Soils, Compost and Climate Change #2: From COP21 To Now



In part two of our climate talks episode, we’re delving deeper into the main discussion points, the challenges, and the dangers we’re facing right now in making agriculture and soil a key player in climate change strategies. By the end, we should have a decent overview of the situation and will be all set for COP22. We’ll also be sharing insights from the International Compost Roundtable – a side event that took place during COP21, with speakers Enzo Favoino of Zero Waste Europe, climate change advisor Calla Rose Ostrander, and Teresa Anderson of Action Aid.

We discuss: the latest developments from the SBSTA, the issues with linking soil carbon sequestration with cutting emissions, the dangers of greenwashing, and how to support compost markets in a fair, sustainable way.



BiobiN® is a mobile, on-site organic/wet material management solution that starts the composting process and effectively manages odour from putrescible waste. BiobiN® can be used in a variety of outlets, including food manufacturing, restaurants, shopping centres, supermarkets…it’s endless. Wherever organic or wet materials are generated, BiobiN® is THE solution. For more, visit their website.



An analysis of submissions to SBSTA 44 on agriculture and adaptation. CIFOR May 2016.

Lima Paris Action Agenda Official Website.

10 options for agriculture at Marrakech climate talks. CCAFS September 2016.

Soil Carbon Can’t Fix Climate Change By Itself—But It Needs to Be Part of the Solution. Article. Union of Concerned Scientists USA. 2016.




Picture Attribution:

Forages in Tanzania: making trade-offs. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Forages in Tanzania: making trade-offs. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Forages in Rwanda. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Forages in Rwanda. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Debre Berhan, central Ethiopia. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Hosana, Ethiopia. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Réunion inter-ministérielle COP22. By Ministère des Affaires Etrangères et de la Coopération. Some Rights Reserved.

Présentation de la feuille de route du Maroc pour la COP22. By Ministère des Affaires Etrangères et de la Coopération. Some Rights Reserved.



Transcript Coming Soon.


Soils, Compost and Climate Change #1: From COP21 To Now



In this two-part episode we discuss what role compost, soil, and agriculture played during the COP21 climate talks last year, and review what has been happening since, with COP22 just around the corner. We’ll also be sharing insights from the International Compost Roundtable – a side event that took place during COP21, with speakers Enzo Favoino of Zero Waste Europe, climate change advisor Calla Rose Ostrander, and Teresa Anderson of Action Aid.

We cover the dangers of language and how it can lead to greenwashing and bad policy, challenges in measuring results with soil carbon sequestration, how the attention on soil & agriculture translated into action, how our policy frameworks need to change, and much more.



BiobiN® is a mobile, on-site organic/wet material management solution that starts the composting process and effectively manages odour from putrescible waste. BiobiN® can be used in a variety of outlets, including food manufacturing, restaurants, shopping centres, supermarkets…it’s endless. Wherever organic or wet materials are generated, BiobiN® is THE solution. For more, visit their website.



Ecomondo 2015, November 8th to 11th. Rimini Italy.

The largest technology platform for the Green and Circular Economy in the Euro-Mediterranean area – and for advanced and sustainable technology for processing and recycling all kinds of waste; treating and reclaiming water, waste water and polluted marine sites; efficient use and transformation of raw and processed materials and the promotion of renewable raw materials.



Disruptive Innovation Festival (DIF) 2016. November 7th to 25th. Online.

An online, open access event that invites thought-leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, businesses, makers and learners to explore the question “The economy is changing – what do I need to know, experience and do?”. Using a mix of online and face to face events, participants have the opportunity to explore the economy through a different lens. Sessions demonstrate how people worldwide are challenging the current ‘take, make and dispose’ economic model.





INDC Assessment: The Land Sector and Country Commitments to Global Climate Action. Rainforest Alliance. 2015.

How countries plan to address agricultural adaptation and mitigation.  CCAFS, CGIAR, 2015.

The Marin Carbon Project.

4 pour 1000 initiative.


Picture Attribution:

Forages in Tanzania: making trade-offs. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Conferencia de la ONU sobre Cambio Climático COP21. Some Rights Reserved.

Conferencia de la ONU sobre Cambio Climático COP21Some Rights Reserved.

COP21 Protests-1420337 by Mark Dixon. Some Rights Reserved.

Civil Society helps COP21 Choose the right road to 1.5C degrees by Takver. Some Rights Reserved.

2DU Kenya 87. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Food security, Indonesia (10695853234).jpg. Josh Estey/AusAID. Some Rights Reserved.

Jonathan Cobb’s farm with cover crops. By U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some Rights Reserved.

Time To Act Climate Change London Protesters Creative Commons. By David B Young. Some Rights Reserved.

Cobs of corn. By Asbestos.

Transcript Coming soon.


[Retrospective] Vineyards Special #1: The Wonders of Cover Crops



While we will continue to make new episodes, there are times when we feel the urge to highlight a past episode – because the topic it covers becomes news and the show shares some great insights, or because it is content that our newer listeners might have missed out on. Since last year was the International Year of Soils, we will be republishing a few of our best episodes about soil and soil health to get a fresh perspective in light of all the progress that has been made on the issue.

To round-off the series, we’re ending with a in-depth look at a popular and very effective sustainable agricultural technique: cover cropping. In episode 16 of our show, we had with us Bob Cannard and Bob Shaffer – both experienced sustainable farmers and horticulturalists. They shared their techniques with us, explained just how cover cropping works and how beneficial it can be, and gave us their expert advice. We learned a lot about cover crops in making this episode, and if you’re wondering after the last two episodes, just what exactly the sustainable agricultural techniques might look like that we need to start pushing for – this is the episode for you.

Links to other episodes in the Series:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Photo by Robert Reed, courtesy of Recology.

Cover crops are becoming more and more popular, but they still aren’t completely understood by everyone. Bob Canard, can you tell me what exactly cover crops are, and how do they work?

Bob Cannard: Cover crops are nature’s way of preserving, enhancing and balancing the soil. All they are, are crops that grow naturally, or are planted, that are allowed to grow and establish and protect the soil, cycle nutrients and actually build soil, absorb atmospheric carbon, deposit it in the soil as food for the soil biology, which is the important digestive force of all life.

Bob Shaffer: Yes, cover crops are simply plants. Now, we’re going to chose the genus and species of plant that we call a cover crop, or, as Bob said very brilliantly, we can also just accept the resident vegetation – that which is growing in a field or pasture. But let’s recall that plants are the organism on earth that harvest carbon out of the air and puts that carbon into a form that we call organic matter. So plants are literally producing organic matter on earth that we then can introduce into the soil as a carbon source, which is food for microorganisms and other animals, and then also the plant above ground is protecting the soil surface.

Where are cover crops most popular?

BS: Cover crops are being used every place around the world right now, more and more every time. I’ve watched Napa and Soma Valleys (California), as I’m sure Bob has also, become quite well cover cropped compared to ten or fifteen years ago; they’re more and more used all the time every place.

Bob Cannard, as a long-time cover crop user, can you tell us the key benefits of using cover crops, as opposed to mulches and other methods?

BC: They stimulate the soil biology: all plants produce lots of sugars and other complex organic molecules that they pump into the soil and establish a relationship with the soil, so they actually nurture the soil. At the same time, their root system breaks up (subsurface soil compaction), and cycles nutrients from deeper profiles to the surface, making the soil more aerobic and balanced towards aerobic life – which it’s all about.

By comparison to mulching, they grow many cubic yards (depending on the intensity and the size of the cropping system) of compost for the soil. And mulching – you’re getting that organic material from another piece of ground, and it sacrificed its organic material to turn it into mulch or compost, which is spread on the ground, and it takes a lot of BTUs of petroleum energy in order to do all of that and spread it. Whereas the cover crop is very low energy input: the seeds are planted and they grow, and they harvest that atmospheric carbon, and deposit directly into the soil without those heavy inputs.

That’s a very interesting benefit.

BS: It’s very expensive to grow mulch on one piece of land, take the carbon from that land and move it over to another. We’d like to grow and use the cover crop as our source of mulch.

Bob Cannard, you manage hundreds of acres of vineyards that use cover crops successfully. Can you tell me a little about your strategy and what cover crops you use?

BC: We have a thousand acres in cover crops. Every winter time is the rainy season, and we plant in the fall after harvest, or just before harvest. We used mixed seeds and I’m a great proponent of a mixture of cover crop plants.

First off you need very low energy, quick germinating nurse plants that hold and protect the soil for the higher-level life support plants that come along slower and later. The cover crop protects the soil from all kinds of erosion, and the little quick growers do that quickly. They don’t provide too much organic matter, but they really help the next stage, and the next stage is perhaps the low proteinaceous broad-leaves, and then you’ll phase in to the higher proteinaceous grasses – more and more biomass. And finally, the high level of life, long term blooming plants, like the clovers and the vetches and the peas and the beans – the leguminous plants that take much longer to mature. Each one helps the next one, and the diversity is a very important element.

We like to grow our cover crops and let them stand to as full maturity as possible. In the organic kingdom, there’s lots of conversation about green manure cover crops; well, they break down very quickly and release lots of nitrogen. What I’m looking for is lots of carbon, and stimulating the free-living nitrogen-fixing biology of the soil, and this vastly reduces the need for nitrogenous influences, applications, fertilisers on the vineyards – and in the vegetable gardens as well.

Can you get a little more detailed about the process and tell us when you plant the seeds, how you cultivate it – if you do at all – when you mow it, and how you manage it all?

BC: Well, it depends entirely on the site. Some sites, hillside sites, are never cultivated and the cover crop leans progressively more towards perennial plants. Other sites are cultivated, but we do our best to cultivate as late as possible, allowing the cover crop plant to come to its maturity. When you try to incorporate a green plant, like a green manure, it has only lived a portion of its life and it has a high nitrogenous body; whereas if you allow to as great a degree of maturity as possible, it dries out, it makes its own seeds (some varieties reseed themselves and don’t need to be included in successive plantings), and it’s straw is carbonaceous and has a longer than one year half-life in a temperate climate. So you actually build soil carbon, the foundation of the soil digestion, which is an absolutely critical motion. Everything has to have good digestion, and that digestive force solubilises the minerals. Additionally, on the soil surface, that straw spawns and sponsors the various yeasts, so we are less dependant upon yeasting the pressed grape juice to make wine, and we can use the indigenous yeast of the particular site in many cases which means we get the true terroir, or taste of that soil and that location.

To be clear about the general process of cover cropping: you plant the seeds, either in spring for summer cover crops, or in the autumn for winter cover crops. You can use it as a green manure by mowing it and incorporating it into the soil when usually when it’s flowering and still green, or you can wait until it’s a little woody and chop or mow it down to use as mulch. Is that correct?

BC: Yes, it’s mowed down or grazed down, and maybe cultivated, or maybe just mowed and grazed – it depends upon the plot and the variety, and air drainage, and many, many variables. We’re always trialling little plots of little pounds of sprinkling here and there, and it takes a while to grow the soil; if you have a herbicided, clean cultivated, long-standing degraded soil, high level of life plants like clovers may not take hold, because it doesn’t have properly developed soil biology yet. But through the use of incorporating the maturity of the cover crops over seasons, the soil population will change and you’ll get the nice, soft, beautiful, proteinaceous, easy to work with kinds of plants, and they will take over from the thistly, thorny, creepy-crawly, difficult types of plants to manage.

So viticulturalists should be prepared to invest a bit of time at the beginning if the soil isn’t healthy already. And is there anything specific to vineyards that viticulturalists need to understand about cover cropping – is it much different to cover cropping for farms?

BC: Not particularly, but the height of the type of plant and whether it’s an annual cropping cycle or a perennial, and its degree of maturity so that it can become reseeded, so you don’t have to reseed it annually – at least not with all of the species…

We use early season grazing of sheep and goats at high density, quick rotation so that they aren’t over-grazed but just appropriately grazed. The sheep actually stimulate the regrowth of the cropping system, so it responds as the season advances into the summer time with a good early maturity. Then, in many cases where it’s just mowed, what you end up with is all of this reflective strawy grass on the soil surface – not just grass but all the plants that turns golden as it dries out – and it reflects heat back up to the fruits underneath the canopy and actually increases the warmth and the dryness of the canopy. This reduces the incidents of mildew, and stimulating this broad array of canopy biology that additionally enhances the resistance of the plant through species competition of one dominant mildew type problem.

That’s a unique benefit of cover cropping, or mulching. And Bob Shaffer, do you want to add anything? 

BS: We have to recall that viticulture is a monoculture, often times at least, and I see the cover crop as a way to bring diversity, and to break the problems that are associated with monocultures. Also, I can rotate the genus and species that I use; I can rotate them over space, I can rotate them over time, so it actually adds, not only diversity to the monoculture, but adds the component of rotation. For example, I can put perennials on one side of the vines or tractor rows; I can manage that as a perennial cover for a few years, and then I can have annuals on the other side. I can also use those annuals and/or the perennials – or specific strips planted through the vineyard – as a beneficial habitat and food sources for beneficial insects, beneficial life forms in the vineyard. So, in all ways, the cover crop – if selected and managed well – can be the source of diversity, can be the source of rotation, and the source of beneficial life forms brought to the vineyard.

There are many variables when it comes to cover cropping, and there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach, but is there something you would recommend to everyone starting off with cover cropping?  

BS: It’s something that teaches you. I’d encourage people to immediately start cover cropping, and all farmers must always have trials going on. These do not have to be large, expensive, exhausting procedures, but having some type of trial always going on in the farm shows you where to head next. It also is your little classroom where you can go out and look and learn. So having at least some strips of cover crops – of different species always – to learn what to plant next is a good idea.

There are a lot of species to choose from as well. Bob Shaffer, what are your thoughts on choosing the best species for vineyards?

BS: On choosing species, one of the things you want to do, as Bob Cannard pointed out, you want to use a polyculture. I’m always going to use a mix of grasses, legumes and forbes when I’m planting. Also, as we broadcast it or drill this type of mix, the site itself will sort out which plants are most appropriate there.

In frost-prone vineyards, cover crops may the increase in risk of frost damage. What is your advice regarding this?

BS: Certainly if I’m going to put a cover crop into a frost prone vineyard, then I’m going to add the important component to the cover crop that we haven’t directly mentioned yet, which is as important as species selection, or any other feature of the cover crop: the management of the cover crop. So, if I have frost concerns, I’m going to select cover crops that are low growing, and then I can manage the cover crop in the frost season by further mowing it – at least on one side of the rows to allow some air drainage. Also, if you’re using broad-leafed species, they tend to have less of the ice nucleating bacteria on their leaf surface, and are less prone to causing frost problems in the vineyard or orchard.

I want to address another common worry that people have regarding cover crops, which is water usage. Wouldn’t cover cropping add extra irrigation costs for drier climates?

BC: We grow over-winter cover crops and we utilise rainfall as a natural irrigation, and it actually increases rainfall infiltration by reducing soil compaction. So actually, we reduce irrigation requirements; and then, it’s depositing on the soil surface at maturity, high levels of carbon, and one unit of carbon will support and hold approximately eight units of water. So, we increase our water holding and infiltration characteristics by increasing the organic matter content and the root zone development through cover cropping.

Yes, I read in a couple of articles, including a 1994 research article in the California Agriculture journal, that winter crops generally have very little impact on soil moisture compared to summer cover crops – so that would be a good option for vineyards. And Bob Shaffer, do you have anything to say about water usage or to add to Bob Cannard’s point?

BS: The cover crop, particularly because of its roots being in the ground, increases the humus levels. As those roots decompose, it increases the humus level, and this is the material that Bob Cannard was referring to as holding more water in the soil.

Though I will say that, sometimes if I have an existing vineyard, maybe it’s old and maybe the soil is weak and worn out, the transition period of introducing cover crops into that vineyard – there has to be some care taken to make sure that we don’t take water away from vines. Obviously, a cover crop plant uses some water when it grows, but it’s more an issue of timing: both timing in terms of transitioning into a cover crop (where the vine gets used to having other roots around it) and also as we build humus in the soil, there’s a little transition time that’s needed for that. And then, if we use a little water in the spring time for the cover crop, that doesn’t take away critically from the other crop – whether it be vines or some other plant; but later in the year, as the cover crop has been managed into a mulch, we’re actually using less water because we’re protecting the soil surface, we’ve built humus in the soil… And so, the timing issue on water needs to always be addressed rather than saying “okay, does the cover crop use water or not”.

So the takeaway from this is that timing is everything and it may increase water usage at the beginning, but in the long run it will actually save water. And now onto the management question: I presume it takes a little more time and effort to manage cover crops – wouldn’t this increase management costs?

BS: Considering whether cover crops raise our management costs, we have to look at the whole farm, and look at the multiple benefits that the cover crop has brought to the farm to address whether we lost or benefitted in terms of management dollars.

Can you both give me some examples?

BC: Well, my field, these vineyards that I assist in managing were conventionally grown and heavily cultivated, and herbicided underneath the vine rows. And we had, when I first took over twelve years ago, a preponderance of tenacious, noxious weeds that interfered with the canopy of the grape vine, and through management of the cover crops – planting selected varieties and improving the soil, and utilising inter-crop grazing of the sheep and the goats – after twelve years now we have very few noxious weeds and it’s actually reduced our over all costs; weeds that would shoot up from the herbicided strip into the canopy that had to be mowed or supressed in one fashion or another.

BS: Another aspect of management that cover crops can safe you money instead of cost you money would be for dust control, for example. A lot of times a vineyard or farm will get very dusty during the dry season, whereas if we have cover crops and we’ve managed over to stubble and/or mulch on the surface, it reduces dust. That dust can increase mite pressure in the vineyard, so if we have mulch and we’re absent of the dust, then it decreases our cost of spraying for mites, or managing for mites. There a number of other features that we could name that the cover crops actually decreases management costs.

One of the benefits I came across was the introduction of beneficial predator insects that keeps pests down. Has that been your experience?

BC: We’ve had very few problems with pests.

BS: Certainly, if you provide habitat and food for everyone, then the system tends to become more balanced. Where there are appropriate numbers of predators, there are appropriate numbers of prey. As the goal in “managing the farm” or “managing pests” is not to eliminate all the pests; it’s simply to increase the antagonism from the pest’s predators. And we do this by carbon, we do this by having flowering plants; nectar, pollen, habitat, and carbon above ground.

If anything, I’ll say the cover crop, with all the glory that we’ve talked about and the beauty of the cover crop, still: the cover crop shouldn’t be viewed as all we need; we always have to look after the whole system and say “okay, look: I’m going to manage organic matter, which includes cover crops, compost and mulches. I’m going to manage minerals. And I’m going to manage my tillage”. Those three areas: OM management, mineral management, and tillage management all need to be considered, all need to be cared for to have the cover crop show its best; to have the compost to show it’s best, and to have the minerals show its best. They’re linked in biology, they’re linked in being foods, and they’re all necessary to manage at the same time to get the best benefits.

So a holistic approach is really what you’re going for. And are there any other benefits to using cover crops that would outweigh other management costs?

BC: The cover crop and the soil surface organic material holds and supports the soil, where many clean, cultivated and just bare soil surfaces can be very tacky. Let’s say during harvest we have modest rainfall, then it impedes the ability for the harvest crews and the equipment to move through the vineyard because of the muddiness, whereas with the increase of soil surface organic material (and especially the dry carbonaceous material), the soil surface is held and supported by the residual root systems. And the soil surface itself is protected by the strawy organic material, and this really reduces the stickiness in many different ways: just physically at a large-scale straw level, and at a digested carbon level/humus level it allows the soil particulate matter to be happy with itself and want to stick to other elements, such as harvesters feet

That’s an interesting benefit that I wouldn’t have thought of, actually.

