Soil Crisis #1: A Need for Economic & Political Change


This episode corresponds to Lesson 1 of our online course.

Episode eighteen: in this part one of a two part special, we speak with zero waste pioneer and industrial economist Robin Murray about the importance of soil as a basis for human economy, and the great chasm between what science tells us about soil’s role and the existing inadequate policies for soil management that has lead to a soil crisis. We will discuss the ways in which our current economic and political models of mass production have severed the link between communities and the soil, how politicians and policy makers are reacting, and how a new circular system might integrate soil management better.

Thank you to YLAD Living Soils for making this episode possible.

YLAD Living Soils is an Australian owned company formed to supply sustainable biological, organic and humus compost fertility products and programs that support the natural balance of the physical, chemical and biological aspects of the soil, lessening the reliance on conventional chemical fertilser inputs. Find more on their website.

Photo by Maurice Chédel / CC BY


We’ve had a bad track record, at least in the west, with taking care of our soils, because even though our entire existence is completely locked into the soil, the link between soil and human economy is very rarely discussed. As an economist, could you give us some background into the history of our relationship with the soil and explain to us this link?

Robin Murray: Humankind has always had very close relations with the soil, but one of its problems is, as it develops, the tendency has been for a rupture to grow between them. So, one of the great divisions – we always talk about class divisions – well one of the huge divisions of human history is between cities and the country. If you take the great empires, one thesis is that empires have to feed themselves, and therefore they draw on their immediate environments in order to feed their central cities. But the tendency has been for them to deplete the areas around them so that gradually the quality of the soil decreases; and so they have to expand the empire in order to get to new places. So there’s a kind of diminishing returns that sets in and is one of the forces for them to go further and further afield in order to get both the food, but also the raw materials, and so on, necessary for it. And after a bit, to actually keep control of such a vast empire means larger armies and therefore they have to be fed, and it’s a cycle, which suddenly explodes. They get weakened, and a new empire starts up again. Or it just breaks open – as was the case in Europe after the end of the Roman Empire. It just broke up into smaller areas that had a different relation to the soil.

There are two exceptions to this pattern: one is China, and the second is Egypt. In the case of Egypt, why that was not affected in the same way is that their human waste was fed back and replenished the soil around them, mainly through the impacts of the floods, and the way the Nile flooded everything. And in China it was much more explicit: the human waste was gathered and has always, traditionally, been then used for fertilisation. And of course, in the early modern era here the same was true: in Britain, Cheshire and Hertfordshire became very fertile areas. And this was because of night soil, which was taken from the cities to the countryside.

And you could say that the WC was one of the big forces to rupture that connection between the human waste and soil fertility. So you’ve got the rupture growing so that now, as we all know, many people in the towns don’t know what a chicken looks like, or where milk comes from. And this is a terrible, terrible rupture. And at the moment, it’s not just the WC that stands between the humans of the town and the countryside; it is also supermarkets and these long chains of food distribution, which are also cutting it down. And so the question is, how to reconnect the two? Because they are connected – they are connected. We may not be aware of it, but we are part of the cycle. And if we deplete the soil because we take the nutrients from it without returning them to that place, we then either lose them, destroy them, put them in the wrong place, whatever… If we destroy the cycle between them – the cycle within which humans live – then, just like the Roman Empire, we will collapse from within.

In the past, we have tended to see the link as very much one where the earth is a source to be used – to be extracted from. Some people call this “natural capital”, and that we’ve been running down our natural capital because we haven’t been thinking how to maintain it. And in that sense, I think it’s been a bit-piece in the human economic drama. Whereas I think what is now being recognised is that they are very much more interconnected. The human economy – the contemporary economy – is going through enormous changes, and it’s moving from the twentieth century period of mass production to a much more complex, information-centred form of production and distribution.

