Recycling Organics in the Middle East


This episode corresponds to Lesson 3 of our course.

In this fourth episode, Eleen Murphy focuses on the Middle East and interviews Daniel Mitroussidis from ITSA on managing organics in a business setting in this part of the world.

Thank you ESCAB for making this episode possible.

QuantorXL® Drum Composting is a turnkey system that achieves full hygienization. Manure, sludge and bio-waste can be composted and turned into a resource, recycling many important nutrients back to nature. QuantorXL® is approved by the Swedish board of agriculture and fulfills EU regulations.



EM: So Daniel, today we’re focusing on the Middle East and just specifically your project in Qatar. But before we get into that, maybe you can give us just a little background information. It seems that recycling is gaining traction in the Middle East, why do you think that is?

DM: It certainly is, I mean, organic waste is what smells and that attracts bacteria and disease. And when you got a prosperous nation like the UAE for example, you know, it’s growing. And the cost of land in using landfills or dumps is becoming very expensive and it can play a detrimental role to society, and just general health and living standards. So, what we try to do is to treat the organic waste on-site or in a collective method on a site next to, or within, the landfill or dump, therefore actually minimizing the organics that goes into the landfill or dump, which we think is a waste of resources, and turning it into compost.

EM: That’s a brilliant idea actually, that’s really cool. So they have a pressing need to recycling, I suppose. But what are the challenges you’ve seen to introducing recycling systems? I presume the notion of recycling is gaining popularity?

DM: It is, it is. There are elements and drivers, but the current practices there at the moment (and there are improvements to this) is that there’s little awareness campaigns (although this is improving), there’s very little source-separation activities, there’s minimal compost development. So, putting quality back into the soils is paramount, especially in a region that is purely desert. There’s in increase in migrant populations, so therefore, when they’re building infrastructure; roads, airports, shopping malls, there are more people producing more waste. So the economic growth in that area contributes to growth in waste generation per person. And if you look at the statistics in the Middle East, for example in the UAE or Qatar, per kg per person it’s on of the highest in the world.

EM: Wow, okay so there’s a lot of work to be done there. And you’ve been part of that work yourself in Qatar, in The Pearl which is a high-end residential and retail complex is that right?

DM: Yeah, the Pearl, which is run by UDC (the United Development Company), based in Qatar as you said, is a beautiful residential and retail complex. And people pay for prosperity, and do not want to see waste, and management are very pro-active and are always looking at ways to add value to the good work already done there.

We identified through our waste management audit, when we were asked to conduct that exercise, that there’s a huge need for landscaping, and maintaining beautiful grounds and floral settings. The Pearl imports everything –

EM: Yeah, just, because actually I remember you saying before, and I thought this was really, interesting, but they import the plants as well, do they?

DM: Yes. They’ve started to develop their own nurseries there but as you can appreciate with the weather, the extreme heat, it’s not always easy. And accessibility to good water, which is suitable for plants, is not always easy to ascertain as well. So, one of the things that we were able to do was, in example, with the workers camp there, they feed them 24/7. Their food is placed directly into the Biobin for on-site treatment. This is turned into compost, then placed onto the garden beds. So there’s less money spent on rubbish removal, importing soil conditioners and plants, and that means The Pearl can manage this themselves.

At the same time, we’ve been able to educate the kitchen staff in better practice of food waste management, and educate the staff in effective management practices in source separation methods as well.

EM: Alright, and was there any other habits that you observed that could be changed?

DM: Yeah, we found that a lot of the watering is done during the day. From an environmental perspective, it is a natural resource and it makes it very difficult when you’re watering in extreme temperatures during the day. That means the irrigation system isn’t working until it’s full at maximum, the plants are dying more readily because there isn’t conditioner in the soil, like a fetiliser. So we’ve been able to actually put the compost on there, therefore extending the lifespan of that plant, and less water required.

EM: Cool, so it saves water as well.

DM: Absolutely. It acts like a sunscreen.

EM: That’s really cool. And so did change happen in The Pearl and more generally, what do you think we can do to inspire influencers to change their systems?