BS: That’s actually a huge benefit, even during the year sometimes with the irrigation systems, if you have cover crops it enables workers to have less mud on them, and to have some place to sit down; to have some place that’s green and flowering instead of just a bare herbicided soil. There’s a huge difference in the vineyard for both the people and the crop when we use cover crops.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this episode already, although we could probably go on forever. But for the final question: are there any issues you want to address with cover crops, or anything else that viticulturalists need to keep in mind when cover cropping?

BC: Well, it’s a possibility that you might have overgrowth. A lot of viticulturalists, back to frost issues, are worried about canopy heights of cover crops. Well, there’s legitimacy to this, because it reduces air drainage, but at the same time, a high-density cover crop of good, bread-leafed plants has a better canopy biology to it that resists frosting. And those plants are also respiring energy and actually warm the vineyard’s atmosphere on cold nights.

No, there are definitely problems, and it’s a progressive activity. A novice viticulturalist beginning to grow cover crops might be afraid to let them come to maturity, and boy, that’s all right – it’s a beginning. And as we develop and grow, we develop more confidence as we grow, and we also develop our soils and select a broader diversity of cropping specimens, a variety, and allow them to come to greater maturity.

BS: That’s certainly experience speaking, and I’ll say to summarise that excellent comment by Bob Cannard: I would encourage people to view cover cropping as a transition, as part of a transition into more healthy soils, and to better above-ground relationships, rather than an instant change.

Well put. So, cover cropping is definitely beneficial, it just takes a little bit of time and a little bit of effort to get it all going. But once you have the experience, it’s probably the best way to go. Unfortunately that’s all we have time for I’m afraid, thank you Bob Cannard and Bob Shaffer for coming on the show.

BC: Well, thank you for your interest.


[Retrospective] Drought Special #3: Fighting A Drought: Levers for the Public Sector



While we will continue to make new episodes, there are times when we feel the urge to highlight a past episode – because the topic it covers becomes news and the show shares some great insights, or because it is content that our newer listeners might have missed out on. Since last year was the International Year of Soils, we will be republishing a few of our best episodes about soil and soil health to get a fresh perspective in light of all the progress that has been made on the issue.

Today’s retro episode is all about policy, and the Australian experience.

Our guests are former Governor General of Australia and Advocate for Soil Health, Major General Michael Jeffery, and co-founder of Ylad Living Soils Rhonda Daly. In this episode we discover the crucial elements needed to build a comprehensive policy framework that will protect not only our soils but our landscapes. We look at the current Australian system, soil health, incentives for compost production, farm management practices, and the need to change our systems in order to better reward and support our land managers – the stewards of the earth. We then link this back to the current recommendations made in the FAO’s report Status of the World’s Soil Resources.

Links to other episodes in the Series:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3


Episode 2: Drought Special #3: Fighting A Drought: Levers for the Public Sector.

Status of the World’s Soil Resources 2015, Technical Summary. FAO Report.


International Compost Awareness Week Australia. May 2nd – 8th. New South Wales, Australia. Organised by the Centre for Organic Research & Education (CORE).

International Composting Awareness Week Australia (ICAW), is a week of activities, events and publicity to improve awareness of the importance of compost, a valuable organic resource and to promote compost use, knowledge and products. We can compost to help scrap carbon pollution by avoiding landfilling organic materials and helping to build healthier soils.

Photo by suburbanbloke / CC BY


When it comes to drought, it seems that up until now, the drought relief packages were based on Exceptional Circumstances programs and included mostly financial support for farmers already in dire circumstances, with very little attention given to actual prevention of drought or preparing for drought before hand. However, there are some changes occurring now with the National Drought Program Reform that is starting in July, which recognises that drought no longer fits in the exceptional circumstances category, and will focus more on drought preparedness through providing training programs for land managers on risk assessment and financial planning and so on. But General Jeffery and Rhonda Daly, you both agree that a lot more has to be done. So General Jeffery, maybe you can tell us what you think is necessary for the public sector to do in order to actually prepare for drought and minimise the effects of drought on the Australian landscape?

General Jeffery: Well I think the first thing to do is recognise that at the present time, Australia doesn’t have a real national policy in terms of how it wants to look after the Australian landscape as a totality; that is, its river systems, its flood plains, its wetlands, its riparian zones; agriculture areas, grazing areas, mining areas and so on. And I think until we get a policy that spells out the need to have, perhaps as a light on the hill, to restore and maintain an Australian landscape that is fit for purpose – that is fit for all the things I just mentioned – we’re all going to be stuck doing itty, bitty things (and some of them quite important and quite good), but until we get an over-arching aim of what we want to do, with total state and local people all singing from the same sheet of music, I think we will be struggling, particularly when it comes to drought.

It’s getting that policy agreed to restore and maintain an Australian landscape fit for purpose; it has been knocked around a bit. And you can’t blame people, that’s the way people were taught and trained at the time, but –

Rhonda Daly: Don’t you think also that because they’re using water as a commodity – as an economic commodity – and so we’ve got this false economy coming in where we think we’re a rich country, but we’re actually deteriorating the landscape really badly. Short-term it appears that we’re not doing so much damage because economically we’re doing so well, but ultimately, the wheels are going to fall off that analogy for sure.

So Rhonda you’re saying that people involved have a very myopic view of the situation and focus only on the short term economic results, rather than the bigger picture, which I think is definitely the case in many other countries as well. And General Jeffery, you’re saying that we need to get all levels of public sector – local, national and state, to come together and agree on a national policy for restoring and maintaining the landscape. How would you propose we start?

GJ: Well part of the issue has got to be that, if we want to restore and maintain this landscape so that it is fit for various purposes, you’ve got to ask yourself, “What are the three key ingredients that will enable us to do that?” And it’s really about the integrated management of your soil, your water (that is, the hydrology), and the biodiversity – the plants and so on that you’re growing, whether crops or grasses, or what have you. So, good farming practice and land management practice, mining practice and everything else, depends on the stakeholders having a very clear understanding of the need for that integration, and understanding the art and science of doing it properly. And that’s where good farming practices and land management practices come into play.

My next question here was to ask you if you think soil is the most important factor for healing the landscape and therefore protecting against drought, but what you’re saying is that all three aspects, soil, water and vegetation, are all important?

GJ: Yes, I think we’ve got to talk about landscape rather than soil. Although I’m the National Soil Advocate, I think that’s a misnomer to a degree because it gets everybody focused on just looking at soil, when we should be looking at water and biodiversity. And Rhonda raised a very good point specifically on the water, where I think our focus in this country for many years has been in the wrong direction. We’ve always looked at how much water we’ve got in our rivers and streams and dams, and we then issued licenses, and so on, to users of that water. But the total amount of water falling on our landscape every year, if you take it as a hundred drops: only ten drops end up in the rivers, two drops end up in the dams, and another two drops end up as run-off off the roads and roofs – that’s only fourteen percent.

But that’s what we all look at – we focus on that because that’s what we can see. Where we’re missing is the other eighty-six percent that falls on the landscape, of which only about thirty-six actually gets into the soil where you want it, and the other fifty percent evaporates into the atmosphere because it can’t infiltrate.

And holding water in soils is a very important of drought management as well, which we’ve mentioned quite a few times in previous episodes. Rhonda, would you agree with that?

RD: I would agree. I would agree that there’s a huge amount of land that, as you say, needs hydrating – the wetlands and… But you know, truly and really I think that it’s quite sad that I don’t know whether they see that as the most important thing that they have to do at the moment. I think so much energy is going in other places. I truly don’t believe they know the workings of our environment and landscape, and what is the best way of getting it back – and spending the dollars to get it back into a healthy condition again.

GJ: I think that you really need political decisions at the senior level of federal and state to ensure a proper implementation of an appropriate process. So, I think it gets back again to this lack of an over-arching policy where we need to look after the landscape, and then the various ingredients that’ll make it work, and we discussed two or three of them earlier on.

Indeed. And what you’re saying is that it really is important for senior levels in government to take an active role in this, because there are big decisions to be made, and they need to steer the ship. But in terms of getting the research right, there are already wheels in motion, because just recently the Australian Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry recently launched the National Soil Research, Development and Extension Strategy, which aims to secure Australia’s soil for profitable industries and healthy landscapes, and among its many goals, it aims to “improve communication and sharing of soil knowledge”, and “to adopt a national approach to building future skills and capacities”. SO this is definitely a step in the right direction and perhaps it will achieve some of what you are calling for?

GJ: Yes, I think that is a good step in the right direction, and as the National Soil Advocate, we were able to bring together an expert advisory panel of four of the nation’s top land management scientists, backed by another twenty or so scientists who support them, and we were able to input into that strategy, which was really about doing four things: quantifying our soil asset in respect to data and mapping, and what are our soil types, and how healthy is it. And then, how do we go about securing our soil by identifying and evaluating best practice by looking at soil structure improvement, soil biology, carbon and so on. And the third bit was to look at understanding our soils, which is the technical level: the training of our ag scientists, soil carbon sampling, understanding the hydrology of our soils, understanding the soil biology and so on. Then there was soil at the interface, which was really looking at the search on environmental impacts: understanding water capture and storage in soil. So I think that the RD&E (the Research Development and Extension policy) that was launched by the minister a couple of weeks ago is very much a step in the right direction and I’m pleased that we were able to have at least a little bit of an input into it.

That’s a pretty comprehensive strategy focusing on soils, and I daresay one of the first of its kind. And it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the future. But in the past, has soil and soil health has featured in Australian drought policy in any big way before now, or has it been side-lined?

RD: From y perspective I would think that in all of the drought policies that they’re putting into place, soil health is definitely featured, and not only soil health but the management practices as well. So, yes they are incorporating and recognising that soil health is a major player in ensuring that we hold more water in our landscape for plants in these drier times. So, I think they’re recognising that, but there just seems such a huge part, and chunk, that still needs converting. Because, I would say that there’s really only maybe two or three percent of Australian farmers who are actually really practicing regeneration of the landscape, and the rest is going as business as usual. And how do we get the business as usual people to understand the importance of their soil, not just for today’s farming and their productivity and profitability, but for future generations to come?

So, I think Australia’s got a really short term view of their soil health, and we tend to – and that’s because of economic restraints – but we tend to look at just the now. “What do we do now to make us a profit this year that will keep us on the farm next year?” And I think economics, with one in seven farmers owing more than half a million dollars, plays a huge role in farmers up taking these different methods of rebuilding our landscapes back to being healthy again. It’s very much on just paying the bills.

GJ: One of our policy drives in restoring and maintaining this landscape fit for purpose is to reward farmers fairly not just for their product, which is another subject in itself, but also as primary carers of the agricultural landscape, because they look after about sixty percent of the continent. And I believe that we need to reward farmers for looking after the landscape on behalf of twenty-two million urban Australians. Now as to what sort of thing you might do to do that, it can be varied: it might be designating part of the new land army that the Government is going to establish to plant trees on the ridges where a farmer wants it, or to get a cheaper bank loan if he’s going to fix his riparian zone, or a whole range of measures that are not hand-outs, but are provided with a definite outcome in view, which relates to restoring and maintaining that landscape so that it’s in the best possible condition. And I think if we’re clever we’ll be able to do that, and in part overcome the problem that Rhonda’s just raised, that so many of our farmers are in very, very heavy debt.

Right, which definitely won’t help. And on that note, would you say, General Jeffery, that if the new carbon sequestration methodology gets approved, that this would encourage farmers to change their practices? And for our audience, this new methodology is part of the Carbon Farming Initiative, which is a Federal Government initiative to enable people in the land sector to generate revenue through the reduction of carbon emissions by using approved methodologies. So, would this be a potential help for them?

GJ: Yes, I think that if we’ve got a climate change problem – and I believe we have – that’s going to exacerbate our ability to produce more food, and the only way we can help to adjust to that is by sequestering carbon into the soils. The big issue for Australia is going to be in the complexity of the legislation – all the criteria upon which farmers can gain access to that money. And I think we really have to have measuring systems for carbon that are set to business standards, not to scientific standards, so your means of measuring don’t have to be quite so accurate when you’re talking about commercial operations, and therefore can be a bit simpler in terms of a farmer then being able to access what could be a very important source of revenue; and also a very, very important source of helping to adjust to climate change, and perhaps to control it to a degree.

And touching on what you said before, about support payments not being hand-outs: I wonder about citizens in general, particularly urban dwellers, are they sympathetic towards farmers and their situation, or is there work to be done there to get them on board?

GJ: Yes, well another of our policy drivers, and I think it may almost be the most important, is to reconnect urban Australia with its rural roots. That is, reconnect twenty-two and a half million people living in cities and towns with a hundred and thirty thousand farmers and perhaps a hundred thousand miners, or something like that. Now, unless we do that we’re going to find an even greater gap and lack of understanding between the two. And of course, you’ll never get the political support that’s needed to look after our farmers and landscapes properly unless you’ve got voter support. So we have to have that reconnection.

And to do that I think there are several ways. The first is that we’ve got to get to the young people, and I would do this by setting up, for example, a school garden in every school in the country. Something that can  show a six year old, and then a ten year old, and then a thirteen year old, just exactly what the soil does, and how it’s composed, and how photosynthesis and transpiration works; and how you produce healthy food from healthy soil that leads to healthier animals and healthier people. So I think that is one simple way in which we can get urban Australia over time connected; and hopefully the kids will take these messages home to mum and dad, and that would help us get through to the adults at the same time.

But getting the adults on side, I think we’re going to have to use a little bit of stick and a little bit of carrot. The stick is going to be the global food imperative, because in my view we’re going to be pushing it, and I think we’re going to see a lot of social disruption and probably conflict impacting on hundreds of millions of people – and Australia will not be isolated from that. So what we have to say to our own people is that there are going to be big, big problems overseas, and whilst we have some problems in how we’re looking after our landscape here, we’ve also got the answers. And if we’re clever enough and fast enough, we’ll get those answers implemented pretty quickly. And not only will it ensure our own food-water security, but we’ll also be able to export some more food – but even more importantly, export knowledge, because even if we double food export, we’d only feed a hundred million, but if we exported knowledge we might be able to feed a billion.

I’d really like to stress the school garden idea myself as one of the best ways to get the urban population interested in nature. There are also things like community gardens and urban farms that can really help forge a connection. School compost schemes and education can play a huge part too, and I’d like to speak more about compost now, because we’ve heard a lot in previous episodes about the benefits of compost for soil health and drought protection. And Rhonda, you have a wealth of experience in the industry, and as a compost producer yourself, can you tell me what type of incentives exist for you that encourage compost production and use?

RD: That’s a really good question, and I’ve had to search my mind. On a smaller level, the council is starting to introduce green bins to collect compostable waste, and there’s recycling bins and things like that. But from a primary producer’s perspective, I don’t really know of too many incentives or initiatives where people will come – unless there’s a trial being done by Landcare or CSIRO, where they want to get the compost – for them to get into using compost or other biological fertilisers that are a little bit softer on the land and create healthier plants at the same time.

AORA is an industry body – the Australian Organics Recycling Association, which used to be the old Compost Australia – they are promoting it as much as they can, but I do feel as though there’s got to be more policy in there that is going to give farmers the incentive – and possibly there’s going to be a dollar incentive. However, I do believe that there’s going to be people who want to do it because they know intuitively that that’s what they need to do while they’re here on earth. However, the ones who still haven’t reached that calling yet, that maybe the Soil Carbon Methodology, or policies, will see them change over to something new.

So there may need to be financial incentives for some farmers to get them to start composting. And often compost producers will tell us about roadblocks or regulations that actually hinder their ability to run their businesses. Can you tell me about the situation regarding this where you are?

RD: Yeah, sure. It appears that our government supports recycling organic waste – so, reducing landfill, rebuilding soils and… However, the cost of complying with many of these regulations make it not worthwhile for a lot of companies to pursue. And I actually phoned Paul Coffey from AORA  today and asked him what’s going on, because he’s right on the ground level: and the EPA are at present trying to impose a new regulation that is going to put a huge financial burden on compost operations, where they have to have a bank guarantee, and it has to be supplied to the EPA saying that if the operation for some reason goes insolvent, then the money [is used] to cover the clean up of the site. Inevitably this is one situation where this happened. It’s going to cost some operations as much as one-point-five million dollars to have a bank guarantee sitting there, and, as Paul was saying, it will close down many, many operations. And the thing that they’re forgetting to see is that levies are paid to the EPA that could be used for these clean-ups.

So, this is just one of those regulations made in their ivory tower, they’re not really in touch with what’s out there, and it could cost the industry very, very dearly because less people will be wanting to go into composting and recycling these seventeen million tonnes of organic waste that we have.

I guess it just comes back again to having a clear and coordinated strategy so these things won’t happen.

RD: Yes. Well, it’s fortunate that we do have AORA there, and Paul spends a lot of time doing policies, and going to the EPA and working it out for members such as myself. So, definitely, these bodies are very, very important for the ordinary person like myself, because they’re there to ensure we don’t get so many restrictions and conditions on us that it makes it basically impossible do composting.

It’s definitely is an issue I’ve heard before, which once again seems to show that more coordination across different interests could really help. And what I’d like to focus on now is farmers and land management strategies. Because one of the key ways to make change happen is to demonstrate how it can be done, and General Jeffery, you’re Chairman of the non-profit organisation Soils For Life, which is doing great work to support farmers in changing to better practices and advocate for a change in how land is managed generally. And you have been researching case studies of farms that are using sustainable practices in order to spread the word, and the case studies are available online. But through your work with Soils for Life, could you see ways in which incentives and policies could encourage farm managers to change their practices and adopt more drought-resisting practices?

GJ: Well, thanks for those comments on Soils For Life, and of course, Bill and Rhonda are a very important component of the nineteen case studies. We just did nineteen initially because that’s what we were able to raise the money for, and we wanted to actually prove the concept, and well I think we’ve done that, and now we want to roll-out another forty or fifty – and then hopefully hundreds and then some in clusters. I suspect the encouragement to do that will be in showing those who are looking to make a change that, first of all, it’s economically viable. They’re not going to commit unless they can see a dollar in it. And to get that dollar I think we certainly have to do things in terms of how we’re looking at food in terms of pricing, and how we’re looking at rewarding farmers in how they’re rewarding the land.

But, maybe we’ve also got to look at a new definition of productivity, because so often, I’ll think you’ll find the bank saying to a farmer, “Well, to meet your debt obligation, you’re going to have to lift your productivity [muffled] by five percent next year, or whatever. And therefore the farmer then either has to put in a bit more superphosphate, or clear a bit more land, or put a bit more land under crop when he probably hasn’t even got it. And so, false pressure is put on him to lift his productivity, and the same might be true of pressures that may be imposed or implied by the two big chain stores that buy sixty or seventy percent of the produce.

So perhaps we’ve got to look at productivity again nationally in a different way. And if a farmer operating to ninety percent of what he saw as the traditional productivity, which was also degrading his landscape, but ninety percent productivity by his old measure keeps him in permanently good health and good shape, it is far better to look at a system that relates that sort of equation than a farmer whose been striving to do one hundred and two or one hundred and three percent – which he might do for twelve months or two years, and then his soils collapse on him and he goes broke, and the bank has to foreclose, and doesn’t get anything out of it either. Perhaps you see where I’m coming from – that we have to look at productivity in a slightly different way?