Some people have called this, and I myself have called this, Post-Fordism. Fordism was the mass production, but we’ve now gone way beyond Ford. I don’t think I would call it “Google-ism” either, but it’s a quite different model. And this has great significance for our relationship with materials and with the soil; so that instead of looking at things relatively simply as linear flows, we are looking at them with much greater complexity. And as we see things more complexly, we see that, actually, the soil and earth fits into more complex systems, and cannot just be treated as an input, which is then producing an output.

I do think, as you say, that there is a change going on and people are beginning to realise the importance of managing the soil in a sustainable way.

RM: Yes, and as you may know I worked a lot in fair trade here, and one of the things I’ve learned – which has been a really profound experience – is that we have a nut company, which is called Liberation Nuts, and it’s owned by the nut farmers. And the ones who do cashews are from Kerala in India, and they’ve almost become our educators, because they come from a Gandhian tradition, and the Gandhian tradition is very much about connecting the human beings and the soil. They send us reading, and one of them is by, sometimes people call him Ghandi’s economist, which is a man called Kumarappa. And he said we have to deeply respect the soil and what it produces, and how we think about these two things. That whole Gandhian principle of changing yourself and then changing what is around you, and making sure that your technology is under your control and not controlling you – that was a voice that was drowned out by the period of mass production, in my view.

Now I think we’ve actually come to the other way, which I think is the Gandhian approaches, which our Indian colleagues follow. A striking example of that is with the Amish in North America. If you go to an Amish farm, there are no tractors and everything is done organically, and what is so striking is that this pre-modern form that the Amish have: regularly the productivity of their soil came out the highest in North America.

So these practices, but when married with modern information and communication technology – that’s the point, it’s not just to keep it like that – this is a very powerful recipe for thinking in a different way about how to produce the food for ten billion people. And I think you might say that the next revolution – the next agricultural, green revolution – is not going to be about seeds and plants and GM crops and so on, it is to be about the soil. And if we think of the soil as the object for revolution, through all these different means, then I think we’ve got a light in front of us to which we can direct our energy.

Do you feel that influencers, such as policy makers and politicians, realise the importance of soil when they approach waste management practices and agricultural policies?

RM: No. The answer to that from the British perspective and my experience here is that we’re right at the foot of Everest on this one. I’ve been involved for, what, twenty years on the issue of waste. It was very difficult to get waste pushed up the agenda, to get people to think about waste; politicians and indeed the press, and so on. Very difficult. When I started in the mid-nineties, I think our recycling rate was five percent, and it just was not on the radar. Also, to be an official in the local government in the waste department: this was slightly like being in the fire brigade; it was the kind of Siberia, in terms of the hierarchy. And so, how to get people aware of, in this case the negative aspects of waste – landfill, incineration and so on. These all had extremely negative sides, let alone the positive.

So, it took five years for us in this country to move to a point where it became a national issue, and it became a national issue very much because of the negative sides of the issues around – particularly about incineration. So always, and I think it’s been true of the environmental movement more generally, but very often (like with Rachel Carson), it is the negative effects which then get people involved. And we have to then think, “Okay, how could it be different?”

So the first way it happens is always local, because it is the local people who then realise that this is actually affecting them. And that is the basis, then, for saying there has to be some other alternative, and out of that, then, becomes an interest; but the next interest is in some form of recycling. But the way in which both the traditional offices, and to some extent the politicians, have then thought, is they thought “okay, well how do we prevent this from getting into landfill or, indeed, incinerators?” and they then have these targets for recycling – but actually (it’s a little bit like supply-push), they don’t really think “what is this going to be used for?” they just want to keep it out of their residual waste statistics; usually because there’s an increasing bit of a punishment for them in financial terms.

The idea that, actually, in relation to organic waste, that it is actually precious, and that this is a resource which you must produce with quality as if you are a supplier; that you’re actually responsible for the quality of your output…We want everything that one rescues from the waste to maintain not just it’s original quality, but all the energy and labour that’s gone into it – like rubber tires have been very well used for making basketball courts; glass has been used as a very good filtering mechanism – that’s an upcycling. And in my experience of much of the waste industry, the waste politics, and the waste management by public officials – this still (in the older generation) has yet to penetrate. The younger ones – this is who we found are the potential agents for change – they young ones, who are part of the new generation, some of them see it much more ecologically. They see themselves as, kind of like farmers of waste, as stewards of waste – and not of “waste” but they are what we might call “nutrient managers”, in relation to the organics side.