DM: Well firstly, it’s about meeting people within the organisation, understanding their vision, their objectives and their values, and finding the like-minded people and objectives coming together. Secondly, the organisation has to have a strong commitment to environmental issues. And without sounding too cynical, there are many environmental policy statements on all organisations in any website or any other documented policy: it’s whether they actually act on it. And thirdly it’s to make environmental, commercial and social sense.

So, leadership is required and it starts at the top, and it’s about changing their behaviour, so if you improve the task, then you improve the process, and you improve the result, which ultimately improves the performance. So very, very quickly and not in any particular order: it’s about changing culture, and policy and procedures. Everyone works to a task and duty, so if you change that task and duty to make it more effective, more efficient, and more aligned to environmental practices, then you improve the results and the performance. Apart from education and training, you have to look at current plans in place for growth and development, so therefore it’s not just a gimmick; it’s part of everyday use. And with that everyday use, that becomes part of the culture of the organisation, and then that sends a powerful message across the rest of the organisation or the complex that it’s a standard that you’ve developed. And you never go back.

EM: Awesome. So, after the Qatar project – or you’re still involved in the Qatar project aren’t you?

DM: Yeah. We go as regular visitors there in Qatar, and we’ve ascertained new clients, and these are catering companies and food processing plants as well. Because what they do is, a large part of their business is producing food waste, and that food waste is something that we could put back into the ground. And at the moment what their doing is, they’re stopping their work, getting transport companies to pick up the bins and the skips, and they’re paying them to drive across the country to actually dump. We’re saying that you don’t need that. If you eliminate the unnecessary practices and develop new ones, you’d be surprised at the results you can achieve.

And in Qatar, especially for The Pearl, we’ve allowed them to enhance their landscaping services, for example, there’s cost savings in labour and products, there’s been training for staff, there’s efficiencies introduced in water usage, and greater yield of plant as I’ve discussed earlier. The dying plants don’t need to be disposed of; they can go into the Biobin. Planting is more effective and more efficient, in the sense that you’ve already got quality in the soils to work with. There’s less need and requirement for watering because of compost. And we’re able to demonstrate the sustainability loop.

So it’s been more of a win-win and a “win-win” as we’re there doing the work. The more we understand the client, the more we understand their current practices, we can actually introduce new methodologies based on their local circumstances, and therefore fit into their practices. And it’s actually worked in a wonderful way for mutual benefit.

EM: Brilliant. And how important, then, is understanding business culture, to making recycling a popular choice?

DM: It’s very important because decisions in business should be based on data and fact, especially in relation to waste and environmental…many businesses initially don’t know how things are spent. They have beautiful budgets, they have beautiful accounting and financial systems, but if you ask them to break down the frequency of the use and the spending habits, and asking “why”, it’s very, very different. So, business culture should be part of a process of imporvement – an improvement culture. As I said earlier it’s first to understand the problem and then make improvements.

If you have a methodology of measuring and reporting waste levels, this further promotes engagement. So, you’re using the standardised methodologies at a business or a workplace level, to allow targeted analysis and prevention. That means if you have data and facts in front of you, you are a much more informed decision-maker, and it can be driving by the establishment of waste prevention targets. At the moment, a lot of places we visit don’t have targets at all, because they don’t know that there is a…or, they know that there’s a problem – that’s why they’re talking to me – but they don’t know that we can actually dissect it, and then try and put in some new technologies and methodologies.

EM: And what role should local governments play in driving change in this part of the world?

DM: Well one of things we’ve been able to do with our success, at a local level, is allow government and relevant stakeholders to play a pivotal role. They’re also talking about laws being introduced to ensure organic waste is handled in a responsible manner. And that’s a very general term, “being responsible”. It has to be better than what’s happening at the moment. There are laws and regulations, but they have to be enforced and monitored as well. So, we’ve been able to change a bit of habit and behaviour accordingly. And that’s been wonderful for us in the last ten months.

EM: Wow, that’s really cool, that’s really inspiring. And finally, do you have a quick word of advice for our listeners in similar situations?

DM: Yeah, certainly, I mean it’s not so much as a sales gimmick or a slogan, but you know, if you have a look at what we take from the ground, we should it back in the ground. When I do work in India, for example, Mother Nature allows trees at a certain time to lose their leaves. So in India what they do is they gather up the leaves and they burn them. In the end of the day, those leaves play an important role when they fall back to the ground and when you put them on soils because they act as a natural sort of remedy for the soil to be enhanced.