Yes, I think I get you, that the notion of productivity should also look at if the land is better managed and can sustain at the same level of productivity for a long period of time, rather than purely looking at the percentage of crop yield. But then, how would you envision we tackle situation with productivity, or protect our farmers from bank pressures and supermarket pressures and the likes?

GJ: Well again, I think it gets back to the policy, and about the rewards.  You see, unless we have these policy parameters in place, we’re going to have the same arguments – they’ll just continue. And the same problems will continue. So you’ve really got to get the aim right for what you want to do: you’ve got to get the soil -water strategic assets declared as such and managed as such; you’ve got to get farmers properly rewarded (and we’ve been through that); you’ve got to get urban Australia really understanding the importance of soil, water and biodiversity, and therefore the importance of farmers, so that if, for example, we might have to pay another half a cent for a kilo of carrots, or another two cents for a litre of milk to ensure that a farmer is properly rewarded for his product, then we pay it gladly. And if there are people that are disadvantaged, then there’s a welfare net to deal with that. But we cannot have farmers being knocked over with unfair prices simply because companies are competing to reduce, reduce, reduce; which is fair enough in principle, but why should the poor old farmer have to deal with that?

And then, we’ve got to refocus the science, so that the science properly supports the farmer in terms of measuring soil fertility, carbon sequestration…if we get all these things in place, then I think we will solve the problem very quickly. But until we do, along with our soils program, which is the practical and proven application on the ground, we won’t maximise the benefit.

I think that sums it up very nicely. And then, final question to both of you: how long do you think it will take for this coordinated approach and solid policy to come about and transform the landscape? Is there much more to be done?

GJ: I think in terms of what I’m trying to do and what Rhonda’s trying to do, I think we’re looking at about a ten to fifteen year programme. There is no magic light switch – you can’t just transform the whole of the agricultural society overnight, because you’re dealing with a hundred and thirty thousand very independent people with their own ideas, et cetera. But the big thing is that we do have the answers, and I think the global imperative…in terms of the opportunities that it provides for our farmers for, perhaps the first time in many, many years, to become sustainably profitable and environmentally sound is going to be there for us to take advantage of – if we can get the proper policy, and fixing the paddock policies in place.

RD: I totally agree with what Michael just said. And in particular, influential people like General Jeffery, who has so many doors he can open – we need people like that to open many more doors, and in time there will be more doors that will open, and people will be coming to us, and far more farmers will be wanting to change.


[Retrospective] Soil Crisis #2: Soil & The Circular Economy: Building A Movement



While we will continue to make new episodes, there are times when we feel the urge to highlight a past episode – because the topic it covers becomes news and the show shares some great insights, or because it is content that our newer listeners might have missed out on. Since last year was the International Year of Soils, we will be republishing a few of our best episodes about soil and soil health to get a fresh perspective in light of all the progress that has been made on the issue.

Today’s retro episode is about the circular economy, and how it can benefit our soils. Our guest is industrial and environmental economist Robin Murray. As a zero waste pioneer and a leader in the fair trade and environmental movements for many years, Robin Murray had an excellent perspective to give on our current efforts in making soil health a priority and the circular economy a reality. We discuss the opportunities we have for building a movement to change our current economic model to a more sustainable one, including existing models that we can learn from, the importance of education and centers of learning for the movement, and the roadblocks we might face along the way.

Links to other episodes in the Series:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3


Episode 1: Soil Crisis #1: A Need For Economic and Political Change.

Status of the World’s Soil Resources 2015, FAO Report

Photo by Joe Mabel / CC BY.


We talked in part one about the importance of soil health in human economies, and also about the potential for a shift to a more circular, distributed economy, and you were listing a few ways people have started to reconnect themselves with the soil with the slow food movement, community gardens and farms being opened up to the urban population and so on. But in relation to forming a different system, a different model of production and distribution, how important is education and knowledge sharing for fostering or encouraging these kinds of changes?

Robin Murray: What I would say is that the movements – both of people pressing on policy, but also the people who are actually doing it – tend to be global. So we established a Zero Waste movement here more than a decade ago, but it was part of an international Zero Waste International movement, and it was established in a number of different countries. And the internet has allowed a wide sharing of practices. And in the arguments in this country, the experiences of Canada and Australia – let alone elsewhere – have been very influential in saying “Look, this actually happens. This isn’t just a utopia, this is a different model”. And particularly as it develops, you then have new technologies coming in; light technologies, small distributed technologies, not great big centralised ones. These can be imported and then developed on your own here.

So, I think there’s a continuous process of self education, but one which is within a collective. If you look at organic farming, it is social knowledge, and people are not privatising this knowledge. They are sharing, and of course, this is what happened when we grew up; people would discuss particular problems. We had, believe it or not, an actual farmer’s discussion group, which my father used to go to, where people would come once a month from these hill farms to discuss common problems. Well now with the modern internet, you go much further and you can share. Having said that, I think there is a great need, and a role, for some formal structure of specialist education. Many countries have inherited this on the agricultural side, and in America that’s very important: those colleges have been absolutely central, and changing the approaches in those colleges, or opening up these colleges to these new systems is an important part.

There’s been nothing similar on waste. Waste is being treated as part of a technical college, but it’s done in a very old fashioned way and it needs a quite different approach. And I think now we must look to make it global, because many of the ways of looking at the thing are global, [even though] every place has it’s own specificity. But, I think this is where this new extraordinary development of Massive Online Open Courses, which are free, but you can also link into local discussion groups all taking these courses – and there are five million students on them. If one replicated that in terms of soils and in terms of nutrient management (in relation to biowaste)…knowledge is absolutely central – distributed knowledge is absolutely central, and I think probably this is going to be the key to a major change in the way in which we both think about our agriculture, and think about reconnecting it up.

I’m very glad you say that because that’s the whole idea being Compostory.org, and I agree that in the areas of waste or nutrient management,  we really need to start working together and finding connections between groups of people all around the world. And from the work that we’re doing, we’ve come across so many different stories of people and groups doing unique and very interesting work…

RM: One of the examples which I found particularly inspiring in our work has been in Japan which, starting in the nineteen-sixties but really gathered in the nineteen-seventies, was a movement led almost entirely by women. And they had become concerned after a range of food scares, particularly around milk and the quality of milk, and its impact on their children – it was children who led the concern. And so what they did is they said, “Look, we’re not going to buy our milk from the supermarkets; we will go out and we will find farmers who we can talk to about how they produce their milk, and we can ask them to produce organic milk and we will then find a way of bringing it directly to us.

Well, they started with milk and then they expanded to other food items to begin with. And they were one of the very early developers of box schemes; and because quite a few of them, I suspect, before they were married worked in these Japanese factories, which were all electronic – not perhaps in the late sixties, but certainly in the late seventies and eighties – and were very well managed; they established this box scheme whereby the producers who they picked out and who they partnered with would bring what had been ordered to the central collection point. They’d all work – as mums – they’d go in there and they would sort the boxes out, and then they would distribute them to their own houses. They organised themselves in groups of six to ten households, which were called Han. Now, I’ve been involved in some box schemes, but my word, this is brilliantly done.

And they now – in the Seikatsu co-ops – have three hundred and thirty thousand households in their schemes. Three hundred and thirty thousand. And they’ve reached right back to the farmers, so that they completely side-step the supermarkets. And they’re doing it much more cheaply, so some of the supermarkets are going out of business. And what they do is, they take one product after another, they study it and do the testing, and they then work with the farmers on standards, and they jointly discuss why some standards are more difficult than others. And then they open it out and say “does anyone have any ideas about this farmer’s problems?” etc. So they act as almost crowd intelligence on this. Their aim is explicitly to show that these higher standards are possible, and then press politically for these to be adopted nationally. And so, they’ve formed local political parties, and they have a large number of local councillors who then press for these things within their local council, to change the standards. And then they combine, and press it nationally. This has changed the food economy, in terms of farming and its quality, but it has also changed the way food is thought about and then used and cooked in the home. And I think this is a model of how soil economy and the human economy have been brought back together.

That is fascinating, so essentially these communities have bypassed the middleman and gone straight to the source, taking control of the distribution and being directly involved with the producers. And do you think this model, this co-op model should be replicated, or would be the main way to go forward in the future?

RM: Well, I think that is one way. We should all say to ourselves, “Right, what can we do about this?” You quickly find that there are other people doing something about it, and some are better at it than others. But what is amazing is that the Seikatsu started in 1972, so that’s forty-two years, and they are still enormously strong. They’ve kept the principles very much to the centre. Whenever they have problems, they discuss it openly, and in terms of cooperatives – this is a very important point – what they’ve tried to do is always to retain a sense that you’re in control of the thing, and you’re not just voting for people to do it for you. So they’ve purposefully broken up some of their bigger organisations so that people feel that it is close to them. And if you don’t do that, very quickly you get experts and they start running it, and it becomes more like the old system.

Now this model: recently in South Korea, they’ve been copying the Japanese one. And they, within fifteen years have got four major food cooperative systems linking farmers and consumers. They’ve now got over half a million people involved, almost from a standing start. Now, it’s led in – as the Japanese put it: it’s not just “how to get nice food”, it is “how to live a different life.” How not to be what I think they call “the robotic consumer”. The role of the human being is not to be a robot or to be the prey of advertising and so on; it is to take this under your own control, and think about it, and participate in it, because that is actually what creating life is about. That’s their approach, so it’s not just the co-op – the co-op is an aspect of this. It is about a whole approach to the way we live our lives, in whatever we’re doing.

Yes, that’s incredible, and I can easily imagine that such a co-op system, since there is such a link between households and farms, could work to ensure that household organic materials like food scraps and so on, be properly disposed of and brought back to the farm for composting, because the consumers then understand the need for having a clean stream of organic materials for composters.

RM: Yes.

But then as a larger social movement, and we talked about the ways governments are sometimes slow to react to this kind of thing in part one, but when it comes to transitioning our current paradigm or economy into a circular economy – do you see any other opportunities, or ways to build the movement so that it can move up to the government level and make a real impact perhaps?

RM: Well, the political issue: I was referring to it in the way new paradigms are introduced, and I think the first thing is that it’s not done just from the top – it’s usually top-down and bottom-up going on at the same time. And in our cultures, you have to have people who have some kind of connection to this, and some experience of it, which is why I mentioned gardening and getting people involved. It means that they become interested in the new way of thinking. It’s almost like speaking a language.

One of the things we found in recycling is that if you introduce a scheme of boxes for recycling, that the interest in the environment – which in one borough in London was at about twenty-three percent before the scheme started – after people started recycling, within a year it had gone up to something like sixty-eight percent. What that taught me is that then people have a reason not to screen out difficult things. If there’s nothing you can do about something…like these terrible events in Sudan, for example: if you had a brother or sister working there you would be extremely worried, but otherwise it’s somewhere far away, and there are so many of these things going on, you’ve got to live a life. Now, in the environment, if you can be actively involved in a way which fits in with life, then you become more open to this, and then you are interested in it; and if someone stands up and says “I believe x, y and z”, you think, “Yes!”. I think the same is true of soil: the more people are involved (either in gardening, or community gardens, or whatever it would be), the more open they would be.

And then You’ve got to have the social movements, who are barefoot experts: people whose lives are this – thinking about it and explaining it, being the people to animate the movement. So you’ve got that. And out of that, incidentally (if we look at it in the long-term, and we have to), some people will say “Well, why don’t I go for the local council?” And some might even say, “Why don’t I go for Parliament?” You’re growing the crop like that.

At the same time, any social movement will then link-in with universities and link in with specialists, who themselves may be worried. I don’t personally know people who spend their lives on soils, but I am sure that many of them have real worries, they’re thinking: “How am I going to influence this?” So they become part of it, and you then can reach out to ministers – particularly if we have this wider sense of representation, and if there are events or constituencies which mean that people have to listen, and this is what politicians have to do. Then the politician is open to these different expertise – because there’s always contesting expertise. So, it’s partly a question of expertise and it’s party a question of what the political punch is behind it, and you can never do it with just one or the other.

Part of the great battles we’ve had in waste is actually in public enquiries. What I would call the old interests, they fund so-called science and consultants purely negatively in order to try and destroy the new arguments. And I spend a lot of my life in University, and coming from the University we were amazed that people are so instrumental about science; that they’re actually only looking for something which will argue a particular case – lead is a very good example; it took forty years to get lead finally banned from petrol. But, you know, what was then revealed (and it happens with drug companies as well), which is people who are financed don’t have to prove anything, just disprove whatever the argument is that they’re opposing.

So there is that part of the battle, and therefore people who are informed and who are able to relate to the new movement and the new paradigm (but also with the expertise necessary for that), they are part of the important mixture.

Yes, that is definitely true because there are a lot of interests at play here and as you say, not all of them fight fairly. That is definitely a challenge and leads into my last question, which is about the challenges that might crop up. We’ve talked a lot about campaigning and policies, and with your wealth of experience, I’m sure you’re well aware of the roadblocks that can crop up along the way. Can you tell me what kind of roadblocks are in our way, and is it something we can overcome easily, or is there still a way to go?

RM: I think there are many roadblocks along the way. One of them, if you work at all levels of government, will be financial. Mainly the Treasurer comes along and says, “Oh no, we’re not going to have that because we’ve got no money.” That is a constant, and particularly when you’re early on in the new disruptive technology. How to deal with this fact? Even if you say, “Look, in the long run it’s going to be better”, and so on, he or she is interested in the actual pound signs at the end – immediate, and during this years budget. So that will always be a factor. Very often, once things are established, then suddenly it actually becomes….And the same with waste – when we started off, it was more expensive to do our systems, but once we’d adopted the Italian system (which was based on food waste collection first, and then followed by the others and you needn’t have so much residual waste collection), suddenly we were able to save money and the finance officers became your friends, not your enemies.

Then the second lot are the lawyers, because laws will have been constructed and regulated around the old way of doing things, and then they may get worried. And there is also an issue, for example, the question of how you treat organic food waste – whether it’s heated to seventy degrees, or whether we need to put it up to eighty-four degrees. What are we losing through this? Can we think through that so that we don’t lose some of the micro-organisms as a result of this? what is going to be the effect? How does that come about? Well, the regulators just say, “Well that’s what it is”. So those negative forces come it, and you have to think through them positively, you know: “That is an issue, how do we deal with that issue?”

Then you have the interests, which may be both professional interests (that’s how we’ve always done it and how we’ve always organised it as well), and then you have the commercial interests, which are also strong. The organisational interests, I find, has been one of the big ones – which is government, and in this area in particular it’s local government – because they don’t want to have complexity. Simplicity – particularly now with contracting out, they don’t want to have to deal with a hundred different small contracts, they would love a simple contract, and then they monitor it.

So, how to actually have the interface between the government at any level, and those who are doing the work, in such a way that allows for that complexity – this is one of the very interesting aspects of modern public administration. But without it, what has happened in waste is that the big waste companies have effectively side-lined the community sector. In Canada, USA, Germany, I believe, and certainly in the UK it’s dominated by I think only four major companies now. They say they’re doing recycling, but they are certainly not upcyclers. They are profit maximisers who are used to dealing with residual waste, and who want large facilities the equivalent of the nuclear power plant (though not quite as dangerous as that). But that’s what they’re used to dealing with, and that’s what their large organisations can handle, whereas we want a much more complex ecology in order to do that.

So, those are some of the roadblocks, and I never like to think of them as barriers, because any creative process always finds a block or problem. The question is how to get round it – and in this case – what kind of alliances and coalitions you can build to get in between them, or to win some of them over and get them on your side? How do we do this? That, I think, is the art of what we might call transition – the politics of transition.

The art of transition – that’s a really nice way of putting it. And yes as you say, we need to be creative and open minded in order to succeed in what we’re doing. And I’m sure we’ve only scratched the surface of this topic now, but unfortunately Robin, that’s all we have time for today. Thanks a million for coming on, it was wonderful to have you on the show.


The Anaerobic Digestion Update: Using Operational Efficiency & Better Policy to Solve Current Challenges



In this episode, we bring you a detailed update on the current status and challenges facing the Anaerobic Digestion sector today. With industry experts Jing Liu and Mario Rosato, we discuss the need for a better understanding of the AD process to improve operational efficiency, policy changes that support renewable energy and environmental safety, and for closed-loop systems that favour local abundant feedstocks over the use of energy crops.

And in part two of our episode, we bring you a briefing from Ecomondo 2015, sharing insights from the key figures we spoke to at the event last month. You can find video briefings and material from this event on our Events Page.


Lund University is recognised globally as one of the top research-led comprehensive universities. The university and its Faculty of Engineering is consistently ranked as one of the top 100 universities in the world. Responsible for research and postgraduate education in different engineering subjects, architecture and industrial design, Lund University’s Faculty of Engineering is today world-leading in a number of fundamental and applied fields, such as nanotechnology, combustion physics, automation, chemical & environmental engineering and biotechnology. For more, the Lund University website, and the Department of Biotechnology page.


Bioprocess Control Sweden AB is a technology provider in the area of advanced instrumentation and control technologies for research and commercial applications in the biogas industry – exporting to more than 45 countries around the world. With a portfolio of smart instruments in the area of substrate analysis and process simulation, Bioprocess Control offers technology solutions that both stabilise and unleash the true potential of a biogas plant. For more, visit their website.




Main picture by Peter O’ConnorSome rights reserved.



State of Biogas Today – Operational Efficiency and the Volume-Driven Approach


THE ORGANIC STREAM: So today we’re going to be talking about the state of the anaerobic digestion sector today, and what we need to do in order for the sector to expand and improve, and you both have many great things to say on this matter. But when we were discussing the content of the show together, the key point you both brought up was that the A.D. industry is not focusing enough on optimising operational efficiency in biogas plants. So for our audience, we should start with a simple introductory question. So Jing, can you tell us what operational efficiency is, and what does it look like for A.D. or biogas plants?


JING LIU: Well first of all we need to understand the difference between the efficiency and the performance of the operation. Also, I think the efficiency and performance should match the goal of the process – the goal of the operation needs to be clarified. In fact, the goal of the operation might vary. For instance, in the traditional operation for waste and wastewater handling, the goal is to match the discharge standard. However, for renewable energy production, the goal is to maximise the energy production and to insure the profitability by improving the utilisation of the process unit, and increasing the mass and the energy throughput. And there might be conflicts between those two operational goals. So finding a balance is the key. We need to know that it’s seldom the case that plants are designed for optimum performance.


TOS: Right, so they’re not always designed with this in mind. And Mario, can you share your thoughts on this as well?


MARIO ROSATO: Yes, I have more field experience in this sense, and I can say that an anaerobic digestion plant can be considered optimal if it has been designed to be optimal by producing the maximum amount of methane per cubic meter of digester, and producing the maximum amount of methane per tonne of feedstock fed to the digester. These are usually opposite criterions, because one excludes the other. And at the same time, the plant must be stable enough in its operation – and I mean stable in the sense of maintaining a constant gas production with varying quality and quantity of feedstock, which is quite a tough goal to reach. So this is why a plant, to be optimal, must reach a compromise between these opposite constraints in the management.


TOS: Okay so it’s all about compromising, which can be quite tricky. So Mario, if there isn’t a focus on operational efficiency, what is the focus? Can you maybe give us a brief overview of the AD sector today in terms of the trends?


MR: Yes. In the European Union and the United States, the trend is to build plants as big as possible. The reason for that is a kind of economic scale. Usually the plant builders say that plants must be very big in order to be stable in operation, which is not completely true. A plant is not more stable or efficient because of its size; the plant is efficient because of its management. The other extreme is India or China, where the policies have lead people to build very small plants, usually at household level. In this case, the plants are poorly managed but nevertheless they are efficient for the scope they have, which is just to produce a bit of energy for household use.