But still, you’ve got the silos of waste management, the silos of agriculture; very little do they meet, very little do they meet. And in Britain there has been more connection on the paper side, than there has been on the soil side. Soil and biowaste is still very much in the back seat here, and not even the Co2 implications of composting has been adequately taken on board – they do not become part of the discussion. So, my answer to you on that one is: there is still some way to go.

In order to affect change and influence policy makers and politicians, how do we act? Do we focus on local or national campaigns and debates?

RM: Well, I think that the way in which these big changes – because this is a big industrial change, certainly on the waste side, and possibly with agriculture there are certain similarities, certainly with the big industrial farms – when you’re changing, it always changes at the margins. This is where it happens first, because the big forces of the old system are not as strong. And so you get it coming up from the base, and I think especially in Europe and North America it has been the community movement that has, since the mid-seventies, really led the way in this. And then what happens is that the first impact tends to come at the local level. And local politics has been much more about waste politics than the national level, because it’s immediate and tends to be under municipal, provincial control. But once this happens, we then have a basis for moving it up to the national level.
It’s much easier in places, which have proportional representation, because, then groups (either green groups or specific groups around waste issues) can then get a representation politically. And this is why Germany, for example, has been one of the leaders in terms of establishing very much more satisfactory types of recycling or nutrient management – if you like, a new circular economy. I think this is because they have, not only proportional representation, but they have very strong Lambda, so that there’s considerable decentralisation. So, some of these Lambda, reflecting the work of the movements, then put these things into practice. And the results can then be seen, and they begin to join up, and then they are a force at the national level, which has to content politically with the interests of the old systems.

That’s what’s happened on the energy side, and it is amazing now that that is cross party. It started with the Greens, then the Social Democrats, and then the Christian Democrats took it on, and took the lead because they see the advantage, in this case, of the energy system for all sorts of interests who they represent, because it’s a distributed system. So local villagers and local farmers, and so on, all have an interest in that new system. The same thing is needed on the waste side: we have to re-integrate it and distribute the interest in this new system.

As you said at the beginning, these are big industrial changes we need to make in how we run things, waste management wise, or agriculturally. We’re essentially talking about a paradigm shift from our current economy to a more circular one – and do you think this new distributed economy will be able to integrate soil health and management better?

RM: Well, in principle I think it should. Amongst the features of the new economy, one is what we economists call the movement from supply-push to demand-pull; that instead of producing lots of stuff and then trying to persuade people to buy it, you’re starting actually from the people and thinking how do you supply all the different things that different people want. So, you’ve gone beyond the mass. Now, the moment that you introduce the circular, you realise that we can’t just stop at human demand because you’ve got to think of it as part of a cycle. And if we look at our demands on the production process like that: i.e. not pushing out, but thinking “right, how do we pull it round in a sustainable way?” we then get very different questions. And certainly when it comes to waste, we’re not asking not how to get rid of the waste, but how to ensure that it goes round, how do we pull it round in a way that is sustainable and enriching. That’s one difference.

The second one is that information technology has allowed us to manage very much more complex systems – that is one of its great features. And what has happened is, instead of trying to control everything from the centre, we’ve got the development of what is referred to as “distributed systems”. The German renewable energy economy is a wonderful example, how instead of having a power station, you have multiple power stations – people’s homes become a power station, the farmer’s part of a power station. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of power stations, which are then aggregated through smart grids and various other mechanisms, so that they produce as much, if not more, than a single power station. This is a completely different model.

Now, traditionally, farming and agriculture has been a distributed system. I grew up on a small hill farm, and the valley was full of small hill farmers. What has happened, particularly on the more fertile areas, is that farms have become larger and larger as the twentieth century mass production model is then applied to agriculture. But I think we are moving now into the possibility of a much more distributed system of agriculture and food growing, and soil care – that is what is possible. It’s not going to happen, it is a possibility, which would in that sense be similar to the energy systems developing in Germany, as against the UK.