And from a government-driver perspective: you cannot achieve national and economical prosperity unless you invest in community outcomes. And a cleaner environment creates growth potential for economic and community prosperity.

EM: Brilliantly said. And unfortunately that’s all the time we have for today. Best of luck in the future now, and thanks for coming on the show!

DM: Thank you.

That was Daniel Mitroussidis for the Organic Stream on Compostory.org. If you have any questions or would like to learn more about ITSA’s work or the Qatar project, you can find Daniel’s email address on the ITSA website – that’s www.itsa.net.au. As always, you can find us on compostory.org or on Twitter: our Twitter handle is compostoryorg. Thanks for listening and hope you’ll tune in next time.



Generating Biogas in Developing Countries


This episode corresponds to Lesson 7 (coming soon) of our course.

This third episode of The Organic Stream is dedicated to biogas generation in developing countries. Eleen Murphy interviews Winfried Rijssenbeek from FACT Foundation to discuss the setup of anaerobic digesters in these regions where biogas generation is more than a source of energy. 

Thank you to ESCAB for making this episode possible.

QuantorXL® Drum Composting is a turnkey system that achieves full hygienization. Manure, sludge and bio-waste can be composted and turned into a resource, recycling many important nutrients back to nature. QuantorXL® is approved by the Swedish board of agriculture and fulfills EU regulations.



Hi there once again and welcome to the show. As always, I’m your host Eleen Murphy and today we’re in the Netherlands, talking to director and RE specialist of the Fact Foundation: Winfried Rijssenbeek. Winfried and the FACT foundation work closely with local partners all over the developing world to help set-up and educate communities about biogas systems. So for this show, we’ll be focusing solely on biogas in developing countries. Topics will include: the types of organics used for production, why biogas systems are not yet a staple in developing countries, and framing biogas as more than just a source of energy.

Lots of great topics to sink our teeth into, so stay tuned!

EM: So the FACT Foundation provides biogas solutions for communities in developing countries, but also provides training, knowledge and support. You have partners across the globe that you work with, and you’re based in the Netherlands, is that correct?

WR: That’s correct. And there’s the Wageningen University, it’s the Agricultural University of the Netherlands and it’s quite well known.

EM: Right and could you tell me a little more about FACT and the work that you do?

WR: I will. We started in 2005 and this FACT Foundation was established by the late Professor Kees Daey Owens, who was first a renewable energy specialist in the Netherlands. So he found out that, yes indeed, developing countries need energy as well. So he decided to establish a foundation, and so in 2009 after Kees has ceased, we got a program developed in which we tested many different types of bioenergy projects.

EM: Cool, and what kind of things did you test?

WR: We started with bioethanol, and we looked at residues (for example cassava peels) and turning that into bioethanol so that people could have either cooking fuel or transport fuel. So we tested bioethanol, we tested biodiesel based on vegetable oils, and we also tested gasification based on wood residues, and we tested biogas. About four technologies were into our portfolio in the Deon program, and we tested that with different partners. Partners in Panama, in Peru, in Uganda et cetera, et cetera. So then, after some three years of doing this, we came to the conclusion that if there’s anything ready for a market, then it is biogas. And biogas seems to be the most easy. The most in installing it, the most easy in operating it. And this is very simple, Eleen: biogas is all about life, and it’s a biological system and to be honest, everybody who can handle a cow, can handle a biogas installation.

EM: Hm, so if biogas is such a great solution, why isn’t it more popular or well known in developing countries?

WR: Why is it not happening there? Because you have a supply and demand, and in the case of developing countries, the suppliers – they are not well informed, because they use maybe obsolete technologies or they have no updated knowledge in many cases. And on the demand side the thing is even worse because many of these people that have the production of organic waste streams, they don’t know about biogas. So they have no idea of that solution, and this is really a struggle that we have. On the one hand, the suppliers are not really customising their systems for the client. And the clients on the other hand don’t know about biogas, so we have really a task. Now, you can say, “can it pay off?” so to say; is it a good investment?