It must be noted that regardless of the different national policies towards big or small-scale plants, there is very little political drive to make the plants efficient. It’s a pity, because a plant, which is not efficient in its operation, regardless of the size, produces a digestate, which is usually used as fertiliser, but if the plant is not efficient enough that digestate is not completely digested. This means it still has a residual methane potential and this residual methane potential means that greenhouse gasses will be emitted to the atmosphere. So the main environmental benefit of anaerobic digestion is being lost because of inefficient management. And on the other side, if you see the management of the plant from the economical point of view, an inefficient process is not extracting all the methane possible from that feedstock, so the result is that the economic performance of an inefficient biogas plant is also poor.


TOS: Okay so inefficient management is impacting the profitability of biogas plants – whether they are big or small, as well as the environment and there is very little political drive to change this at the moment. Jing would you agree here?


JL: Yes I fully agree, but maybe I should add some additional comments. In my point of view, a big plant does not necessarily have high efficiency, although big biogas plants should have a much higher interest in achieving high efficiency because the economic and performance impact is so big. But unfortunately this is not always the case. The businesses are focused on the plant construction and really little has been done to ensure a better understanding of the process, the process dynamic – basically, how to improve the operation.

So as a consequence, in many cases we treat the biogas digestor or plant as a “black box” machine. People receive unknown substrates and just dump them in, without knowing what they’re putting into the plant – and how can you expect to get an efficient and stable performance without knowing what you’re dealing with? In fact, the A.D. plant should be considered as, for example, a bacterial farm, or living organism – just like an animal farm that requires care and follow up. So we need to really care for the healthy level and growth of the bacteria, make sure they’re in the best condition to be able to convert biomass to bioenergy. So this is the situation. Even though the European biogas industry is considered more advanced in general, I think this also applies to European counties as well. So the situation really applies to the whole biogas sector, which urgently needs to improve.


Energy Crops & Other Current Challenges For Anaerobic Digestion Industry


TOS: So right now we’re operating without much knowledge of the process itself – and there are a lot of areas that the sector needs to improve on. Mario, you’re quite aware of the issue on the ground, can you share an example of the environmental and economic consequences of our current situation?


MR: Yes, I know the Italian biogas market well, and in the Italian reality, the industry does not earn money on making efficient plants or on the engineering of the plants, what actually gives money to the plant builders is the size. That is – the amount of concrete casted, or the amount of steel employed for building the plant. So this means that such gigantism can only be reached for plants which are in the range of a hundred kilowatts to one thousand kilowatts. And these plants are mainly designed for running on corn silage. Corn silage is not necessarily the most sustainable feedstock for making biogas, but it is very stable in its production, and so since said plants are owned by banks and capital groups, this substrate somehow ensures the owner of the plant that he will be able to recover the investment in a certain amount of time and have a certain profitability.

But if we analyse some statistics that have been conducted by an agricultural association in Italy, in this moment ninety percent of the energy produced in such biogas plants comes from the corn silage, and not from the manure. And on the other side, only a small amount of the manure (let’s say about ten percent) is actually being digested. The ninety percent remaining manure is just being thrown to the field without being digested, so the ecological potential of anaerobic digestion is being lost, which is actually polluting the manure before sending it to the field as a fertiliser.


TOS: Right, so instead of using the available manure, they’re growing energy crops, which goes against the notion of sustainable distributed energy and closed loop systems.


MR: Sure. Another aspect is that growing corn requires a lot of fossil fuel input for pumping water, etc. So producing electricity with biogas means that about sixty percent of the total potential energy of the biogas itself is being lost as heat. This energy lost as heat must be added to the energy put to the cultivation of the corn. That means that altogether, the amount of Co2 emissions to the atmosphere is higher compared to other renewable energies.

Finally, these plants that are owned by banks and capital groups were built with the purpose of benefitting state subsidies. So it’s actually the Italian citizen who is paying for the subsidies for renewable energies, and this means an increase in the cost of the electric bill; and a kind of unfair social treatment of the resources, because that excess money being paid by the citizen is going to banks and capital groups which sometimes are foreign and they then take the money out of the country. So the volume driven approach has brought, at least in Italy, an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, a decrease in biodiversity, and to the rise of citizen committees who are protesting against biogas plants – even those plants that are run correctly.


Designing the Anaerobic Digestion Plants of the Future


TOS: So this approach is really doing damage to the whole industry, the environment and the local citizens in Italy. So clearly something has to change, and we’ll be focusing on this change now. Jing – can you tell me your thoughts on what we should be doing – where should our focus be, what are the challenges we face, and how should we approach planning and designing A.D. plants in the future?


JL: Well this is rather a big question! Although I mentioned that the A.D. industry has focused on plant construction and not on improving the operation, I want to emphasis that this doesn’t mean construction isn’t important. It is super important to make sure that design, construction and operation are tightly connected to each other. I consider the following challenges or aspects that are important to address:

The right technical knowledge and facility that’s well able to increase the efficiency of the plant and consequently lead to a more profitable operation. The right feedstock is super important. Feedstock is the fuel for the A.D. plant. Without knowing the feedstock or how to properly select and manage feedstock, it’s hardly possible to enough good quality fuel to power the A.D. plant. I mean, this is the number one priority in many cases.

The second aspect is having the right plant design and construction. In reality, this is not always the case. Imagine that the steering wheel is locked when you drive a car – how can you turn your car? If there’s an object in front of you, you will hit the object. That’s sometimes the situation in the A.D. plant. So the future biogas plant and design should meet the new operational demand.

The third challenge, or aspect, that I’d like to bring up is that we really need to have the right instrument, process optimations, and supervision control. Nowadays, many A.D. plants lack basic instrumentation needed to understand the status of the operation. In the control world we say, “If you don’t understand the process, you are never able to control the process”. With too little process information it’s impossible to steer the process towards optimum conditions. So there is an urgent need and we need to get more information and analyse more.

The last aspect that I’m thinking about is having sufficient process knowledge and competence of the operator. Again, even if you get all the infrastructure – the right fuel, the right plant, the right instrument – somebody still has to manage, or drive, it. And this requires knowledge and competence of the operator. Only in this case can the industry move forward.

Quite often I use two examples. In one I refer to the A.D. plant as a bacterial farm, and in the other I refer to it as a car. A car is like the biogas plant itself, and you need a good car. The fuel is like the feedstock, and you really need the right feedstock to feed into the plant. And the driver…even if you have the best car and the best fuel, the car doesn’t move without a skilled driver. It’s the same for the biogas plant. You need to have experienced, knowledgeable operator and process engineer to steer the operations.


TOS: So with the right technology, knowledge and training, AD plants can greatly improve their operation. I’d like to discuss an example of how exactly this can work on the ground, and the benefits it can have. Now, Mario, you were involved in rescuing an AD plant in Italy – where the owner had invested millions in trying to figure out what was going wrong with their plant. The plant was rated as 1 mega watt, but only reached 60% in its of its capacity even though they were feeding it with more than 50 tons/day of corn and triticale silage. So Mario you were brought in to help figure out what the problem was, and – tell us what you did to find the answer?


MR: So most of the time, the plant is being fed with fifty tonnes per day of corn silage, which is a lot of money if you consider the fact that corn silage is a valuable feedstock. And the problem was easily solved with just eighteen thousand euros. This amount was used to install a small laboratory in the facility. I trained the workers of the plant – who are not engineers or biologists, they are just manual workers. And this plant, I must say, was under-dimensioned, so I focused the strategy on producing the maximum amount of methane given the size of the plant. So I trained the workers to check the potential of the corn silage with the laboratory. We did some experiments with different mixtures of silage, cow dung, chicken dung, and some minerals that tend to activate the biological activity of the bacteria.

So after a couple of months of tests with the instruments, we identified where the problem was. It was a lack in minerals, which was caused by using corn and triticale as feedstock. By adding these minerals – which are just mineral fertilisers that can be bought in any agricultural shop – the owner of the plant was able to bring the electrical production from a hundred and ten kilowatts to nine hundred and ninety-nine kilowatts, which is the legal limit allowed for that category of plant in Italy. So since then it’s been more than one year and the plant has been running stably. And I noticed a secondary situation as well, that the people working in that plant were highly motivated. You can imagine that going around with a dumper or bulldozer, loading silage from the trench and loading that in the digester is not a very interesting or amusing job – it’s quite a dead-end job. These people are now motivated because they’re not manual workers anymore, they are laboratorists. They are in charge of a very sophisticated instrument. Now any time they do something, they know why they are doing it, which is quite important because they are ready to assume risk and responsibility. So that is a side-effect that was quite positive for the operation of the plant and demonstrates that professionalisation of the operators is of utmost important to bring the plant to an optimum working condition.


Policies & Government Action Needed to Support Biogas & Renewable Energy


TOS: So it’s really a shift in perspective – that the AD plant is a biological organism, or farm, and the workers are laboratorists/biologists rather than just operators. So that’s a great example of how this can work…

So we’ve covered a lot of the challenges and what needs to be addressed for the sector to be successful. But let’s talk about the bigger picture. For example – when we talk about increasing efficiency, it’s hard to justify increasing the quality and quantity of the output if there is no support or market for them. So Jing, I’ll put this to you: what key steps do we need to take for the sector to move forward in terms of policy and political support?


JL: If you look at nowadays, biogas has been generating quote an interest in the last decade, in particular we see the transition from using A.D. technology for only waste handling towards combined waste handling and renewable energy production. Even though right now the price of the energy is low, in the long we all know that the basing our economy on fossil fuels is not sustainable – not only because of the cost, which will increase as there’s less and less fossil fuel and will create the greenhouse gas effect – but it will also have a negative impact on national security. Fossil fuels are not always equally distributed, so there are national security issues as well. So that’s also the reason why we’re coming out with renewable energy, and so on. But just in recent years the renewable energy is not as developed as it should be because of the return of investment – maybe it takes too long, and so on.

In my point of view, moving from fossil fuel to renewable is a decision of the politicians, because we are in the transition based on the energy sources of one of very few big players towards renewable – which should be operated and managed by many ´, many local players. Locally produced, locally utilised, and spreading out the risk and so on. And this is actually a political decision – it’s not only marketing, it is a decision. And that’s one aspect.

In my point of view, the market competition is also a bit unfair. Indeed, renewable energy is still in the relatively early stage and the market maturity and business model maturity is not as well established as it should be, compared to fossil fuel. And people say that there is too much support or too many subsidies for renewable energy, but in fact actually, the fossil fuel, I think, is getting much more support from the government or from the big players.

So my message is: we know the current energy system is not sustainable. We need to move from the fossil fuel economy to renewable – there’s no doubt about that. It’s for our future generations. And that’s actually a decision for the government, and government need to provide infrastructure and policy support to facilitate, grow and mature the business and help renewable companies move in that direction. It is also important to make sure there will be many, many local players involved in renewable energy production – it’s not one or a few big players. And that’s very important because that’s a great way to create jobs, which is another big benefit. So I think, once again, that this is a political decision and without the right political support, this industry will find it hard to move forward.


TOS: Great answer, Jing, really interesting points. Mario, what are your thoughts on this?


MR: In my personal opinion, the policies should incentivise the use of anaerobic digestion mainly for waste management. In that case the subsidies should go to those who demonstrate the lower greenhouse gas emissions. The biggest value of anaerobic digestion is the ecological value, apart of producing energy. It’s a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, and to produce a fertiliser that means saving fossil fuel energy for the production of chemical fertilisers. So these repercussions have an enormous value from the political point of view. Compared to other energies, anaerobic digestion is probably the best technology that allows a complete circular economy.

On the other side, the education is also very important. In order to drive a truck, you need to have a special license and undergo a lot of exams, which is absolutely logical because if you don’t know how to drive a truck, you can cause a lot of accidents. How can you explain, then, that nobody has ever thought about imposing the need of having a license for managing a biogas plant? An average Italian biogas plant has the power of ten trucks, and the damage it can cause to the environment if not correctly managed is enormous – it’s really a big environmental threat. So education of the operators of the plants is of utmost importance in my opinion. And this is an aspect that the policy makers have not considered until now.

The other aspect is that a biogas plant, if correctly and rationally managed and run with adequate instruments that can measure the methane potential of the feedstock, can be run on any feedstock – that means many residual feedstocks. And this is the most sustainable way to obtain energy, rather than cultivating energy crops. So this is another aspect that in many countries in the European Union is missing. Many policies are still pushing the cultivation of energy crops instead of the production of energy with waste through anaerobic digestion.


JL: I was thinking about adding one thing. I fully agree that the education and knowledge transfer is critical on the professional level, but I think also it’s very important to increase the public awareness – not just for the people but also politicians. There has been an increasing scare, you can say, about A.D. People say, “Oh, A.D. and biogas process is too complex”. It is a complex process, but it can be well managed. It is a naturally, existing biochemical process, and what we need is just to intensify it and make it more efficient. And with the right education and increased public awareness, I think we can utilise this gift from nature and get the most out of it.


Seldom can you find technology that can handle all kinds of biodegradable waste and stabilise it (which we need to do anyhow because waste is always there), and at the same time generate renewable energy. There’s no other technology that I can think of that’s comparable. So what we need is education and knowledge transfer to make sure that we see the benefit, we know how to operate it, and we create a good policy to support the development. Then, with this all in place, the right technology and good technology will naturally move to the sectors and be utilised, and consequently we will have much more profitable, economic, feasible and efficient process – and we can gain the benefits from the A.D. process.


Interview End.


TOS: That was Jing Liu and Mario Rosato sharing their insights and experiences on the state of the AD sector today – and giving us some very interesting points to think about.


From the discussion, we learned that first of all, we are not prioritising efficiency in plant operation today and this is having a negative impact both for the plant and for the environment. We need to build plants with efficiency in mind, invest in the right technology and in education and knowledge transfer systems so that plants can be run stably and efficiently, and feedstock can be managed properly. Education and understanding seemed to be key for both our guests. As Jing described – if the A.D. plant is a car, without a skilled driver in the front seat, the car will go nowhere.

In terms of impacts on the environment – policy played a huge role in our discussion today as well. We heard from both Jing and Mario that policy which favours large-scale plants and the use of energy crops – as opposed to using locally abundant feedstocks and closed-loop systems – has lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions, a reduction of biodiversity and even a bad public image in the case of Italy, for example. A political decision needs to be made to support renewable energy and more small and local players, in order to build a truly sustainable AD sector, and plants should be rewarded for low greenhouse gas emissions.

So, we have a lot of work to do, it seems, to get where we want to be. Let’s make it happen!


Briefing from Event: Ecomondo November 2015, Rimini Italy


TOS: The Organic Stream team were at Ecomondo last month to take part and report on the event. For those who don’t know, Ecomondo is the largest showcase in the Euro-Mediterranean area for advanced and sustainable technology for processing and recycling all kinds of waste. The event takes place in Rimni, Italy and was four days of conferences with over a thousand international speakers, and an expo with 1,200 companies taking part.

This year the focus was on the green economy and how Italy is currently focusing on boosting the green economy in the country. The key message seemed to be that building a green and circular economy is possible today, and that they will play a central role in all industry sectors. Of course, there are challenges to face, however the companies and enterprises attending the expo were eager to find and demonstrate solutions – showing that there is an appetite for change.

This year saw the introduction of new areas to focus in the circular economy context areas – particularly food, biorefineries, and integrated water cycle management.


The generation of waste in the food system was a popular topic – as was the conference “Towards a zero-waste food chain: enabling technologies for the sustainability of the food industry and waste management in a perspective of circular economy”. Many different topics were discussed: the importance of separate collection schemes for organic materials, charges for pay as you throw systems, improving process efficiency in the food-chain, and strategies to reduce raw material losses. During this conference, we caught up with a few key figures to discuss the main points of interest at the event, and get more of a sense of the Italian situation.

We caught Marco Ricci – Chairman of the Working Group on Biological Treatment of Waste at the International Solid Waste Association, and former guest of our talk show – and he filled us in on the importance of biowaste recycling for Italy, and the challenges they’re currently facing.


MARCO RICCI: Italy source separates roughly fourty-two percent of all municipal solid waste, and biowaste is the key element to reach this result. One of the challenges is to expand the separate collection scheme of biowaste to the southern region where there is a lack of composting and anaerobic digesition infrastructure and where the separate collection schemes are realised spot-wise and not on a general area. The other point is that we had a recent report by the Italian environmental agency, which shows that intensive recycling schemes for municipal solid waste, including biowaste and especially food waste, are highly cost competitive to traditional solutions, which just rely on low recycling rates and high rates of landfilling and disposal.


TOS: Exciting news from the report that helps to support separate collection, which many municipalities in Italy have been having great success with as well.

Now, how to manage and the resources in rural areas was another key theme, and something that we sometimes tend to neglect when we discuss sustainability. Here is Fabio Fava, coordinator of the scientific committee for Ecomondo, sharing his thoughts on the matter:


FABIO FAVA: There are for sure new areas on which, in my view, we should work more in the future. Over sixty percent of the lands that we have in Europe are rural areas in which the environment is different from more populated ones. Often we are not exploiting the potential of this area in an efficient manner. So we need strategies and research and innovation tailored for promoting small industrial activities in this area – industrial means agricultural companies also – that are exploiting in the proper way the biodiversity that are specific for those areas.


TOS: There was much to cover over the course of the event, but particularly interesting was our chat with Andrea Miorandi – Ex-Mayor of Rovereto City, who implemented a separate collection scheme there. Mr. Miorandi was keen to stress the importance of citizen engagement in implementing organics recycling schemes, and shared some inspiring words that really summed-up the feeling at Ecomondo – that we’re ready to change.


ANDREA MIORANDI: The biggest challenge is to make citizens be participants in a good project. Citizen awareness and participation are the biggest challenges for these projects. Citizens must become protagonists even before the local administration or local authority. And we started a communication program that is both precise and locally-based. Well-informed citizens are enabled to participate in separate collection recycling. Citizens also need to be rewarded and local authorities need to thank citizens once expected results are reached.

Citizens must understand that their power in sorting waste end up a good result in recycling for a better future and as an investment for the future of their children. I do suggest that other mayors not fear to introduce revolution in the scheme and demand for changing its habits regarding waste collection. Citizens are ready. New generations fully understand how important it is to preserve the environment.


TOS: So that’s it for our round-up of the Ecomondo 2015 highlights, and for our episode today. I hope you enjoyed the show! For a longer briefing from Economdo, head over to our Events page where you will find resources, pictures and video briefings from the key figures we spoke to.




The Final Frontier: Best Practices for Organics Recycling in Multistory Residential Buildings, Part 2



In part one of our Best Practices episode, we took a look at strategies for building strong partnerships and for a successful roll-out. In this final episode, we’re picking up where we left off. We explore San Francisco’s best practices in gaining trust with their outreach strategies; go in-depth with Seattle’s excellent education program; demonstrate the hands-on tracking system in Los Angeles; and discuss key policy measures that can impact a program’s success.

Links to other episodes in the Series:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4



Streamsort is a data collection tool designed for quick, easy and accurate material characterisation studies and analysis in the waste management sector. The use of data today is still based on archaic methods of collection and analysis. Streamsort brings data collection technology to the next level, by removing the cost of data entry, reducing the risk for mistakes, and making compelling and analysing data much easier. Request a free demo on www.streamsort.com.