And a third very interesting modern feature is that the so-called consumer is becoming part of production; we’re becoming prosumers. Well, we know about this with food, we actually have to cook our own food (or at least, we did have). But in more and more areas, whether it be health and how we look after our health: many of the modern issues, like chronic disease, like in diabetes ninety-eight and a half percent of all treatment is done by the person who has got diabetes or their family. The same is true in education; the same is true in transport. So now people are having to design systems so that we’re all actively involved. By the way, the computer of course is a wonderful example; computers are the equivalent of the textile mills of the nineteenth century, but in this case we’ve all got one. So, it’s a highly distributed system, and once you get people involved, then you have to think, “Right, what can they contribute? How should they contribute? How do they play a part in this increasingly complex system?” It’s a very exciting area. So, when we come to food and to soil: how do we ensure that the grievous divide between the city and the country does not become the chasm that is threatened, but is actually re-integrated so that we all play a part in this particular process?

We’ll get into detail about the ways we can organise our ecosystems and the strategies for change in part two, but to round off this part of the discussion, can you give me some examples of how people can play a part in this system, and the opportunities you see the paradigm being changed?

RM: Well, I think part of the food movement has been about this. So, the movement for urban agriculture is gathering and is stronger in some placed than others, but, the development of gardens on roofs – is it in North Korea, which is particularly strong on this? But Nicaragua is another example of where this has happened. But it’s happening now more and more, and San Francisco is strong on this. We have strong movements, and a strong tradition, of allotments here. So I think gardening, even though it may no be producing food, actually brings people in touch with the fact that you cannot treat soil as if it’s a machine; that you have to do this delicately. So, everyone is learning about this.

I think on the food side there are city farms and a big city farm movement, and the community garden movement here is growing. So I think there are very interesting ways in which that is happening. And then there are all sorts of ways in which farms are being opened up to those in the city – both to go to stay there and work there, or at least to visit. So I think that’s one of the big areas for reconnection.


In Focus: The City To Soil Composting Process


This episode corresponds to Lesson 6 of our online course.

In this twelfth episode, we speak with Organics Recovery Specialist Gerry Gillespie about the City to Soil organics collection program, and their unique composting process using minimal machinery or manpower; ideal for remote locations and small farms.

Thank you to Polytex for making this episode possible. 

At the cutting edge of the Poly Textile fabrication industry, Polytex is a reliable supplier of quality products, servicing a wide range of customers from industry, agriculture, construction, commercial spaces, and mining in Australia and overseas. Polytex designs, manufactures and services the right product at a competitive price. You can deal confidently with Polytex. For more information, visit www.polytex.net.au.


EM: So Gerry, would you mind just giving us a little background information on City to Soil and give us some background information on how it all got started?

GG: We commenced using City to Soil as a program in 2003/4 in a little town called Queanbeyan, which is next to our national capital. What we were trying to do at the time was demonstrate that we could collect clean, source separated organic waste, turn it into a high quality compost, and get it into agriculture for much cheaper than we could put it into landfill.

And we demonstrated that we could actually do that. We could collect it, process it, carry it two hundred kilometers, and put it at a farm gate for about fifty dollars a tonne, including profit when the disposal fee to landfill was seventy-five dollars a tonne.

The thing that really surprised us was the very, very low levels of contamination. The entire focus right through the City to Soil program has been on the idea that this material is going into agriculture to produce food, so it must be clean. And we’ve found that that message absolutely resonates with people.

EM: Mh-hm.

GG: Anyway, after the first very successful trial, we were given a two million dollar grant to run the program in four areas of New South Wales – four council areas. One of those areas is four and a half hours away from where we are here. If you use the normal method of composting, it would have meant that we would have been loading machinery onto trucks and carrying it from one place to another – we would have used up our two million dollars in a very short space of time. So it was clearly necessary to find a new way of composting.