EM: That’s what I just wanted to ask: is it worth setting up?

WR: That is the interesting part. If you look at the investment, it can be expensive but you can also reduce the cost of biogas systems. For example, by using a diesel generator that you add the biogas. So you reduce your costs of buying a totally new biogas generator. The other thing is, in Germany and the rest of Europe, systems have been made for temperate climates so you have insulated bowls, they are compact because the land is expensive, so you make a compact system. Then you have to heat it because if you don’t heat it you don’t get the right temperature. Labour costs are also very expensive in Europe. So we made systems in Europe that are high investments but low operation costs. Now the funny thing is, we have a slightly different situation in developing countries for biogas.

In many countries, you don’t have these high land costs; you don’t have these high labour costs. You have other temperatures. So it makes it all different. And we can show that, in many cases, these systems can be paid off in about three to four years, and the investments – they are relatively mild, depending on the technology, but…

EM: Hmm, interesting…

WR: Yeah so, the funny thing is: how is biogas portrayed in general? And in Europe, we always say that biogas is good as a technology because you have renewable energy coming out of it. But that’s it. Now, look at developing countries: what are the basic issues over there? It’s food security. What happens is that about twenty-five percent of the food production is lost in the stream of transport and logistics, and storage. So, if you energise the food chain

in the proper way so that you have energy to cool the products, or to process, or to stir the products, then you can reduce these losses. This energy is the beauty: biogas can deliver that.

You have a resource or an organic waste stream from the agro-processing and from that you make the energy to allow this agro-processing to happen.

EM: That’s actually what I was keen to ask you as well: since you have experience in this, it would be great if you could detail the different types of organic materials you can use to make biogas.

WR: Yeah. Things that you can use is, for example, organic waste streams like from the palm oil industry. Dairy farms is another sector. All these farms, they produce manure. And, again, when there’s agriculture and forestry, there’s always waste-streams, and it depends on the composition and the availability. For example, in Uganda we know that there is a lot of lakes that is are clogged with water hyacinth. But, if the lake is fully covered with water hyacinth, really you have a problem because then fish won’t be able to grow under it because it shades the water and you get all sorts of trouble. Now, water hyacinth: if you turn that into biogas, the slurry of the water hyacinth, you can take out that slurry and use it as a fertiliser.

EM: That’s an amazing way of dealing with the problem of water hyacinth then!

WR: Right, right. So there’s that sort of thing as well. And what I just mentioned before, we always portray biogas as an energy solution, well I tell you it is much more. It is about the food security. It’s about sustainable agriculture, because people can reduce the chemical fertilser and enhance the soil quality, because this bio-slurry is very good for the soil. And finally, it’s also about sanitation. I mean, if you contaminate rivers and then later on people take water from that river – well it’s not that nice. So for sanitation purposes it’s also good.

So, it’s bringing this topic not as biogas, because if I tell about biogas only as a technology, people will say “well okay technologies, we’re not so interested – we’re interested in people”. Well, we’re talking about people, because we’re supporting food security, we’re supporting all these other benefits. If I talk about biogas only, well it will be a boring story. But if I talk about food security, and the link to the environment, and the link to all these other…sustainable agriculture, then people start to say, “hey, well damn it – this is interesting”.

EM: Excellent points. And if your opinion is that we need to raise awareness of all the benefits of biogas production – what are the things holding us back and where do we need to focus our efforts?

WR: So, this is where the story is very simple. Now, if everybody that is doing biogas is saying “No, you can do it with biogas but you should do it like this”, and the other one says, “No you should do it like that”. (If) there’s no standards, there’s no coherence in that group of alternatives, then the market, they will say: “this seems to be this, and the other one says it’s like that and you don’t know” and everybody says “okay well this is rubbish”. Now if you say – as all biogas-interested people – we form a platform and that platform sends messages always in the same form. And you explain about the advantages of biogas always in the same form, you might create a sort of advertisement to the customers that is coherent, and then maybe it will work.

Another thing is: if you’re working in a platform and you share information about your systems, again, that will help because you can learn much quicker from the other one that doing everything yourself. So, making a sort of platform is one of the things that we thought is necessary. So, the platform is basically about learning and exchanging information so that everybody has the same knowledge. And then it is about dissemination and advocacy.