The International Compost Roundtable, a side-event of the COP21 Climate Conference. December 4th, 2015. 14:45-18:30. Le Bourget, Paris.

This event will bring together leading practitioners, cutting-edge researchers, and Global South representatives of local farming and cooperatives of waste pickers to look into the climate solutions around organic waste, particularly exploring the intersection between zero waste and agroecology. In cities around the world, practice is showing that tackling organic waste is key; while being part of the problem, its proper management in composting can turn it into a real solution for soil depletion, emission reduction from landfills and use of chemical fertilizers.


COMPOST 2016. January 25th to 28th, 2016. Hyatt Regency – Jacksonville, Florida, USA. Organised by the United States Composting Council.

Join the USCC at the world’s largest composting conference and exhibition for the organics management industry. Hear the latest from industry leaders about solving challenges in collecting organics, manufacturing and using compost, and producing renewable energy from organics. Visit their composting tradeshow to see the latest in equipment and tools for effective programs.  of particular interest to listeners of this program will be the Session on Measuring Diversion Improvements from Enhanced Tenant Engagement at Multi-Family Dwellings, presented by Lily Kelly of Global Green.




Main picture by Stefan Oh. Some rights reserved.




THE ORGANIC STREAM: We left off episode three discussing Milan’s outreach campaign as part of their roll-out strategy. One of the key ingredients of their campaign was meeting tenants face-to-face in the apartment buildings, or at community meetings. This is the cornerstone of any outreach campaign.

I want to look at this in a little more detail, because engaging tenants is not always as simple as just heading over to the building and knocking on the door. It’s about gaining trust.

In episode two, we discussed in detail the importance of understanding the demographics you’re working with – reaching people where they are – either online or offline, at community gatherings, social media spaces, television, on the street at local festivals, and so on. Also making sure to have native speakers of the different languages on staff is crucial. This can go a long way to getting people to engage and to trust you. But there is more to it than that. Program coordinators have a few extra tricks up their sleeves to get people in apartment buildings interested, engaged, and willing to attend meetings.

Remember Alexa Kielty, member of the residential zero waste team at the San Francisco Department of Environment?

Well, Alexa told me a lot about their outreach work, and I was really impressed. We covered San Francisco in great detail in episode one and two, and as we know their zero waste strategy is one of the most impressive zero waste initiatives. In terms of organics recycling in multi story buildings – all residential buildings with less than six units separate their organics, and eighty percent of large-scale residential buildings do the same. Right now, San Francisco is focusing on the remaining twenty percent to close the gap, and because of this they have started to really hone-in their outreach strategy.

Alexa told me that in San Francisco, staff work directly with building managers to create individualised outreach program for the building – again, this means working with different demographics, customising the outreach materials, and so on. They also go door-to-door to deliver kitchen caddies and outreach materials year in, year out. Because of this, they have some great experience in knowing what to do to gain people’s trust and make it work…


ALEXA KEITLY: After we set up the programs, we have a whole outreach team called Environment Now, which is a green careers program – so, somewhat of a job training program. We hire from the community so we get a lot of native Spanish speakers, native Chinese speakers; we have a native Russian speaker and a native Filipino speaker on staff. And those folks will do what we call a Green Apartments, which is essentially door-to-door outreach within apartment buildings, at about five to seven pm in the evening, so hopefully we’re getting people when they’re coming back from work. And we work with the property manager so the tenants know ahead of time that we’ll be there on the certain days; we find out what languages are needed; we send outreach materials to property managers to post within the building ahead of time and in the elevator, so it’s not a surprise visit.

What’s great is if the property manager can come with us when we do outreach, or the resident manager, which is even better because they typically know more tenants. If that person can actually conduct the door-to-door outreach with us that’s really helpful because more people are willing to open their doors if there’s somebody they know.


TOS: This is great information here. First off, it seems the most important thing is to make the outreach personal. Alexa says they hire people from within the community they’re reaching out to – people who understand the community and are native speakers of the language of that community. It’s easier to open your door to people familiar to you.

Another thing they do is work with the building manager to give people notice that they’ll be coming, of course.

And finally, and most importantly, the trick to getting people to open their doors is to have a building or resident manager come with them. When we spoke to Lily Kelly of Global Green in her office in San Francisco, she said a similar thing…


LILLY KELLY: Having a tenant or a property manager come with us when we were doing the door-to-door outreach initially, especially if it’s a tenant who knows other people in the building, I think we got a lot more people answering their doors because it was their neighbour who’s knocking and saying, “Hey I want to introduce you to this person who’s doing this composting project, we’re going to have this at our building and it’s going to be really great”. I think that really changed people’s perspectives on it right at the outset of, “Oh, this is something my neighbours are interested in.


TOS: Gaining trust is a big part of getting people involved and interested in the program. So if tenants can see there’s someone from their building that’s interested, they might be more inclined to listen.

Now, in a big city, with a lot of buildings it’s not always easy to manage or finance such initiatives – which is why it’s a good idea to find recycling champions in the building – either a tenant or building manager and support them in promoting the program. Seattle has a great volunteer program for building managers that does exactly that, the Friends of Recycling and Composting program – and I’ll get into it later in the episode.

Another great tactic is to work with people that have some social significance – popular figures within the community, or local celebrities. This can really boost a program’s image and make it more attractive.

So that’s door-to-door outreach. Now let’s look at open events, or what are often called lobby events.

Setting up an event in the building, where people can come along to get information and perhaps pick up equipment is a common strategy. Many programs do this, and it can work quite well. But to get people to take time out of their day to attend, that requires some strategic thinking.

There are two main tricks you can use that have been shown to give results. And to learn about them, I wanted to take a trip back down memory lane, to one of the first interviews I ever did here on The Organic Stream.

(Clip of old episode plays).

TOS: This is our second episode, when I interviewed Rokiah Yaman and Clare Brass, director of the SEED Foundation, about her food scrap recycling research program that aimed to discover the barriers to organics recycling in urban environments. Clare was working with an inner-city estate, the Maiden Lane estates, in a disadvantaged area in London. And she told me about her difficulties in engaging the residents, who had much more immediate problems to deal with.

But using some clever techniques, she was able to overcome these challenges and get people participating in the program anyway.


CLARE BRASS: Recruitment is still the most difficult thing with these projects and you need to get under the skin of the people, your primary stakeholders. Now, often the thing that is driving you, so in our case the environmental challenge of food waste, is not the thing at all which is maybe driving a resident of a housing estate.

The thing that works quite well, and I think this is a really good trick, is that we piggybacked on an event that was happening at the estate. Just when we started the project there was a barbeque event coming up on the estate. We went along to that event, and we set up a stall with a poster. All we did really was go along with a whole stall full of little tomato plants, a bucket of food waste and a bucket of compost, and just talked to people and say “did you know that your food waste can look like this one day, and then it turns into this?” And most people were quite surprised, but it was an opportunity for us to start a conversation with them.

And I think the key thing here is, if you’re recruiting, it’s to go to where people are already going to be going, and just give them a little, a little tiny reward. Just to have a first point of contact. After that we managed to get about 15 to come to our first workshop. So that was a really good way in.


TOS: So there we have two of the best strategies for getting people to attend – using existing meetings or events at a building for your own outreach event, and make sure to have rewards. Other programs, such as Seattle, often advertise their educational presentation sessions in buildings as the place where people can collect their free containers. Another really great idea is to provide refreshments, because as program managers have told me – people tend to come if there’s food. So these strategies work really well.




TOS: One of the most important goals of an organics recycling program is to change behaviour and to get people to understand the impact their actions will have. Without this, there is no will to carry out the action. And this is where education comes in.

We touched on education before in episode two – focusing strongly on the importance of multi-language education materials.

Today, we go further and focus on the excellent education strategy that Marcia Rutan, Recycling Program Manager at Seattle Public Utilities, employs for their organics program.

TOS: Marcia Rutan has been working in education for a long time and she’s been greatly supported in her work thanks to Seattle’s progressive recycling laws. We learned quite a bit about Seattle’s organics program in the last episode. In 2011 it became mandatory to provide organic carts in multistory buildings, and implemented a full composting mandate for the whole city in January this year. Fines for too much food waste in garbage containers will start to be issued in January 2016.

From researching their program, I was inspired by the work they do to educating people. When I got Marcia on the phone, I wanted her to tell me all about it. And the first thing I asked was to start from the beginning: just what were the basic building blocks of their educational program?


MARCIA RUTAN: In terms of education, what we find across the board is that property managers especially appreciate posters that can be placed above the carts. Then we also have labels for the carts, and all of these have pictures as well as wording. And then we have our basic flyers. We use two basic flyers for this program. One is called the Where Does It Go flyer, and it has colour coding for all three waste streams: the recycling, which is blue, the compostables, which are green, and the garbage, which is a grey/black colour. The other flyer then is basically a food plus compostables guideline, which is all green, and it’s just to make it clearer to people what goes into the compost cart since it’s a new program. The flyer also provides a few “why is this important” points, as well as tips for storing and carrying out materials – so it just gives some more information. Those are the two basic flyers that we use with this program.

These are foundational for the property managers. They really rely on those flyers, the labels, the posters and the carts – and they’re all colour coded. And that partly came from…in about 2007 or 2008, we held focus groups with community based organisations. They were primarily constituted of folks who were immigrants or who have English as another language (I won’t say second language, because we know some of these folks have several languages under their belts). But they said they wanted the colour coding, and they didn’t want a “yes” “no” type of poster, which was confusing to them, but just “where do things go” in all categories. So that’s where these informational flyers came out of, and the colour coding.


TOS: So flyers, labels and posters are foundational elements for property managers in Seattle. Using focus groups to understand what residents would prefer gave them a better idea of how to design their materials. Colour coding is a crucial element – many cities agree that this is key. It’s easy to understand and transcends any language barriers as well. Another important element that also overcomes language barriers, and for those with reading difficulties, is pictures. And it was Alexa that said to me at one point during our interview that a lot of people, no matter what language they speak, tend not to read the posters – so pictures can really help.

One important thing here I want to bring up is the design of the materials. We often see too many design mistakes – so materials are either overcrowded with information and pictures, the signage is unclear or hard to follow, colours and contrast is also something to take into account as well, because if there is too much going on, or it’s just plain black and white, people won’t want to look at it. The more well-designed, clear and pleasant to look at the materials are, the better it will be.

So – educational tools such as flyers, hand-outs and stickers can be classed as passive education tools. Other very popular passive education tools are promotional tools like door hangers or magnets, and of course websites, apps, and social media.

Now, Marcia mentioned websites and social media as tools they like to use for education and outreach – and this was the same for all the cities we interviewed. In this day and age, when so many of us rely on smartphones and the internet as a primary source of information, having an online presence can make a big difference. The benefits are great. They allow program managers to interact directly with residents, share information quickly and easily, and to answer questions.

There are an increasing amount of platforms online to use to get the message out. The key here is to choose the right platform for your target group – for example, younger generations don’t tend to use Facebook as much as they use Snapchat or Instagram. The DSNY in New York have currently started an Instagram account, to try and reach the younger audience – they also have twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr accounts. So there are a growing number of platforms, and when designing your outreach strategy, it is your responsibility to adapt your strategy.

So these are great passive tools to use in an educational campaign. But what about the more hands-on approach we discussed before?

What interested me greatly in Seattle city as a case study and Marcia’s approach was her use of a more active educational approach. At many of the properties, Marcia conducts one-to-one on-site presentations that seem to go down very well with the residents.


MR: And we use that Where Does It Go flyer and we take props with us so people get a hands-on experience with putting things into the right colour bin. So I take two big bags of stuff, I distribute it to folks, teach them how to use the flyer, and then they come and put it into the bin they think it goes in and we discuss it. And this is a very popular game, people really love it. I’m a real believer in multiple educational intelligences: rather than just looking at a printed form, that people get their hands on things, and are kinaesthetic as well – they like to get up and move. So I think all of those are really important.


TOS: This idea of providing a mix of different educational methods to help reach people is an interesting one. And practicing the physical act of putting organics in the right bin can definitely help make the lesson to stick in a person’s mind.

With on-site presentations like these, it’s easy to see how they can help build a positive relationship between tenants and the program. It also gives educators a chance to get feedback directly from people, address questions and so on.

Seattle has 5 thousand multistory properties…and half of the population of the city lives in mulitstory buildings. That is a lot of people to reach out to. I asked Marcia if they had the budget to be able to reach everyone this way, and she said no. But what they do have is the volunteer program that I mentioned before…


MR: We run a train the trainer program called Friends of Recycling and Composting, where property managers or their designanted representatives come and take a two-hour training to get motivated and educated on where does stuff go and best practices at the property, as well as how to motivate residents. And people provide really high marks on this training program. They say they basically came just to get the free buckets (which we use as a hook to get them there!), but they left actually profoundly motivated to back and work with their residents, so it’s been really effective.


TOS: While it’s important to educate tenants, many reports show that the most effective education is focused on property managers. This is why the Friends of Recycling and Composting Program is such a great tool.

But educating building managers and owners is not without challenges.


MR: There is quite a bit of turnover of property managers, so we’ll just get them educated and inspired, and then they’ll move on to another property…which sometimes can work in our favour, because then they go on to help that other property get going. But sometimes we just basically lose them. And then there’s also resistance by some property managers: they hide the cart, they don’t want the residents to use it because they don’t want to deal with the ick factor, or they perceive a mess is going to happen. So we have missing carts.

We don’t have a good way to deal with the turnover – we just train, train, train and then like I said, some go on to other properties and help out those other properties to get going. But in terms of resistance – the drivers do report missing carts and we can just sort those and find out what are the larger properties (because those are the ones we go after). And then we target them. We give them a call, we go on site and find out what the barrier is for them to participate. Then we work with them, trouble shoot and provide education – anything we can to help feel more confident to get going. And often it’s that they’re very busy, so it can be a time issue. Another issue is fear, and we just try to deal with those fears. So a lot of those have gotten up and going.


TOS: One thing about education is that it’s always on-going. There is no real end to the work that needs to be done. Especially for a city like Seattle – with a program that’s very comprehensive and can still cause confusion over what goes where. We gained a lot of insight into what tools work best for educating both tenants and property managers. But the most inspiring thing to take away from the Seattle case study is their commitment to constantly refining their strategy year after year to help clear up this confusion.


MR: We continually listen to our customers. We do have a wonderful “look it up” tool on our website, which is one of the most used links on our website, where hundreds of items are listed and the best disposal practices are provided for, and it’s just so many different materials. So that’s been a big help. And we are also continually listening when people give us feedback about what isn’t working with the flyers, or what might need revision, so each year when we go to revise the flyer, we try to make it more clear and useful for people. You know, it’s not always going to meet everybody’s personal style of education, but we just do our best. We really try to listen to the customer, rather than thinking we’re the experts. We are experts, but we also know that it’s incredibly important to listen to the customer. We learned a lot through the community-based social marketing, we really do employ those principles as much as we can. And so listening to our customers is very key.




JASON SANDERS: We’re in the Old Bank District Buidling right now, we’re on the eight floor. And we’re walking into the refuse room…and they’re out of compost bags in this one…


TOS: We’re back with Ecosafe Zero Waste’s Jason Sanders and Jessica Aldridge of Athens Services in Los Angeles.


JS: So we have two compost bags in here, and…we do have one aluminium can.


TOS: Here, we’re following them as they conduct their monthly inspections of the trash rooms on every floor of the Old Bank District Building.


JS: We do monthly site visits here to check each floor, and we mark down the odour level, the cleanliness level, contamination level, participation, and what the bag count looks like in the dispenser system.


TOS: Tracking results. This is one of the most valuable tools to have in an organics recycling program – especially a pilot program. The types of information to track can be materials collected, contamination rate, challenges faced, key contacts, and the amount of outreach employed. Compiling a detailed history of all these factors will be invaluable in moving forward, and to give accurate information when presenting program results.

In LA, we were impressed by the strength of their tracking system and their hands-on approach.


JS: So what we’ve seen so far with this program is a high level of participation and a low contamination rate. To this date we’ve done three site visits, and on each of those three site visits we have one or two standard traditional poly bags in the compost bin, and that’s it.

TOS: As you can see, by tracking results in person, Jason and Jessica have a much clearer understanding of how successful their program is. By visiting the building in person, they have a chance to spot problem areas and recognise trends in the buildings.

Of course, one of the most important things to track is the contamination rate. Keeping an eye on how contaminated the stream is, and being able to react quickly to any issues is useful – especially for the processor who will be dealing with the materials on the back end.


JESSICA ALDRIDGE: From the hauler and the collector and processer’s standpoint, we have to make sure that the material we’re collecting is good material. And I would say one of the hardest programs to enact is a multi-family separation program, especially for organics. So through this process we want to keep a very watchful eye on that product to make sure it’s as clean as possible. Because if we’re processing this material and it’s making its way back to our sort line – so, when it comes back to materials recovery facility, we have a sort line that it goes up to and the material that’s not supposed to be in there is pulled off. Then it is shipped off to our compost facility in Victorville, it is screened once again, then it is composted and that compost is then screened once again.

So we want to make sure that we have as little an amount of contaminants as possible, or else we end up with a more strenuous process. And also, it gives us an idea of if we need to send out more education and outreach to the residents here, to the management or to the maintenance – whatever it may be. So that also directs how we’re going to move forward with the program.


TOS: So, tracking is not only is useful to help you to understand and optimise your program, but it can also help shape your program as well. Frequent site visits are an excellent way to keep a close eye on what’s going on and allow you to quickly react to any problems that come up.  This is extremely valuable – especially for pilot programs that are looking to expand in the future.




TOS: Every organics program is shaped by the regulatory structure it exists within. It can be supported by this structure, or it can be hindered by it. Throughout the show, we’ve come across examples of how policy has impacted on the programs we’ve covered. And it is no coincidence that the cities we chose for our case studies have some of the most progressive laws and policies in place today.

Places that put in place ambitious recycling targets, landfill or incineration diversion goals, or bans on organics going to landfills or incinerators as part of a sustainable waste management strategy are really important. They can create the necessary leverage needed to push for organics recycling. When supported and enforced properly, they can be a critical driver for collection programs. Every city we spoke to has a zero waste vision, or a zero waste commitment, with ambitious recycling targets. Most notably San Francisco – which leads the way in terms of ambitious policy – with just five years to reach zero waste in 2020.

Financial tools used by policy makers to promote organics recycling are important. Pay-as-you-throw systems for waste have been shown to greatly increase participation in recycling schemes in municipalities all around the world. And it makes sense: If buildings are charged more for waste collection than food scrap collection, it gives managers direct financial incentive to participate in the program.


ENZO FAVOINO: Bring systems never work as effectively as kerbside systems do. The true springboard towards zero waste has always been the implementation of a kerbside scheme targeting also the organics. With such a system, you quite easily jump up to seventy or eighty percent separate collection. Then, after that, in order to move further towards one hundred percent, what we do next is the implementation of a pay-as-you-throw scheme. And this increases separate collection by a further ten percent, but also it remarkably decreases the overall waste arisings.


TOS: But in a city where buildings are serviced by private haulers, municipalities can’t always control the price of collection. In some cases, where landfills are publicly owned, they can control how expensive it is to send the waste to these public facilities. Municipalities may also be able to raise tipping fees for garbage, and tax rates for landfilling or incineration, so that recycling once again becomes the more desirable option. This in turn will mean buildings are charged more for garbage collection and give them a reason to start composting!

There are also policy measures that indirectly impact on programs – which we saw in the case of Milan with the ban on chutes and the plastic bag ban that led to biobags becoming more available.