EM: Yeah – and what was that new way of composting, then, that you developed.

GG: So we really…we developed this process of covering the material and using an inoculant, and it’s been very, very successful. It’s more or less, if you look back at the history of composting, it’s a combination of what the Japanese community call “Bokashi”, which uses effective microorganisms. These inoculants speed up the process, but more importantly they change the biological nature of the compost pile.

These sorts of processes have been used – there’s a very good description if anybody has the old book by Sir Albert Howard called “An Agricultural Testament”, pages forty-eight and forty-nine are almost this process absolutely described, so it’s very much like the original biodynamic composting process as well.

EM: Okay, and maybe you can give us a talk through the actual process? How do you go about it?

GG: So, the composting process that we use for City to Soil, is basically that we’ve asked people to give us clean, source separated product because we’re putting it back into the soil to grow their food. And people really seem to understand that, because our contamination rates are very, very low. We bring the material into the composting site, and we spread it out on the ground. We take out any obvious contamination – and there are things you miss in that first step. And we don’t shred: that’s very, very important. The argument is because we collect our food waste and the garden waste in one two-hundred-and- forty liter wheel bin, all of that material, pretty well most of it will be no longer than you arm and no thicker than your thumb. So most of that material will break down without shredding. If you do shred in that first stage and there’s a bottle that you’ve missed, what happens is you end up with glass, or plastic, all the way through your compost.

EM: Mh-hm.

GG: And then we get it very, very wet; so somewhere between forty percent and sixty percent moisture. Then we inoculate it with the inoculants that we’ve prepared previously. Then we push it up into a pile, we put a cover over the compost pile, and we put an indentation. And what normally happens then is that green waste in that circumstance will go up to about seventy degrees Celsius, so it gets very hot. That heat drives the moisture out of the pile, onto the inside of the cover, if you’ve got a cover on, and all the water runs off because it’s a slope. If you have an indentation in the top, then what it causes is: the two sides of the compost pile will push the water up toward the top, but most of it will drip into the bit that’s indented and fall back into the pile. That actually means that in most instances – not all, but in most instances we don’t have to apply any more water after that first stage. Although sometimes we put more water on in the middle stage, about six weeks into the process.

But then, after the compost goes through the seventy degrees Celsius, the family population – that’s the first stage, aerobic stage of composting, is totally an oxidation process. Once it gets to that peak, all those families change, and they collapse back into the pile and the process becomes fermentative. So it’s a fermentation process, much the same way as you’d make…as a farmer might make silage, or the Germans might make sour kraut, it uses lactobacillus as the principal biological agent. But those biological processes can change quite dramatically in the compost pile.

So then we just leave it for another six weeks. We leave it for six weeks in the first stage, we take the cover off and check the moisture and everything is breaking down quite well, and we may put a bit more inoculant on or we may put more moisture on, and we put the covers back on. We sometimes turn it at that stage, put the covers back on and then leave it for another six weeks – or another twelve weeks if possible, because in that secondary stage the humus in the pile is actually building quite dramatically. We’ve found with our compost process…at the end of this process we’ve had thirty to fourty percent more compost than you’d normally have if you have a totally aerobic process.

EM: Amazing.

GG: In this compost process, what we’re trying to do is make something. Most waste management processes are trying to reduce something – they’re trying to get rid of something. Which is how the oxidation process in compost is quite often looked at from a waste manager’s perspective. What we’re doing is: we are not trying to solve a problem; we are trying to develop an opportunity. It’s a totally different focus; we’re trying to make something beneficial out of something, and we want to return it back to the soil to give an even bigger impact biologically into the soil.

Interestingly, the council in Armidale, one of the five councils where we’re using the process now (they’ve been using our inoculants strictly now for about eight or nine months): the Environment Protection Authority has just given them an extended license to process fifty thousand tonnes a year on their site -which is large for a regional center in Australia – but they’ve made it a condition of the license that they have to use our process. Which I think is wonderful.