EM: Aha, right…

WR: So that, basically, we said we should be doing, and in 2013, in the beginning of June, we started to launch this Global Alliance for Productive Biogas. And now we are with ninety-plus partners all around the world: in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America. And we have been talking with all these local producers, research people, associations about biogas. So we have, Global Alliance for Productive Biogas has an international board. So we have been asking our members, our partners: “okay guys, this is what we plan to do – what’s your view on this, this and this and this?”

EM: So the important thing here is that you’re working closely with the communities?

WR: Right. And it made us realise, Eleen, and this might be the interesting thing, but: we’re not alone, because we see, for example, that there are a lot of libraries. And there’re libraries about biogas. There’s a few YouTube-like things or trainings – there is people doing that and that’s also how we came in contact with the Compostory organisation. And yeah we said okay well, if you’re already doing training modules through YouTube and sort of internet videos – that’s perfect so let’s push this thing forward. That’s what we think: we have to convince many people that this is the way to go forward.

EM: Great stuff. And finally, is there any advice you’d like to give to our listeners?

WR: Yeah, I would like to say that if people want to deal with this topic, just have them go to our website, and that website is productivebiogas.org. And we invite everybody to look at the waste operators, the sewage system operators, the agro-processing cooperatives, the agro-industries, and the farmers – to have a look and see what it can bring to them.

EM: Mh-hm. Well that’s great, great stuff. Thanks for your time Winfried.

WR: Okay, well Eleen it was a pleasure, and thanks a lot!


Small-Scale AD & On-site Composting in London


This episode corresponds to Lesson 3 and Lesson 6 (coming soon) of our course.

In this second episode we stopped in London to talk to Clare Brass from FoodLoop and Rokiah Yaman from LEAP. Eleen Murphy  asked them about their respective projects: A small-scale anaerobic digestion system and an organics recycling program for an inner-city housing estate!

Thank you to BiobiN for making  this episode possible.

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. Whereever organic or wet materials are generated, BiobiN® is THE solution



EM: So Rokiah, I’ll start with you. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about Community By Design and the project you’re working on?

RY: Okay. Community by Design is a social interest company – community interest company – and we are currently developing anaerobic digestion on a small scale. It’s looking to make the technology cost effective at that scale and user friendly. There’s not that much of it at the moment at the very small scale and what we’re doing is to see if we can spin out as many environmental, social and economic benefits as possible all in one go. So it’s a partnership project and we’re just one of the partners, and the other partners include Methanogen who is a supplier, a research engineer from a company called Alvan Blanch, there are other engineers involved, and also Leeds University.

EM: Right, and how are you funded?

RY: We’re funded by Camden Council, and they’ve been great because they’ve supported us through the initial two years and we couldn’t have done this without them. And their objective in funding us is to see if we can generate any employment and training opportunities. So the training side of things…we’ve had quite a lot of opportunity during the build and also at all kinds of different stages of the project. And by the end of this year we hope to do a bit of economic modeling and see where we can pull the income in from to take beyond the funding. But WRAP has also funding us: WRAP are Waste and Resources and Action Program, and they’ve given us funding for the next year to do the other sites, basically.

EM: Yeah that’s really cool. And I know that some of our listeners have not yet “graduated” from compostory.org, or are beginners on the anaerobic digestion topic. Maybe you can re-detail the process so we have everyone on board here.

RY: Okay, so anaerobic digestion is a type of composting that happens without oxygen. It takes place in a sealed vessel and it can break down any organic material, except for wood: it’s the lignin in the wood that it can’t deal with. And we capture the gas that comes from it, which is about 60 percent methane, 40 percent Co2 and then some trace elements of other gasses. And the waste itself turns into a pretty liquid fertiliser: that’s what happens when we use food waste as the main feed stock. It’s a good compliment actually to compost that’s generated through an aerobic process, so they compliment each other pretty well in terms of nutrients.

EM: Brilliant stuff. And I was looking at how you use the biogas that you trap, maybe you can explain that a little bit?