But perhaps what had the greatest impact on the cities we covered are mandates that require composting, or that organics stay out of waste bins.


MARCIA RUTAN: Basically we mentioned the two policies that have been the most critical: one requiring properties to subscribe, which was September 2011 – and that definitely had some impact but it had no enforcement quality to it, so it was not as strong as the new law which started this January that says no food waste in the garbage. And with that associated fine, that has had a very big impact on the properties wanting to participate.


LILY KELLY: When there’s an ordinance, or when there’s a law that requires composting, it really makes a difference. Just listening to the property managers changing their narrative it from, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to compost, it seems gross and smelly,” to, “How do we make this work?”


TOS: While it’s not a fix-all solution, the financial incentives that come with mandatory measures can make a huge difference – nobody wants to pay a penalty for not recycling properly. In multistory buildings, fines that are shared equally among tenants can help combat the anonymity factor. Enforcing these fines work best with a kerbside system.

Those are some of the key policy measures we’ve come across in the cities we’ve covered that have had a direct positive impact on programs. Having a strong policy framework will help steer everyone in the right direction, but it also has another great effect. It leaves program coordinators free to concentrate on doing their job, as opposed to spending their time fighting to change things for the better:


MARCIA RUTAN: Seattle is just a really leading-edge city in this. The agency I worked at previously had a pretty good program, but I always felt like in some ways I had to fight for recycling and composting to continue. Whereas when I’m working with Seattle, I basically feel like I’m swimming as fast as I can to catch up. And it’s wonderful! I can go as fast as I can to do as much as possible and there’s still room for opportunity. It’s really great!




So we’ve come to the end of our show, and it’s been a great journey. We’ve covered a lot of ground on this topic and there is a lot to take in.

But what we’ve seen through this show is that while multi-residential organics programs have their challenges, it is very possible to roll out a well-running, successful scheme.

The success of the programs we covered is a result of careful planning of the system, building strong relationships with key partners, working with building managers to find solutions, spending time with focus-groups to craft a successful outreach campaign, investing in communication, and taking a step-by-step approach to implementation.

They each use a combination of different strategies – all tailored to suit the needs of the specific building, or area, that they’re targeting. Your program’s success is predicated on your ability to execute consistently all the strategies we discussed, and to continually measure and improve your approach as you go along.

And in the case of Milan especially, we can see that with the right system and approach, and a supportive policy to back it up, organics recycling programs in multi-residental buildings can be rolled out with no more difficulty than any other organic recycling scheme.

So while multi story residential buildings can be a challenge for many cities, combining the wealth of experiences and best practices from the leading cities, we have a great roadmap to guide us on our journey.


The Final Frontier: Best Practices for Organics Recycling in Multistory Residential Buildings, Part 1




On our journey through the planning stages of multi-residential organics programs, we’ve come across many challenges. But as more and more cities start tackling food waste in their apartment buildings, we’re creating a whole library of experiences, best practices, and successful strategies to learn from. In Episode 3, we begin to take a closer look at the cities leading the way (focusing on Milan and Los Angeles), and explore the key strategies they use that makes them so successful.

Links to other episodes in the Series:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4 



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EcoSafe® Zero Waste designs and implements cradle to cradle solutions for source separation of organics and recyclables with a focus on diverting organic waste from landfill to commercial compost facilities. We provide our customers with the products and services they need in order to build SUSTAINABLE, SOURCE SEPARATION and DIVERSION programs designed to achieve ZERO WASTE in communities, institutions, businesses, events and at home and in public. For more, visit their website.



Ecomondo 2015. November 3rd to 6th, 2015. Rimini, Italy.

The largest technology platform for the Green and Circular Economy in the Euro-Mediterranean area – and for advanced and sustainable technology for processing and recycling all kinds of waste; treating and reclaiming water, waste water and polluted marine sites; efficient use and transformation of raw and processed materials and the promotion of renewable raw materials.






Title photo by johnwilliamsphd. Some rights reserved.




THE ORGANIC STREAM: On our journey through the planning stages of multi-residential organics programs, we’ve come across many challenges. Some easy to deal with, others still difficult to solve – like the problem with chutes in San Francisco.

It’s clear that just like buildings, no two cities are alike – each have their own history, culture, unique demographics and structure – And all of this will impact how an organics recycling system should be designed. But what connects all the cities we’ve talked to is their determination to succeed, their skill in navigating problems, and their drive to improve.

And as more and more cities like these start tackling food waste in their apartment buildings, we’re creating a whole library of experiences, best practices, and successful strategies to learn from.

In the final two episodes, we take a closer look the cities leading the way – and explore just what are the key strategies they use that makes them so successful.

Let’s jump right in!




TOS: On this show, we’ve talked a lot about building relationships. With tenants, with building managers…and we’re going to kick-start this episode by exploring another essential relationship for any organics program to work: the relationship between the key partners.

Because without communication and collaboration between program coordinators, haulers and processors, outreach teams and building managers too, collecting and recycling organics would become an impossible task. It really takes a team effort to make it work.

And over the course of producing this show, there was one program that really stood out to us showed…us just how beneficial this team building is.

I’m taking us back to Los Angeles.


JESSICA ALDRIDGE: Hi, my name is Jessica Aldridge, I’m the sustainability manager for Athens Services, I’ve been there for three years.


JASON SANDERS: Hello, my name is Jason Sanders with EcoSafe Zero Waste.


TOS: Here we are, standing outside the Old Bank District multistory building with Jason Sanders and Jessica Aldridge as we get ready to take a tour and learn all about their pilot program.


JESSICA ALDRIDGE: And so I and my crew at Athens wanted to do something ahead of time to figure out how this was going to work. What things are going to work well, what road bumps are we going to come up against. We wanted to try to pick apartment complexes with varying demographics and situations with how their waste is collected, and set up different types of infrastructure to see what works best, and what type of outreach works best. Because what works here may not work for somewhere else. And so in 2017, when the franchise agreement comes into play in the city of Los Angeles, we will already have the experience and the resources available to us to say “now we know”, when I have ten apartment complexes coming to me wanting to do this, I and my crew, and the staff at Athens are not going to feel overwhelmed and say “I’ve never done this before”.


TOS: So Jessica gives us an insight into their thinking in starting up the program. From here, Jessica and her team started looking for the right partners to work with – and those partners were Global Green USA and EcoSafe ZeroWaste.

Together they make an effective team – Jason and Jessica work closely together, visiting the properties every month and address any issues together. And it is clear that all three partners share the same goal for the program.


JASON SANDERS: Well it’s just really important for all partners to have a good understanding of what’s working and what’s not before a mass roll-out. So we’ve really got to dial in the success factors and those factors that aren’t working, and be able to address those. And that’s really what this pilot program is doing right now.


JESSICA ALDRIDGE: We work with the apartment managers, we tell them exactly what’s going to be happening. And then from there you have to get the buy-in from the managers as well, that this is something that they want to take on, and knowing that this most likely be a long-term pilot until we can get the right feet underneath it. And we knew from the beginning –  we never thought we were going to kick this thing off and it was going to be perfect from the beginning. I don’t want it to be perfect. Well, I want it to be perfect in the end, but I don’t want it to be perfect in the beginning, because if it is you learn very little to be able to move forward and create these types of programs more so down the road.


TOS: So the pilot acts as a learning experience for all partners – instead of looking for perfection, you’re looking for the challenges. This is how a program grows strong. And overcoming those challenges can only happen when all partners understand and share this same purpose.

When we sat down to chat in the café on the first floor of the Old Bank District Building, we took the time to ask  about their partnership, and what they considered important when selecting partners and building a strong program.


JASON SANDERS: Three crucial partners are always needed: hauler and processer being one, building manager is number two, and then we have us as a partner that has the tools for the program. And if you have communication outreach partner as well that always comes in handy, and in this case Global Green was that partner. And those partnerships have to be valued from the very beginning of designing the program, to the program launch, to long-term viability of the program. So those partners are together through that entire process.


TOS: So for a program to work, all key partners need to stick together from the very beginning, and all through the process. If there is a lack of communication or a lack of support from any of these partners, the program will suffer. As we saw in LA, all three key partners of the pilot program can keep communication channels open, learn from each other’s experiences and build a strong foundation for the future when the program expands.



TOS: Milan – a city of 1.4 million people at the northern Lombardy region of Italy. Milan began roll-out of its city-wide organics recycling system in November 2012 and is currently the largest city in the world running a formal separate collection scheme for organic materials. It’s also the city with the highest capture rates in Europe: with an average of 95 kg, or just over 200 pounds, of food waste being collected per inhabitant a year.

On top of this, almost 90 percent of the population in Milan lives in multistory residences – and still the contamination rate stays below 5 percent.

So how does the system operate?

In multistory buildings, it’s quite standardised: tenants collect their food scraps in kitchen caddies, and bring these down to the common waste room to throw into wheelie bins. Even tenants living in very high buildings, like skyscrapers, are expected to bring their scraps to the waste rooms on the ground floor – since there are no chutes in the city.

Then, the bins are brought to the curb on certain days for pickup. It’s important to note here that Milan operates a kerbside collection scheme, or door-to-door collection scheme. This is the system used in all the cities we’ve talked to – and for good reason.

By collecting from each household or building, haulers and program coordinators can track who is participating and who isn’t. They can more easily reward those who are doing it right, and can target those who are doing it wrong. In Milan, this means a fine for contamination – and for multistory buildings, the fine is shared among tenants – giving them a reason to recycle properly. And, by performing well, neighbourhoods can also compete for prize money for local schools – as a sort of reward.

Let’s compare this with the more traditional bring system – where people put their organics in a roadside container or fixed spot outside their building. There is no control over how well sorted the materials are. Because it’s impossible to know who puts what inside, it means people can contaminate the stream without fear of consequences. For example, the bring system for organics in Barcelona, Spain, experiences a contamination rate between 15 to 30 percent – much higher than Milan. Because of this anonymity, cities lose the ability to target offenders, and also to reward those who do well.

So while kerbside collection systems are relatively new to cities, they are proving to be a great way to ensure success for organics recycling programs.

And this is the case in Milan. The scheme is also known for being quite popular with residents, and this popularity is the result of a very smooth and well-coordinated roll-out strategy.

But how did a city with so many multistory residential buildings manage to roll-out so smoothly?


ENZO FAVOINO: We did a customer satisfaction analysis last year, and we came up with very intriguing results…


TOS: This is Enzo Faviono – researcher and advisor at the Scuola Agraria del Parco di Monza in Italy, coordinator of the Working Group on Composting and Sustainable Waste Management.


EF: Seventy nine percent of the population declared support of the system, with a critical area of those showing to be unhappy only totalling seven percent of the population.


TOS: Enzo and his team played an instrumental role in helping the city of Milan implement their organics recycling scheme. During our call in the summer, I asked Enzo to tell us all about their strategy, and the critical factors for their success…


EF: So we did a couple of campaigns in order to test the contamination rate, and the outcomes were very, very satisfactory because we found more than ninety five percent purity of collected food waste, which puts Milan in line with the outcomes of the border municipalities. So, it’s not a matter of a densely populated area relative to a small village; it’s a matter for the type of the scheme.


TOS: I wanted to start with this clip, because it straightaway hones-in on the key element for success. Milan is a big and very dense city. But even with these challenges and with so many high rises, Milan was able to match the border municipalities’ low contamination rates and keep the system running smoothly.

Enzo is saying that size does not matter, but the type of scheme does. So what type of scheme do we need to be successful?


EF: If it generates comfortability for the people they will participate, and they will adopt the proper care for the system to be run. We tend to believe that we can’t ask people to provide excess effort. We don’t want it to be made painful for them to participate in separate collection, so it has to be made as user friendly as possible.


TOS: This brings us back to that old mantra: Convenience is king. So what was it that Milan did to make their scheme as convenient as possible for residents?


EF: First of all, let me mention that Milan was divided into four quarters, each of which totalled a population of three hundred and fifty thousand people. So the scheme was implemented by steps. The first step covering the first quarter of three hundred and fifty thousand people in November 2012, then the second in June 2013, the third quarter in December 2013, and the fourth in June 2014. So in slightly more than one and a half years we could cover one hundred percent of the population.

Whenever we implemented the system in a new area, we gave a starter kit to the households which included the kitchen caddies, to have a good, clean management of the organics in the kitchen, and a starting role of fifty biobags. Fifty biobags may cover the needs for half a year. In Milan we have two collection rounds per week, so we would normally need one hundred bags a year per household. But we gave them only fifty for the first six months, because now the system in Italy is fundamentally supported by the fact that Italy was the first country in Europe to adopt a full ban on polyethylene shopping bags. So now in all the supermarkets you can get a shopping bag that is biodegradable, so you can use it once as a shopping bag, and a second time as a lining for the kitchen caddie during the collection of biowaste.


TOS: Enzo gives us a few points here to think about. The polyethylene shopping bag ban in Milan increased the level of convenience for tenants, Enzo tells us. We know from episode two the problems that New York are facing – when people can’t afford or find biobags, they can end up using polyethylene plastic bags instead.

Another point of interest is the delivery of biobags and kitchen caddies before roll-out. This is very convenient for tenants first of all, but both biobags and kitchen caddies are also great tools to tackle the infamous “yuck” factor – which can often make people squeamish about an organics program. Using these tools, Enzo reported that the “yuck” factor was not much of an issue for residents.


EF: Yuck was not a main issue for disappointment. That’s basically because the use of the biobags is incredibly helpful in this respect. We also used vented kitchen caddies, because by using the transferability of the biobags and the vents in the kitchen caddies, we tend to lose up to twenty percent of the whole weight of food waste in terms of water vapour. So we tend to have only small amounts, if any, of leakage at the bottom of the biobags. But in any case, it’s fully kept by the biobags, so this keeps the system tidy.


TOS: Now, we can’t finish talking about convenience factors in Milan without mentioning one of the biggest contributors. The closing of chutes by the city. In episode one we dived into the problem with chutes, and how they impact programs like San Francisco’s and New York’s…


EF: We used to have the chutes in the past. Of course the chutes would kill any effort on separate collection, because the take responsibility away from the households, unfortunately. Now, no new building may have any chutes, and they were fully closed in the old buildings.


TOS: Enzo’s words really drive-home how big an impact chutes can have – it can kill an organics collection program. Inadvertently, Milan’s health and safety policy had a positive knock-on effect for their organics system. While San Francisco is currently trying to support building owners in closing their chutes, they face a certain level of resistance from the tenants board . Closing chutes can be a politically challenging, but nevertheless, it has to be said that policies like Milan’s can really help to level the playing field.




TOS: Now, Enzo had some interesting things to say about what goes on in the back end as well. How the material is collected can have an impact on convenience for residents. In general, weekly collections of organics are recommended. According to a 2009 Organics Working Group report, published by the Recycling Council of British Colombia, the Canadian city of Ottawa conducted of collection frequencies of organics programs across North America. And it was found that those that have a bi-weekly garbage collection and weekly organics collection have a significantly higher diversion rate than those that collect organics bi-weekly instead. The frequency will of course depend on climate and time of year as well. In some places, like Milan, it’s better to collect food scraps twice a week to keep it convenient for residents. But collections can be expensive, and for this reason it can sometimes be a challenge to collect so frequently. And Enzo gave some great information on how Milan, and many other cities, tackle this issue.


EF: We consider what is the operational tradition, which has by now been consolidated in Italy and other European countries, which considers the different nature of the two main types of organics: food waste and garden waste. It’s worth considering collecting them separately, because on the one hand with food waste, we have a material that shows high fermentability and therefore needs to be collected quite frequently, but it’s also very heavy. Therefore it makes little if any sense to use a packer truck. On the other hand, we have got a material which is very bulky, such as garden waste, and therefore we should be using a compactor in order to collect garden waste at the kerb. But it is much less fermentable than food waste, so it doesn’t make much sense to collect them together.

One of the critical operational points for cost optimisation of the system is the use of dedicated trucks to collect food waste. It makes little if any sense to use the compactors to collect food waste. The compactor is one of the traditional trucks, as long as you collect mixed garbage, because mixed garbage tends to have a much lower bulk density than food waste itself. So one of the key issues is to consider a different composition of the fleet of vehicles. And in this respect we know that in many cities in past years, the investment costs were only focused on the purchase of big packer trucks. So, my recommendation would be to please start considering changing the composition of your fleet at the next procuring procedure for your fleet. That’s the most important thing.




TOS: So we’ve gained a lot of insight into best practices for roll-out from Milan. But we’re not finished yet.

The next important part of the roll-out strategy is communication of the program.

People need to be prepared for the changes to come. They need to understand why the changes are happening, when they will come into force, and how exactly the scheme will run.

In Milan, it’s thought that communication works best roughly two months in advance – just enough time for tenants to get familiar with it.

They began their campaign with street advertising, mailing brochures, launching a website and a free app as well – both of which allowed people to learn more and ask questions about the scheme.

Door-to-door delivery of the starter kits began 10 weeks before roll-out. This delivery process gave the outreach team an excellent chance to reach residents one-on-one to discuss the changes in person, addressing any concerns straight away. In a multistory building, where it’s often hard to reach people, this is a really effective strategy.

And it worked – roll-out was quite smooth and the residents behaved correctly straight away. This is one of the most important points to take away from the Milan study – if implemented correctly, you can achieve high participation rates right from the beginning. The trick, it seems, is to maintain that high rate.

Now, I know we played this in episode two, but for the final part of this case study, I’d like to take a listen once more to Enzo emphasising this point because it’s so important:


EF: One thing I would like to stress is that it may seem a paradox, but normally we tend to have the best results the very first week we start the system. You know, it’s what we call the “shocking effect”: we literally flood them with information and awareness campaigns. So the very first week we have always got the best results, which goes against the so-called received wisdom, because normally they tell us it will take ages to have people educated. No! They because right away.

Then, we have to keep the good level of results, because if you don’t provide the feedback to people telling them the way it is working, what the critical issues are, how to improve, and so on, then there will be some relaxation from the commitment. But if they get targeted every so often with messages saying “Hey you’re doing well, and we have saved such an amount of money” and so on and so forth, this helps keep the good levels both from the quantitative and qualitative angle.




TOS: Throughout this series we’ve often defined multistory buildings as the final frontier of organics recycling. But Milan demonstrates that this is not always the case.

In Milan, the program ran smoothly right from the beginning.  “People behave right away”.

Why do they behave right away, when in other cases it’s not so easy?

Perhaps it’s because it was a city-wide roll-out – backed by a system of fines and rewards to encourage people to comply. In the piloting stage it’s much more difficult because people aren’t compelled to behave.

And as we’ve seen, both San Francisco and Seattle are finding it much easier to get people to comply thanks to their government’s mandatory policies.

But we also cannot forget the impact that both the chute ban and the polyethylene plastic bag ban had in Milan. This made participation more convenient and helped reduce contamination in the stream.

But is that all there is to it? Is there not also a cultural component to this question? Perhaps programs in America are considered harder to enact compared to somewhere like Milan because where the culture and history is quite different. It has been said that the mood was right for citizens in Milan to change, since the garbage crisis of the 90s – when trash was piled on the streets – was still in people’s memory.

These are interesting questions we’re asking ourselves right now. We’re compiling all these thoughts and we may come back with a follow-up episode in the future.