EM: Yeah, it really is. It’s a testament to the success of the process then.

GG: Absolutely, yeah.

EM: And so let me go back a bit now and ask you a few more details – can you tell me what kind of covers you use for the compost?

GG: The thing that we found to be best of all is what in Australia we call grain covers. They’re very heavy-duty, – they’re generally used to cover large outdoor piles of rice and wheat in Australia – they’re very durable which means that we can have the same cover for a long time without it deteriorating because of the ultraviolet light. So, it’s important to get something of good value. If you’re going to invest in something, you’re better off spending a couple of hundred dollars on something, because it’ll last years. Sure, you can go out and buy plastic, or you can go and buy a cheap cover, but, you know, it’s gone in six months. So yes, we try to rely on quality.

EM: Mh-hm. And they’re not breathable covers, are they?

GG: No, they’re solid, yeah. They’re actually, you don’t let any air – they entire idea is to contain the microbial processes. You’re trying to create a circumstance where they’ve got a food supply, and they’ve got enormous family members there together. While the food supply and the family members and the right conditions are there with moisture, then they’ll breed up. And in breeding up, they’re creating more humus, they’re pulling more things in from the atmosphere, and they’re creating beneficial outcomes.

EM: Excellent, and how much machinery, then, would it take to run a program like this?

GG: Very, very, little. Our entire objective in designing the process was to have something that really used minimal machinery. I’ve tried to get farmers to use the process because the only thing they need is their tractor. And most tractors have a bucket on the front so they can move manure and things around their farm. So the only things you need, basically, are the tractor and some supply of organic material, and just a simple cover. So, not a complex process.

And the inoculants: if you look up lactobacillus on the internet, you’ll find the start of those processes. Or even better still, go to your locate effective microorganism supplier and buy some of their product.

EM: And you can make the inoculant yourself?

GG: Yeah, I…we made it in a hotel room in Egypt. So, basically the process is: half a cup of rice in a small jar – a honey jar – with water. And you leave that sit for three or four days. It pulls the lactobacillus in from the atmosphere. With a loose-fitting lid: the lid has to be on, you don’t want little animals getting in there because they carry other types of biology, but the air contains the lactobacillus.

So, rice in water, for four days in a dark cupboard. And then you take that water, pour it off into two litres of normal milk – or skimmed, I’ve used skimmed milk, tinned milk, powdered milk, all sorts of treated milk. After about another four days, all the solids in that milk will form a cheese on top, which is about two centimetres thick, or an inch thick, on top. You take off the cheese and feed it to the chickens, or the dogs. Animals love it. It’s beautiful; it’s quite edible stuff, actually.

And then the serum, which is underneath: you dilute that one hundred percent with rainwater, because you don’t want any chlorine in there. If you do use tap water, let it sit for an hour. But dilute it one hundred percent with water, add a cup of molasses, and that’s the basic product. It will stay in that form for about three years without – and quite stable.

And then we take that product, and we extend it again. We turn it into a more extensive product; it can be used as a fertiliser or a compost inoculant or…. The secret to the whole thing, to my mind, is introducing a process that enables the biology to be as diverse as possible. The more diverse the biology in the compost heap, the better outcome you’re going to get in the longer run.

EM: Mh-hm. And the quality of your compost, then, is quite good?

GG: Brilliant! It matches the best of any compost I’ve ever seen anywhere. We have local people here – there’s a company called Ylad, west of us, who sell their compost for about one-hundred-and-twenty-five dollars a tonne, whereas commercial compost in this area, in bulk, would normally sell for about forty dollars a tonne.

The end objective of what we do is to have a product that is biologically active, has high levels of humus, and it uses the compost material simply as a substrate – as a vehicle to carry the biology back out into agriculture.

EM: Excellent, and so because of the nutrient value, you can sell it at a very high price. And can you tell us a little bit about the feedstock now. I know that this process can operate with variable feedstocks – so what kind of materials can you use?

