methods to Enhance Compost Practices as an Alternative to Waste Disposal," Proceedings of the Air and Waste Management Association 91st Annual Meeting and Exhibition, Air and Waste Management Association: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, June 14-19, 1998; 98-WP86.04.

12 The Rodale Book of Composting, 1; H. Troy Stuckey, Paul F. Hudak, and F. Andrew Schoolmaster, "Landscape Waste Management: Programs & Strategies," MSW Management (May/June 2000) 54-60

13 Stuckey, Hudak, and Schoolmaster 54-60; Summary of Markets for Compost (United States Environmental Protection Agency, Solid Waste and Emergency Response, November, 1993) 5; Texas Municipal Compost Marketing Manual (Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, Office of Pollution Prevention and Recycling, n.d.) 5-10; Ron Alexander, "Innovations in Compost Marketing," BioCycle (October, 1996) 36-37.

14 Spotlight on Solid Waste Grant Projects, 1996-1997 (Arlington, Texas: North Central Texas Council of Governments, 1998).

15 Katherine Holden, "Backyard Composting: Getting the Jump on Diversion," MSW Management: The Journal for Municipal Solid Waste Professionals (May/June 1996) 40.

16 Holden, 45-46; Stuckey, Hudak, and Schoolmaster 54-60.

17 Holden, 47-48; Stuckey, Hudak, and Schoolmaster 54-60.

18 Holden, 40-41.

19 Heather Flaherty Merchant, "The Ripple Effect of Backyard Bins," BioCycle (October 1997) 50-51.

20 Stuckey and Hudak, 98-WP86.04

21 Ann McGovern, "Rooftop Worms in Boston," BioCycle (December 1997) 34; Stuckey, Hudak, and Schoolmaster 54-60.

22 David Riggle, "Worm Treatment Produces "Class A" Biosolids," BioCycle (October 1996) 67-68; Stuckey, Hudak, and Schoolmaster 54-60.

23 Matthew Cotton, "Composting Moves West," Waste Age (May 1996) 222-224; Stuckey, Hudak, and Schoolmaster 54-60.

24 Cotton, 226; Stuckey, Hudak, and Schoolmaster 54-60.

25 Robert Dow, "Planned Community Includes Composting," BioCycle (July 1996) 68.

26 Bob Walls and Richard Buggeln, "Waste Diversion at Correctional Facility," BioCycle (May 1996) 56-57; Stuckey, Hudak, and Schoolmaster 54-60.

27 Amy Smith. "Texas Brush Rolls Away as Compost," Waste News (January 12, 1998) 18.

28 Glenda Gies, "Developing Compost Standards in Europe," BioCycle (October, 1997) 82.

29 M. Meyer, H. Hofer, and U. Maire, "Trends in Yard Waste Composting," BioCycle (December 1989) n.p.

30 Paul Van der Werf, "Composting Yard Trimmings in Ireland," BioCycle (February 1998) 82-83.

31 Bhushan Tuladhar, and Anish Bania, "Operating a Composting Plant in the Himalayan Kingdom," BioCycle (August 1998) 79-83.

32 Preston Read, and Matt Korot, "More Mulching, Less Waste," BioCycle (September 1996) 52-53; Stuckey, Hudak, and Schoolmaster 54-60.

33 John Madole, "Mulch from Wood," Green Industry Composting, (n.d.) 57.

34 Stuckey, Hudak, and Schoolmaster 54-60; Regional Solid Waste Management Plan for North Central Texas (Arlington, Texas: North Central Texas Council of Governments, 1994); Municipal Solid Waste Plan for Texas (Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, 1995) 159.

35 Stuckey, Hudak and Schoolmaster, 55-56.

36 Stuckey, Hudak and Schoolmaster, 55-56.

37 Stuckey, Hudak and Schoolmaster, 55-56.

38 Stuckey, Hudak and Schoolmaster, 55-56.

39 Stuckey, Hudak and Schoolmaster, 55-58.

40 Stuckey, Hudak and Schoolmaster, 58.

41 Stuckey, Hudak and Schoolmaster, 58.

42 Janet Marinelli, "Composting: From Backyards to Big-Time," Garbage (July/August, 1990) 44-51.

43 H. Troy Stuckey and Paul F. Hudak, "Effects of Compost on Loblolly Pine Tree Growth in Northeast Texas," Compost Science and Utilization (Winter, 2001) Vol.9, No.1, 65-72.

44 Richard M. Kashmanian, and Alison C. Taylor, "Costs of Composting Yard Wastes Versus Landfilling." BioCycle (October 1989): 60-63.

This article originally appeared in the March 2002 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 13, No. 3, p. 60.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2002 issue of Environmental Protection.

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