Waste Less Recycle More: How New South Wales Is Transforming the Organics Recycling Landscape



This week we’re in New South Wales, Australia, to learn about the Waste Less Recycle More initiative and the Organics Infrastructure Fund that will see 70 million AUD invested into organics management in the region. We speak with the Director of Waste and Resource Recovery at the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), Steve Beaman, to learn more about this initiative and their plans to pull more organics out of landfills, and discuss the importance of government support and strong policy for success.

We also speak with Robert Niccol of landscape and agricultural supply company Australian Native Landscapes, to get an insight into the processor’s perspective, the challenges that the industry anticipates with this increase in supply, and to discuss further the EPA’s plans to work with industry in developing new markets with their Organics Market Development grants.



The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is the primary environmental regulator for New South Wales. Our purpose is to improve environmental performance and waste management for NSW.

The EPA’s Waste Less, Recycle More is a five year, $465.7 million initiative that’s transforming waste management in NSW. It includes funding for organics collections, processing infrastructure and market development, business recycling, drop off centres for problem wastes and programs to tackle litter and illegal dumping.




Photo by Pavel. Some Rights Reserved.




THE ORGANIC STREAM: We often talk on the organic stream about the importance of policy and government support for making a real impact with our sustainability programs, and the NSW government provides a great example of this – with a strong policy direction stemming from the objectives set out in their waste legislation, the EPA and the NSW government have initiated a host of strategies and programs to reduce waste and keep materials circulating within the economy.

In particular, a 5-year initiative that invests just over 465 million Australian dollars into increasing recycling and keeping materials out of landfill – an unprecedented amount of funding that’s pulled directly from the region’s waste levy. The Waste Less Recycle More initiative has a heavy focus on organics recycling in particular with the Organics Infrastructure Fund. To learn more about this program and the importance of a comprehensive and cohesive policy for success, we gave a call to Steve Beaman, Director of Waste and Resource Recovery at the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority (EPA).

And with a goal of diverting organics from landscape, this will of course mean an increase in organics supply at organic recycling facilities around the region. How will this impact the industry? Well after speaking with Steve we reached out to Robert Niccol of Australian Native Landscapes, or ANL, to get an insight into the processor’s perspective and discuss further the EPA’s plans to work with industry to develop new markets.

Pretty exciting episode – so let’s jump right in with Steve Beaman of the EPA…




TOS: So Steve, a lot is happening in New South Wales at the moment – can you fill us in?


STEVE BEAMAN: The New South Wales EPA and government has set ambitious waste targets, both in terms of waste avoidance and in greater recycling and recovery of material if we do generate it as waste. At the end of 2014, we just released a seven year strategy, the Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery strategy, and that has six key focus areas. It’s about having programs in place to reduce the amount of waste being generated in the first place; it’s to increase recycling at a household, commercial and construction level; it’s about increasing the diversion of waste away from landfill; it’s about establishing community recycling centres across New South Wales to make it easy for the community to get rid of problem wastes and to do so in a safe manner; and finally it’s to reduce illegal dumping and prevent littering.

So there’s a very progressive agenda at the moment in New South Wales. And we’ve been able to have that funded from a waste levy. So, for every tonne of waste that’s disposed of in the populated areas, there’s a government levy that’s imposed on that waste disposal, and the purpose of that levy is to make recycling more cost effective against traditional landfill. And as part of that income stream, the government’s allocated over 465.7 million dollars for us to drive this change. And the change is really around three aspects, which are: greater education and community engagement, delivering new and improved infrastructure, and the last is about having a strong regulatory framework that underpins it, so there’s clarity right across the sector and the community of what the government’s expectations are around the rules about managing waste and recycled products.


TOS: Excellent – and there is a great emphasis on organic waste, I know – you’re directing 70 million dollars of that to an organics program.  So what is the key focus for you in terms of organics recycling at the moment?


SB: It’s really around those seven aspects. We’ve just run a series of grant rounds where we’ve got forty three million dollars available of that seventy million for new infrastructure. These are organic processing facilities that are typically a combination of food and garden organics processing and is usually around some form of composting technology. We didn’t have the infrastructure in place, so we’re pulling this stuff out of the bins but we needed the processing capacity to be built, and all that’s being built at the moment.

Our local authorities, our councils that provide the services to the community needed access to new and improved collection systems – and typically that has been mobile garbage bins. So, we’ve funded four hundred and forty three thousand new garbage bins and kitchen caddies, so people can sort out their waste in the kitchen and put it into the right garbage bin.

And this is an exciting one that we’ve just released, but we’ve got four million dollars around market development. And this is around the concept that now that we’ve pulled this organic material out of the system and it’s being processed in these facilities, we have to ensure that we’ve got sustainable and resilient end-markets for this material to be used. If the material gets composted it can go to urban restoration; it can got o mine-site rehabilitation; it can go back to farmland and pasture organic improvements. The thing about Australian soils is that they’re very low in organics typically, and then farming practices over the last two hundred years has depleted those organics even further.

So there’s great multiple benefits here with us taking this stuff out of landfill, processing it and putting it back on the land, improve the water-holding capacity of the land, and also improve the nutrient uptake in some of those soils that are organic poor. So we see this as a great opportunity.

We’re also, from that market development work, looking at how we can assist industry to improve the quality of the compost. Because it’s coming from the domestic waste stream, typically, it’s important to educate communities that they can’t put their used batteries into the organics bin, because it has a consequence: if that battery breaks open, you spread lead through the compost material and renders it useless for use on urban development or agricultural use.

So it’s a multi-faceted program. That’s the thing that’s really exciting about this, it’s trying to attack the issue on a couple of fronts: education and community engagement, industry development, the infrastructure component, and then having the regulations behind it that gives the community the confidence that using recycled products is the way to go.


TOS: Very good – and I’d like to talk about the importance of this strong policy framework that underpins everything and how that has contributed to the program’s success?


SB: I think the thing about Waste Less Recycle More is that success is really going to be attributable to having a really strong policy, certainty and clarity around it, and that’s why I started with the Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery strategy. The government has set this long-term strategy, it’s adopted the targets to increase recycling, reduce illegal dumping and to prevent littering, and that really gives us the instruction that we need to go and deliver these. These are government priorities, and those priorities really stem from community expectations – the community wants to see these services being offered and want to see these improvements.

But the fact that we’ve actually been able to align a very strong policy commitment directly from government, and have that underpinned by a very strong funding program, really gives us the recipe we need to be able to deliver this program. And I think it changes the confidence in the community. They can see and engage with the EPA and government on waste and recycling now, and we’re able to provide that information out to the community – we have an excellent website called Love Food Hate Waste, which is around waste avoidance.

But this also has changed the approach by the waste sector, where it’s moving away from the traditional waste collection and waste disposal and towards trying to be a part of this new circular economy and a recycling and resource recovery agenda. So we see this as a great opportunity to change the agenda in New South Wales.


TOS: That’s very exciting. And let’s talk more about the market development side of things for a moment. Developing compost markets is quite a big task – can you tell me a little more about your plans here, and are you anticipating any challenges?


SB: with the markets for compost, I think we’re really pulling a lot of material out of the system, and we need to be careful. That’s why we’re investing in a market development program, so we get that balance right and we don’t disturb the system too much by pushing too much material through the system, thereby increasing the supply and affecting prices. So we need to think carefully and we’re working in partnership with industry around exploring how we can help industry and local government to stimulate the markets so that we’re actually resilient for the longer term, and when more material comes through we’ve actually generated the demand at the end-use level. And that the farmers and the urban restoration workers and so on are more comfortable in using the organics in their soils and agricultural systems, so we can get that market to mature as fast as we can and it then becomes a self-sustaining system.


TOS: It’s great that there is so much investment going into it. But moving out again – are there any pressing challenges you’re facing at the moment in terms of organics recycling – or any problem areas you’re focusing on?


SB: The single main challenge for us is contamination. This is around trying to educate the community and industry. And this is why it’s a very interesting program, because people have things in their household that they mightn’t know how to get rid of. Oil, paint, gas bottles, batteries, smoke detectors, light bulbs… And so if we find that they’re unsure, they’ll often inadvertently do the wrong thing and put it into the wrong bin.

And this is why part of another program of Waste Less Recycle More is the community recycling centres. So there’s another seventy million dollars to build these drop-off centres, and the aim is to have eighty-six of these centres where you can drop off all those problem items you’ve got in the household for free. So if we can make it easy for the community to easily dispose of these problem materials, and also educate them on why it’s important that they don’t drop these materials into their organics bins, then that’s going to keep improving the product quality of our organics and compost.

It’s a real issue for us, and we’re starting to do some exciting work on rolling out a state-wide education campaign to help improve the knowledge and behaviour of householders. And that’s what we’re starting to work on next.


TOS: And all this comes from the funding from the waste levy. Do you consider this waste levy to be the most important, or crucial part of the program’s success?


SB: I’d describe the Waste and Resource Recovery framework as an ecosystem – I don’t think there’s one part that dominates over the others. I think it’s getting all the parts to work in concert with each other. So it’s about having a very strong direction from government to do the right thing. The government has said that we want to achieve these very ambitious targets, and that sends a very strong message. It’s about having a financial and economic tool with the waste levy and that we’ve set a price signal for our landfills and we don’t want landfills to be the predominant processing option – we want people to think a bit more broadly. It’s about having education as well, and that sort of engagement with industry and community so that people are aware and we know how to influence the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours.

None of this works if you don’t have infrastructure, and all this falls apart if you don’t have a regulatory regime that sets very clear standards and has offence provisions that say that if you don’t meet these standards, there will be very serious consequences. And I think, from my end, it’s not just the levy that’s important – although it is a very important aspect – but it’s getting all aspects to work well together that is important. And if we get it all operating together in a very clear and consistent manner, I think that’s when we’re going to get the best outcome.


TOS: It will be very exciting to see how it all works, and I’m sure you’re very busy focusing on this now – but as a final question now – I’d love to know – what’s next for the EPA in New South Wales?


SB: There are two things that are exciting for us. Looking forward to future population growth, and hopefully less waste generation, and looking at where we should have the next generation of infrastructure. Where should it be installed? Are there areas around the state where we’re short on infrastructure, and how can we stimulate that investment from the local community or industry? So it’s about making sure we’ve got infrastructure in the right locations.

And the second really exciting thing we’re working on – and we’ve just released it for consultation – is a new state-wide education strategy called Changing Behaviour Together. And this is really around building a platform for a conversation with the community at all levels – with local government, industry and residents – and finding out what their needs are in relation to their knowledge, attitudes and behaviours around waste and recycling, and how can we help standardise that and run state-wide programs to focus on that behaviour change that really underpins our investment in infrastructure.


TOS: Okay, so there’s a real focus on education and outreach there…


SB: Yes, absolutely. I think you can have very complex systems of multiple bins and recycling plants, but it takes an engaged community to make these systems work to their optimum. If people aren’t using these systems correctly, and they don’t understand why it’s important to separate properly, these systems do tend to struggle. And that’s where you get this issue of contamination really raising it’s head. So, I think you really get good bang for your buck from your investment in infrastructure if you have it underpinned by a strong education program.


TOS: Great stuff. And we’ll be following the progress very closely – and best of with the program in the next few years!




THE ORGANIC STREAM: And that was Steve Beaman of the EPA giving us an insight into the NWS’s organic recycling plans. Steve mentioned the need to be very careful in increasing supply of organics to not upset the market (blah?) – and this is indeed something that requires attention. What are the challenges that industry anticipates with this increase, and how big of a task will it be to develop new markets for organic products, compost in particular?

Another key challenge might be contamination rate – with plans to increase kerbside collection, are processors preparing for an increase in contamination as well?

We put these questions to Robert Niccol of ANL and this is what he told us…


TOS: Hi Rob, thanks for coming on the show. Just before we begin, can you give us a short introduction to Australian Natural Landscape?


ROBERT NICCOL: We began life as a landscape construction company about forty five years ago, and that grew into looking for materials to use in landscape supplies. Pat Soars who owns the company started going over the mountains and getting truckloads of bark, and coming back into Sydney and selling as mulch and what have you. We then got into composting, greenwaste, biosolids and all the urban waste streams that are around nowadays.

We currently compost or process about five hundred thousand tonnes of sorted organic streams at the moment. We’re a very strong landscape and agricultural compost supplies company. You name it, we’re into it – we’ve a very strong consumer market of packaged products, supply chain, bulk material supply and landscape construction – that sort of thing.


TOS: Right, and so as a processor on the ground, the government’s plans will have an impact on your business and indeed the industry as a whole. What will this impact be, and are there any concerns in the industry about this increase in supply of organics?


RN: The government, to their credit, is spending a quite extraordinary amount of money in industry support and in terms of processing and market development in a whole rage of areas. It’s the best part of half a billion dollars. It’s a huge amount of money, and we will never see the like of that again.

I think there are some concerns about whether or not we can grow the markets sustainably to consume all the additional tonnages. So I think that is a big ask. The government is certainly supporting market development of about seventy thousand tonnes of additional uptake, but the increase of supply will be greater than that, so there’s potentially an issue there.

Whether or not that becomes a problem will really hinge on how effectively the market development money is implemented and spent; what sort of strategies come out; how those markets are developed; and can we get structural change in the bigger markets, like the agricultural sector, which is really where we see the main growth potential being in terms of demand. So, is it going to be a struggle? Yes. I think there are a lot of opportunities for lots of businesses, but the additional tonnes…yeah, it will be a struggle.


TOS: What are some of the main challenges, or concerns, you have about market development – what barriers to you face at the moment as an industry that will need to be addressed in order for this to work?


RN: Where there’s an issue and a debate that needs to be had – and it has been had some extent – is that you do have different business models, and I’m sure that’s the same all over the world. In our case, we’re one of a number of private companies that started as a horticultural supplies company, and that business has grown and eventually got into what would be considered as the resource recovery and waste sector. But at heart, we are a horticultural supplies company, selling horticultural products.

Then you’ve got the other business model, which tends to be the larger corporatized kinds – those sorts of businesses who are in the waste sector. You know, the real waste driven companies. They don’t come into the market with a horticultural supplies philosophy – they come in with a waste management philosophy, and the two are quite different. Their business model is very much about getting cost recovery at the gate as soon as the material comes in, and then the products of their processing go into the marketplace at a very low dollar value. Whereas those of us in the horticultural supplies tend to have a lower gate fee because we’re expecting to have a value recognised in the output at the end. And they are different models, and there are obvious difficulties with that in the marketplace when you have those two models producing an output that’s competing differently with a different economic structure. That’s a problem.

I think that is something our industry has struggled with and the government has struggled with, and I don’t know that there is a good answer to that. But the difficulty is that when you’re looking to grow markets, like the agricultural sector – and we’re particularly looking at cropping and grazing – where there are more marginal growing sectors anyway, they have some very good years, but they have some very lean years in between. So they’re a relatively low return sector anyway. So you’re going into the hardest part of a market to actually get money out of them, in terms of value for your product.

And the products in those sort of applications are effective, but they’re still competing with fertilisers and bedded down systems. So part of what we need to do is engage in those systems, and get product uptake in those systems. They are inherently a conservative sector, so you need to get those people who have been growing often multigenerationally in a particular fashion. You need to engage with them and give them some comfort that what we have to offer is of value, and it’s sustainable and will work for them with their current cost models.

So we’re looking to actually see, out of the market engagement, the real value of what we have to offer recognised, and to try and penetrate those markets and show the effectiveness of the product. We have to do it at a competitive price, obviously, but unless you break that nexus, that market will never exist. If we don’t get past this first hurdle, where they’re used to using synthetic fertilisers, then it will never change.


TOS: Yes and here you mention education and outreach – which are key components to developing markets in New South Wales?


RN: I think when you look at the current supplies into those sectors, you have larger, agricultural chemical supplies companies who have been supplying into that sector for many, many years; their data is very good and they have a history of use with those products working well. They’ve engaged well, they have a lot of money behind them, and they’ve been able to set up their supply into that sector, well supported with good data, good technology and good advice.

Whereas we’re stepping into that without the dollars behind a Monsanto type of company. We don’t have those sort of resources and we’re stepping into a conservative area, so the education and engagement, and the extension of the good information and data that we have at the moment…we haven’t been very effective in getting that out. So there will be a lot of people who I think we will get to change – and are probably quite keen to change – but we haven’t yet spoken to them. We haven’t engaged with them and we haven’t explained the case well. So, the education side is very important.


TOS: And going back to the increase supply and perhaps another challenge you’re facing: the EPA is focusing a lot of their efforts on educating people about putting materials in the right bins and so on – really getting people to understand the importance of recycling in an effort to keep contamination low. With kerbside collection expanding in the next few years, are you concerned about contamination? What has been your experience so far?


RN: We’ve had quite a number of different contracts over the last twent y five years. Often the contamination is an issue given that most of these streams come out of local government. So they’re within a local area, and that local government facility or waste system is the driver for the recovery of whatever the new stream is – when they decide to introduce a green bin and kerbside collection for green and food waste, or whatever it is. If that council or local government authority has an environmental philosophy from top to bottom, where everything that flows from the top down is about closing the loop and understanding that the outputs of these materials will be coming back to our environment, then they see the issue is about contamination and how it affects the value or quality of the product. And they set up really strong and clear systems that are linked to their council philosophy.

When they start, the new services come in and that’s when you have early issues when it’s new to people and they don’t necessarily know what’s going on. If you have a council that sets up a contract, it’s well aware of that and as soon as those issues arise, they’re proactive – they don’t want the contamination and engage with local residents – and generally speaking, those issues evaporate because they’re driven from the council and local community. And someone has a contract to collect it, and the collecting contractor is a really important part of that as well because they’re the ones picking up the bins – it’ll end up coming to us and as a processor, it’s critical to us that we don’t have contamination. But if you have everyone in that loop with the same general philosophy, contamination isn’t an issue, because if you as a resident don’t care and you keep on putting garbage in your bin, they take away the service.

If on the other hand, and we’ve certainly had contracts where that’s not a driver within the government, then it’s very difficult to manage – because as the end contractor, you don’t have the power in the process to stop that contamination coming in, and that becomes very difficult. So it’s very much down to education and I know the state government is engaging very strongly with local government, and that’s absolutely where it needs to be – because they’re the drivers of the contracts; they’re the people who sign the contracts up with people like us, so if they’re not supportive of it and don’t have structures at the end of the day to remove a service if it comes to that, then we’re stuck with whatever comes in the truck.


TOS: And the government’s cooperation with industry is another important aspect. So, building up relationships and strong communication channels between them is crucial for success, I imagine?


RN: That’s absolutely critical. We’ve run a couple of different grants within our business, and I think personally that the process that we’ve gone through has just been exceptional. They’ve had people within government that understand our sector that we can go and talk to. So if you’re that person, I can go to you and say, “Eleen, this is the grant we’re thinking of putting” and I get very clear guidance, such as, “Yes that’s good, but I’d think about doing that, that and that”, or, “No, it doesn’t fit within the guidelines”. So very quickly you get an answer as to whether the idea you have fits with what they want. If it does, there is an opportunity to get economic consultants in to evaluate the business case and give you advice on whether or not they think economics of what you put forward is logical. After we’ve won our grant, they then have consultants – I think we have about twenty hours of free consultancy after the grant is approved to get through the approvals process and to get thought issues you have in in actually getting your facility built, or whatever it is, once the grant is up. And there’s support after the grant.

I think, really, as a private business, you can’t ask for more than that. It’s been very, very good. It’s a lot of money that they’re spending and it’s a pretty big achievement to get that sort of money out of treasury for our sector, so I think they’ve done a pretty amazing job, really, for the complexity of the programs they’re looking for.