GG: There are a whole lot of different feedstocks that we’ve used in the process so far. Normally in a composting process you have to have a ratio of about twenty-to-one carbon to nitrogen, up to about sixty-to-one carbon to nitrogen.

Using this process, we’ve composted Australian native sawdust, which has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about one-hundred-fifty-to-one, on its own. Now, the reason for this, and the reason why variability of feedstocks does not matter all that much, is that this process pulls its nitrogen base from the atmosphere.

So after it goes through the first phase, or while it’s going through the first phase, the aerobic composting will normally blow off a lot of nitrogen, but the fermentative stage seems to build a whole lot of things back into the process. So yes, the mix of the materials is not really all that crucial. We’ve done it with pure food in New Town in Wales in 2007 and it worked perfectly, or we’ve done it with Australian native sawdust at the other extreme.

EM: That’s really good – it’s a really good advantage. And now Gerry, can you tell us in what contexts would this process be ideal for, do you think?

GG: Well, in terms of using the process, I think the biggest advantage is that it’s excellent for remote locations. We’ve never, ever said that this process is so unique, you know, it’s better than any other compost process in the world. Composting processes have been around since the dawn of time, and nature is very good at doing it in all sorts of different ways. But what we’ve tried to do is come up with a process that can be used in remote locations, or by farmers, to get a very, very good product.

The process is not that different to biodynamic composting, except biodynamic composting is not generally covered. And this is absolutely simple. If you’re a farmer and you don’t have time – you can set up the compost pile, put the cover on, and just go away for six months.

EM: That’s incredible, so it really requires very little. And the odour issues either, isn’t there not?

GG: Not at all. No odour…no shredding, no turning, no odour.

EM: That’s amazing.

GG: Yeah.

EM: And we know that in order to make good quality compost, you need a very clean source of organics – and you mentioned before that you’d had great success with the City to Soil program – can you give us an idea as to why that is?

GG: The thing, I suppose, that’s really unique about – well, I don’t “suppose”. It is. The thing that’s absolutely really unique about City to Soil is the community engagement process. I think people have got to a stage with recycling programs where they see that when they’re putting their newspaper into bin, or their aluminium (or aluminum, as the Americans would say) into a recycling bin, they’re giving that material away. They pay for the service to have the material collected, and in most instances it goes off to some re-processor somewhere, so they’re giving Rupert Murdoch his newspaper back at a discount price. Or they’re giving aluminium away to Comalco or one of these larger companies. Where…if you put organic material into a bin and it’s being made into compost and it’s going back into soil to produce food – the people see that it’s a very real connection.

I think that what we’ve done inadvertently, and in some ways intentionally – we obviously expected to get very clean material from it – what we’ve done is we’ve hit a button in people that really resonates with them.

We’re operating now in five council areas with City to Soil, and our contamination rate seems to get lower and lower, not worse and worse. Most contamination rates around the world in organics recycling, people think they’re doing really well if they only have five percent contamination. Our contamination has never gone above point-four of one percent. The lowest council – we just started at a place called Palerang. Their contamination level is currently running at point-zero-six of one percent.

So, in a small town of about four hundred people, we collected one-and-a-half tonnes of material and the total contamination were two soft drink cans and one plastic pot. That’s absolutely nothing.

EM: That is really incredible. And for our final question now, because we’re running out of time: can you tell us how you get such low contamination rates? What do you do?

GG: What we collect is garden waste and food scraps together. Now, that’s unusual, but in Australia, our circumstances are relatively unusual. We have four hundred and fifty-five million hectares of land under agriculture. Seventy-five percent of that land has got less than one percent organic material in it, so our soils are very low in organic material.

We have about forty-five million tonnes of waste a year, and about sixty percent of that is organic. So it’s an absolute no-brainer that the thing we should be clean product, and getting it back into our soils.

So to make that as easy as possible for people, we use a two hundred and forty liter wheel bin – a cart for the Americans – into which…we give people a compostable bag which sits on their kitchen bench. Because the compostable bag breathes, it allows water to go out of it, and allows the material to lose a lot of its moisture, but it won’t smell. People then tie up that bag and they put that in with their green waste in a two hundred and forty liter wheel bin.

The difference with our bags, is that when we give a household a roll of one hundred and fifty bags, they all have a number on them. So we can, theoretically, if we’ve registered the number against the street address of the house that we gave it to – we know where that bag came from. But we don’t use it negatively; what we generally do is we’ll wait until we get bags back at the composting site, we’ll pull two of those bags out of the compost pile and if there is no metal, glass or plastic in those bags when we open them, that household wins a one hundred dollar hamper of fruit and vegetables.

We’re trying to make people think about where their food comes from. But, more importantly the fundamental thing about City to Soil is trying to connect the urban population back to the rural population. And that whole link is to try to get people to think about the farmer as their food supplier. Because regardless of a farmer’s religious, political or social beliefs, you need to have a relationship with them because they’re growing your food. And they need security and you need security of supply.

So food is very, very important to us. We say to people all the time: if you eat, you’re involved, you know? It’s a process you can’t avoid. And so…and we think this message can transfer quite comfortably into any language, because it’s a very simple message. It’s just simply saying: clean material goes into your food supply.

EM: Amazing, that’s a great message. Well, congratulations on the success of the program, and Gerry, that’s all we have time for today so…

GG: Alright.

EM: Thanks a million for coming on the show.

GG: Okay, talk to you soon!


Plastic Bags as Savior – Part 2

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By Gerry Gillespie, Zero Waste Australia.

Following up on this blog post, Gerry Gillespie digs deeper on using the plastic bag as inexpensive collection infrastructure for local compost systems.

Marikina was not the first community to try a recycling program fueled by plastic bags. In a trial conducted in New Zealand in 1998,  called Tag Bagtm, households were asked to use the standard plastic shopping bag to separate their domestic waste into four categories.

They were given a simple sheet of instructions and asked to separate their waste into paper, recyclables, organic and residual waste.  The bags were  sealed with blue, yellow, green or red tape, depending on its contents and placed together into a single collection bin.

The bin contents were collected by a single truck and separated into their categories at the recycling station. Contamination from one material stream to another was minimal.

This trial had proven that the worst characteristic of the plastic bag, its environmental permanence – had made it the perfect piece of infrastructure to source-separate waste.  Once the plastic bag is used to collect waste materials, the bag itself is also captured for recycling or reuse.

All human populations produce organic waste suitable for composting in the growing, processing and preparation of food and to some extent, in food scraps after meals.

This same organic waste, when it degrades and rots, presents health problems for local communities when it is dumped near communities. When waste is present in market places and in close proximity to populations, it attracts vermin and associated disease.

In Curitiba, Brazil, the problems caused by waste in slum areas were addressed by a program, where the poor exchanged plastic bags of waste for food at government drop-off points. The net effect was a dramatic fall in community health costs due to the removal of organic waste.

Could it be possible to expand this type of program into any area where organic waste is causing health issues and wasteful plastic bags are present? While it may not be possible to collect and sell recycled materials in some parts of the world,  it is always possible to compost at any scale.

While organic material makes up more than half of the waste stream in most ‘developed’ countries, regardless of its quantity, compost can be processed through simple composting or worm farming in a small, enclosed area.

If people were given the ability to collect organic waste and compost it at no cost other than their labour, the end product could be very beneficial to the community.   Compost could help grow food in local communities, especially in areas with limited space in pots, tires, broken buckets and small garden beds.

Compost bins don’t need to be fancy bins; they can be made from ‘puddled’ mud, cement or clay bricks, mattresses, rammed earth, straw bales, old mattresses held in place with wooden sticks or poles, bundles of newspapers, logs or stones. Composting can provide the opportunity and the empowerment to people to grow their own food at a most elementary level.

By focusing the compost process on food production as a community benefit rather than composting as a waste reduction tool, it becomes impeccably clear that all things on this planet are resources, even plastic bags.

Edited by: Rachel Chibidakis

Photo by: Flickr user Kables, used under a Creative Commons license.