TOS: So it’s an exciting time now in New South Wales, it’ll be very interesting to see how it all goes…


RN: Oh, definitely. It’s certainly going to be a lot of activity and it will be interesting to see where we are in our sector over the next couple of years, because an extra hundred and sixty thousand tonnes of material is what they’re proposing to generate, and that’s a lot on top of what we’re currently doing.


The Final Frontier: Challenges For Organics Recycling in Multistory Residential Buildings, Part 2



Multistory buildings are often considered the final frontier of organics recycling – and it’s easy to see why. Densely populated with little space, there are a number of challenges to tackle when setting up a program. In episode two, we pick off where we left off in episode one and continue to explore these challenges, and the factors that will impact your program. With guests from cities around the world, we discuss tenant participation, reaching out to the different demographics, the differences between voluntary and mandatory programs, and bin lining strategies.

Links to other episodes in the Series:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4 



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THE ORGANIC STREAM: As I said in the first episode, successful organics recycling is all about building relationships. Once you have established a relationship with the building manager or owner, the focus is going to be on getting the tenants on board and participating.

And this is not always easy.

Introducing an organics recycling program anywhere requires a commitment of time and resources into education, face-to-face engagement, tailoring your outreach strategies to specific demographics…and sustaining relationships.

In general: engagement strategies will consist of targeted outreach efforts well in advance of the program roll-out. Then, after roll-out, the focus is on increasing participation with continuous on-site education, gathering feedback, reworking flyers and messaging – and so on.

With multistory buildings, there are a few extra challenges you can face in terms of tenant engagement.

Firstly, the turnover of tenants – which can be quite high depending on the property – will mean you need to ensure that every new person moving into the building is educated and aware of the program. This is often taken on by the building managers.

As well as the transient nature of the populations, there is sometimes a lack of a community feeling in a multistory building – which can lead to lack of interest in attending building meetings, for example, or just a lack of interest in how well the building is performing. As I said many times in the first episode, every building is different and your outreach strategies will have to be tailored to meet the building’s unique challenges – which includes getting tenants invested in the program.

We won’t be delving too deep into the engagement and education strategies here, because we’re focusing heavily on this in our upcoming case-study episode. But it’s important to get an overview of kind of work it involves. And for this I want to take us back to New York.

Last episode, we heard from Jessica Schreiber of the DSNY about their voluntary organics recycling pilot program. When we spoke about getting tenants involved and engaged, Jessica summed up the basic strategy they employ.


JESSICA SCHREIBER: Whenever you’re working with the public you should know your audience. So, we do a lot of work with community boards, because they’re a good window into what’s important in that community and how they’re accessing information.  So sometimes we start at the community board level and then work down. We do try to have the whole range of ways for people to become engaged. So, we always have flyers and paper brochures, we always have the website; we’ve launched social media, so we have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – hopefully to reach everybody. It’s a challenge: eight million people who are all very different. So it’s always a challenge to try and reach everybody.


TOS: So as you can hear, New York, like many other cities I’ve talked to, are using a lot of different avenues to reach the tenants – including flyers, website, and social media. But key to every strategy, it seems, is face-to-face communication.

This brings me back to an episode we did last year with director of the Recycling Unit of the DSNY’s Bureau of Waste Prevention, Bridget Anderson.

At the time, I quizzed Bridget about their outreach campaigns, and she stressed the importance of taking a hands-on approach.


BRIDGET ANDERSON: Once an area becomes a pilot area where people are receiving the program itself, the on the ground outreach has been extremely useful. Not everybody reads the mailers: if you receive a mailing from the city, it might end up directly in your recycling bin – hopefully your recycling bin! And so, having people out there on the ground during bin deliveries to really make sure people understand the program is important. The elected officials and community boards have also often hosted meetings where people can come and ask questions.

During those periods, we’ve encountered people who are just so excited about the program, and we’ve also encountered people who say, “this really isn’t for me”. So we really try to change hearts and minds, and having people on the ground, and face-to-face communication, has been critical to getting people to even try the program.


TOS: Now, this is primarily focused on engaging tenants at the beginning. But what about keeping up the level of commitment after program roll out?

I put this question to Enzo Favoino when I called him a couple of weeks ago, looking for insights into Milan’s multistory strategies. Enzo is a researcher and advisor at the Scuola Agraria del Parco di Monza in Italy and the scientific coordinator of Zero Waste Europe and we’ll be hearing more from him on Milan’s success in the next episode – but I wanted to include his answer to my question here because what he had to say was very interesting…


ENZO FAVOINO: One thing I would like to stress is that it may seem a paradox, but normally we tend to have the best results the very first week we start the system, both from the quantitative and qualitative angles. It’s what we call the “shocking” effect: we literally flood them with information and awareness campaigns. So the very first week we always have the best results, which goes against the so-called received wisdom, because normally they tell us, “No, it will take ages to have people educated”. No! They behave right away. Then, we have to keep the good level of results, because if you don’t provide the feedback to people telling them the way it is working, what are the critical issues, how to improve, and so on, then there will be some relaxation from the commitment. Because maybe they think the local authorities aren’t focused so much on the system, and then they wonder why they should care about it either. But if they get targeted every so often with messages saying, “Hey, you’re doing well, we have saved such an amount of money”, and so on and so forth, this helps keep up the good levels both from the quantitative and qualitative angles.


TOS: This is an important point that Enzo brings up. Without consistent communication right from the beginning, it may seem to tenants that the program is not much of a priority to the city, and people will start putting it lower on their priority list as well.




TOS: Populations in high-density urban areas are extremely diverse. People from different countries, backgrounds, family situations, cultures and life experiences all make the city their home. And multistory residential buildings encapsulate this aspect of city life quite well.

Reaching out to tenants will require an understanding of the demographics in each building you work with. And from speaking to many program managers, it seems that the demographics that gain the most focus are language and ethnicity, and to a certain extent, age as well.


JASON SANDERS: We’re here today in Los Angeles, California, in the downtown region off of four hundred South Main street…


TOS: At a busy café just outside the Old Bank District Building sunny in Los Angeles, we spent time with Jason Sanders – national Zero Waste manager for EcoSafe Zero Waste who helped implement the organics recycling pilot program in the building – an eight floor multistory building with all but the first floor being residential.


JS: So there’re seventy total units at this building, and each floor has a refuse room that has a compost bin inside, and then a chute for their landfill and recyclables as well.


TOS: We spent the afternoon speaking to both him and Jessica Aldridge of waste hauler Athens Services about their experiences in working together to roll out and tracking the performance of their organics collection pilot program in LA. We also discussed the challenges they faced rolling out the program – and here, Jason shared with us their experiences in tailoring their program to the different demographics.


JS: One of the challenges that we’ve seen with setting up these multifamily food scrap programs is adopting the program to meet the specific building’s demographic needs. We have language barriers so we always have to adapt our education and outreach materials to work with that particular language, whether that’s Mandarin or Spanish or English. We have found that certain demographics, such as a more progressive and environmentally focused age group – from your Millennials to Generation X – adopt these programs more rapidly, than some of your older demographics. So it’s always a challenge trying to adapt the program to meet the specific building’s demographics. Here at this Old Bank District Building, we actually have a very progressive demographic that easily adopted the program. So we have demographics that really understand the full cycle of the organics here, where others might not have that knowledge.


TOS: Understanding the full cycle of organics.

This is something I want to focus on for a moment because it proves just how important it is to highlight the connection between the organics we throw in the bin, soil health, and the food we produce.

Jason suggests that it is the younger, more progressive demographics that have a ready understanding of this cycle, which makes implementing a program much easier. And showing tenants the connection between our food waste and the soil can be a great strategy for education or promotion of the program.


JS: We brought some of the finished compost that this material turns into, and we showed the residents the finished compost. So we educated them on what their food scraps turns into, which I believe was a really key component because a lot of the people that live in cities don’t quite understand that their food scraps actually turns into good-looking soil amendment. So that then clicked in their heads and of why it was important for them to separate their food scraps.


TOS: Environmentally aware tenants can be a great asset for a program. Even though this can often be a small demographic within a building – it only takes a few to make a difference. This is something I learned from Jessica Schreiber, when I asked her how many people were environmentally aware in the buildings she works with.


JESSICA SCHREIBER: From the tenant meetings that I’ve attended, I would say there was maybe ten to twenty percent who would ask questions like that, and then the other eight to ninety percent are much more concerned about whether it’s convenient, do they have to do it, and is it going to smell or bring rodents. So there’s that small group that is very interested in where this goes and why we’re doing it, if it stays local and how it’s composted. And I think because those people exist and ask those questions, it’s a greater educational moment for the whole building. Because everyone has those logistic questions and convenience questions, and then it’s that one step further – the “why” question – that I think is where it really becomes internalised.


TOS: But what about the main demographics to factor in your program? How do cities work with the different languages and ethnicities to reach everyone equally?

A few weeks back, I contacted Marcia Rutan to speak about the very recent mandatory composting program in Seattle, USA, and her work with education and outreach in the multistory residential buildings there.


MARCIA RUTAN: My name is Marcia Rutan and I work with Seattle Public Utilities in Seattle, Washington. And I work on multi-family food waste and recycling programs. My official title is Community Recycling Program Manager, and I’ve been here eight years this June.


TOS: Now, Seattle has a diverse population of six hundred and sixty thousand and over five thousand apartment buildings, and Marcia shared with me some of their valuable experience in working with the various demographics in the city.


MR: So we provide these two basic flyers for this program – Where Does It Go and the Food Waste flyer – in eighteen different languages. Now, these have all been translated, but the next step that we’re learning more about in the last year or so is something called Trans-creation. And that is something where the materials are actually made culturally relevant, as well as the wording being correctly translated, so it doesn’t mean something odd in the other language. So that will be the next step – going through these different languages and making them as pertinent and relevant as possible to the folks who are using them.

Also, when I go out to do presentations, I always ask if there are people speaking other languages who will be there, and we always bring interpreters if needed. We are also expanding our engagement of community liaisons, either through community-based organisations or individuals who are good educators: people who look like the people in that particular community.


TOS: And do you focus on reaching out to any other demographics? I’ve heard age mentioned as well as an important demographic for example…


MR: Sure. Yes, we do have some focus on that, thought I would say not as much as on the ethnic diversity. Now for instance, I am an older person at this point, and I go out to a lot of the senior properties, and they really like that because I’m closer to them in age. They can relate to me and I can say, “I’m going to be retiring soon, and I know you’re on a limited budget, but stillwe want to consider buying recycled products because that’s what keeps recycling going”…so that sort of thing. They can related to me, so I cover the older group in a lot of ways. And we also go to a lot of different festivals and fairs, and so we really make an effort to reach a diversity of folks through those festivals – whether it’s a university district street fair that was just this last weekend, which was very much fosuced on younger people. So that’s another aspect. We do have Twitter, we do have Facebook. And that’s not just for the younger people: we know that a lot of people of ethnic diversity are on their smartphones, and that that’s a primary computer for them. So, it’s just a great way to reach a lot of folks.


TOS: So as you can hear, there are a lot of different ways to reach out and a lot to factor in. Again, you have to be prepared to invest a substantial amount time and resources into outreach if you are to be successful. And it’s a long-term thing – engaging the tenants is a never-ending process.

And having someone from within a specific community on your outreach team can be especially important for connecting to that community.




TOS: Throughout this special edition, we’ve been discussing both mandatory and voluntary programs, and we touched on a few of the differences between them in episode one – particularly in relation to getting building managers on-board.

The nature of your program will have an impact on the people you’re trying to engage and on your approach, as we’ve seen.

With voluntary programs, it’s all about winning people’s hearts and minds as there is no mandate to put fire under people’s feet. While this may mean you have less buildings participating, I learned from Jessica Schreiber in New York that working with interested buildings only has some unique benefits.


JESSICA SCHREIBER: I think the benefit of voluntary is that we can work with buildings that we have relationships with, buildings who are eager and want to do this. So we may get less material with the voluntary group, because it’s not mandated, but because they’re very engaged and are really supportive, we’re hoping that material is cleaner than it would be had we just said everybody needs to do this. So at this point we’re sort of hoping for more clean material, and a very voluntary and very feel-good program, versus a mandatory where maybe we would get more tonnage but it might not be as high of quality.


TOS: Now, Jessica mentions the feel-good aspect of the program, and this made me wonder just how important that feel-good factor is for success. So I asked her – how important is the popularity of the program, and how much does it depend on creating a positive experience for buildings and tenants?


JS: I think the popularity is a key part of it. One is that we’re able to show that there’s interest. So, we’re hoping to add a fourth truck to Manhattan this summer and that’s just based off the fact that we’ve had so many inquiries, and we know that we should be able to create a full route just from the inquiries that we have. So the popularity of the program is a huge part of it. And the other half of that is that we want to make sure the service consistent, that the education up-front is good, and that we really take a special interest in these buildings so they feel supported. Because all that makes them more likely to tell the next building, or their friend who’s also a super, “I have this program, it’s easier than it looks. It’s really simple and you should do it”. So, we’re hoping the city support on our end – the work that we’re doing to bring the buildings on board – is part of it, and that the buildings spread word and that popularity grows.


TOS: Mandatory programs, in contrast, can be a lot more challenging, where the aim is to reach full compliance and at the same time keep the contamination rate as low as possible. This means increasing education and outreach efforts, dealing with difficult buildings and handing out fines – as we heard from Alexa Keitly in the last episode.

This can be daunting, and it’s generally considered best practice to work in steps: Beginning as a voluntary program, for example, and transitioning to mandatory once the system is rolling and the kinks have been ironed out. This can take many years.

In Seattle, they took this step-by-step approach – first making it mandatory to provide organic waste carts in apartment buildings in 2011 before moving to the composting mandate that is in place from this year. This was a very effective tactic, as Marcia Rutan explained to me.


MARCIA RUTAN: There was a lot of work already that went into building the foundation for this. Basically, in Setpember of 2011, Seattle city council made it mandatory that all multi-family properties would have food waste carts. So there was somebody I hired and who has worked with me for a number of years, who was doing technical outreach while I was handling the educational outreach and phone trouble-shooting. So we definitely got a certain flood of inquireies about this, and starting in 2009, really, we were working very hard to get all of the properties up and going with the food waste carts. And by December 2011, a few months after that law went into effect, we basically knew we were going to roll-out carts to anybody who was left over out of the five-thousand who hadn’t signed-up. And in fact there were only a few hundred left. So we really worked hard to get that subscription base established.

Now, just because a property had a cart, did not mean they were using it. There were definitely instances where they stashed it in the closet in a store room and they didn’t want to deal with it. They just thought, “I’ll just pay my monthly subscription and I’m not going to deal with the program”. So the next stage has been participation – and we’ve done a lot of work with on-site education and technical assistance to build the participation. And we could tell who wasn’t participating, because we would get reports from the drivers who knew which properties consistently didn’t have carts out or where there were carts missing continually. So we would get those reports and target those properties – especially the large ones, because there was more impact there.

So we definitely had built up some level of participation. And then this next stage has really caught the attention of a number of properties who are very concerned about the fine and want to either get their service going, or improve it substantially so they don’t get the fine.


TOS: So here you get a sense not only of the differences in challenges and benefits between the programs, but how much time it can take to build up participation and prepare for mandatory organics collection. As we heard from Marcia, Seattle have been working since 2009 on introducing collection in multistory buildings and this definitely helped smooth the transition.

Since there are so many facets involved in setting up programs in multistory buildings, this is no surprise. No matter the nature of the program, it’s important to be patient and keep a long-term perspective in mind.




TOS: We’ve nearly come to the end of the episode and there is one last topic to discuss.

At all stages of the organics recycling process, the organic stream needs to be kept as clean as possible. Keeping contamination low is a constant battle, and how the organics are transported from household bins to recycling containers and then to the collection trucks can have a great impact.

What we’re talking about here is lining strategies.

With lining strategies we’re back in the same familiar situation of trying to balance tenant and building manager convenience with practicality for program managers. On one hand, tenants (and building staff as well) will be more comfortable using something like plastic bags for collecting food waste, and on the other, composting facilities want as clean a stream as possible so ideally it would be best to have no bin linings whatsoever.

So how can we balance these two sides?

Well, first of all, there is a general lining hierarchy that many cities adhere to – giving people a list of options for carrying their food waste from best to worst.


JESSICA SCHREIBER: So we give people a lining hierarchy. Always our first choice is no lining, and you can just rinse the bin out. The second choice would be paper – either lining it with a paper bag or newspaper, because that’s going to break down with the food. Third choice would be compostable bags, and last choice – which we really don’t want, but are willing to accept – is clear plastic bags.


TOS: Now, in terms of having no bin lining at all – this can be a bit too much for both tenants and building managers alike and increase the yuck factor, as they will be faced with having to clean out bins regularly – something Marcia Rutan pointed out to me.


MARCIA RUTAN: We did a test project in about 2007-2008, to test how this would work or can it even work in multi-family properties, and one of the results of that project was that the property managers really want a compostable liner in the cart. It was not quite a deal-breaker, but it was close – like a “give us that liner or else”, kind of feeling. So that’s been one thing that has helped with the “ick” factor.


TOS: Now, Jessica mentioned that New York accepts, as a last resort, polyethylene plastic bags for those who would not participate otherwise.

While this is not an ideal situation, and contributes to higher contamination levels, it does highlight the fact that many people are so used to the practicality and cleanliness of using plastic – particularly for wet materials like organics – that they may shy away from participating without having that level of comfort.

This is where compostable plastic bags can sometimes be a great benefit.


MARCIA RUTAN: We have just done a test project with some compostable bag dispensers. This is something that properties can hang up right near the compost cart, and then residents can pull out a little green approved-compostable bag, take it back up to their apartment home and use it, and bring it back down and take another bag. And that also reduces odours, and keeps the flies down. I was quite resistant to these bags at first, because it just seemed like one more thing to have to buy and use, and was not in-line with my waste prevention ethic. But I have become quite sold on them for at least certain situations. I think they definitely work, and where people can afford these dispensers I think it makes a lot of sense.


TOS: While they can be a great solution – there are some challenges to be aware of. Not all compostable bags are alike – some composting facilities may not be able to give them the time needed for them to break down and others may not accept compostable plastics at all. So finding a facility that will accept the bags being used will be essential.

And New York has had extra challenges in terms of compostable plastic bags – availability. Here’s DSNY’s Bridget Anderson from last year once again, sharing their experiences.


BRIDGET ANDERSON: The availability of those compostable bags has been a problem. It’s taken us a while to get the bags into retail stores – there are also online outlets for the bags. The price of the bags has been a problem; some people say the bags are to expensive and they won’t use them, or that they would participate in the program if they could use the bags, but the bags are too expensive – that’s an example of something that’s been a challenge…Our hope is that eventually the compostable bags will maybe become cheaper and be more available, and then we can switch out the regular plastic bags.


TOS: Lining strategy will have a big impact on your program’s success – and there are pros and cons to each of the possible solutions you can choose. Availability, affordability, convenience and contamination are key elements to pay attention to, as well as giving people a range of options to suit their situation.



TOS: And here we leave the topic of challenges and factors to take into account when setting up a program.

We’ve covered a lot of ground here on the show in this episode – hopefully it’s helped you get a solid understanding of the main factors and challenges faced with implementing an organics program in multistory buildings. And hopefully we’ve helped answer at least some of your questions too.  But if not, never fear, because we are only getting started.

Stay tuned for the next episode, where we invite more program managers and recycling specialists to discuss case studies and explore the most successful strategies for the all the issues we’ve addressed so far.