RY: Oh right. So the biogas: the 60 percent of it which is methane is pretty much identical with what comes out of your mains gas, so that’s the bit that we can burn and generate heat and electricity with. It can also be used as a vehicle fuel. So we basically have got funding for the next year to set up three sites, and one of them has just been set up and been commissioned already. That one is going to be generating electricity and heat using something that looks like a boiler – it’s called a Combined Heat and Power Unit. It’s a micro-scale unit and the electricity and heat will be used for the building that we’re attached to.

At the other sites we’re going to just generate space heating, so use it as a normal space heater. And that will be in polytunnels and greenhouses. It’s quite nice because we don’t need to do anything to the gas before we do that. Some of the other sites, we’re cleaning the gas, taking out the Co2 and various other things. But the one with the polytunnles and greenhouses, you can just heat it up. The Co2 in the gas then comes out in the atmosphere and it helps plants to grow. So you get the heat, and the Co2. And then the third site is where we’re going to clean it really well, and compress it to about 200 bar or something like that and that will be used for vehicle fuel.

EM: And I was just wondering now as well, I was very curious to know how you go about collecting all the organic waste. I saw on the website that it’s bicycles that you use?

RY: Yes, that’s right, we’ve got a cargo bike. At the moment the digester that’s up and running is 2 cubic meters, it’s not massive, and it’s to demonstrate the technology can work, and we are collecting about 100 kilos a week at the moment, which is…depends on what size you are whether that’s big or small. But we’ll probably go up to about 250 kilos maximum, once we’re fully up and running. But you have to treat the digester as a stomach and keep it warm and stirred, and start to feed it slowly basically, so it doesn’t get shocked.

EM: Oh right. Okay, okay so it’s a very gentle process?

RY: Yes it is, exactly.

EM: And are businesses happy or is it businesses that you collect from, or where do you collect it?

RY: Yeah, mainly local businesses. Everything’s within a 1 mile radius area and we really want to demonstrate the benefits of doing it all very locally. And with bicycles and trailers it’s obviously zero carbon. If we had a bigger network, let’s say, we could maybe move to a small vehicle and that we could covert the engine to run on biomethane, which is the gas once it’s been scrubbed and compressed. So you then kind of would be demonstrating a closed circle within the local area with the vehicles that go out, and the signing on it.

EM: And have you got maybe an idea about how much biogas and fertiliser you can generate with a small system like this, how much it would be?

RY: Yes, yes we do. So, a 2 cubic meter system, running on food waste, you’re going to generate about twice that volume a day – that’s about 4 cubic meters of gas. And 60 percent of it being methane…that’s about 2.4 cubic meters of methane. So that’s the burnabile bit.

And I think I did some calculations a while back and it seemed to say that if you looked over a year, that system could produce enough energy for a household in terms of the gas and electricity production, using one of these CHP units. But when you look at your domestic usage of gas and electricity, it changes in the year because it’s colder in the winter obviously so you’re using more. But the digester itself would produce gas fairly constantly on a 24/7 basis, so one of the challenges is to how to manage that energy output, and how to use it when it’s summer or winter or whenever. So on each site we have slightly different solutions.

EM: That’s very cool. So where or in what context would it be beneficial do you think to roll out more of these anaerobic digestion systems, in schools maybe or? Where would be a good place to put them into?

RY: Well, we may have a school that’s interested so that’s one possibility. It would have to have space, and then it would have to have a use for the gas and you’d have to make sure that through the holidays and stuff…that there’s a use for it all through then.

We think that, having done a bit of research, the main market areas would be small businesses who produce waste. Because they have to pay for that organic waste to be taken away, it might make more sense for them to process it onsite and make use of the renewable energy and the fertiliser. Particularly if they grow things or have the chance to grow things on site. And one of our sites this year will be an organic wholefood manufacturer. So he’s got a factory with grounds, he’s a very keen permaculturalist. It’s Solara Wholefoods in Central London. And he’s already built a 50-meter forest garden, he’s got an orchard and he’s got a vineyard onsite. His digester is going to be 6 cubic meters, and that’s going to be big enough to produce enough vehicle food for his food delivery vehicle. So it’ll go around and deliver local food and run on the gas from his food waste.

So he produces enough waste…the factory produces enough waste to run that digester. And the fertiliser will be used onsite there, so it’s going to be pumped round in an irrigation system. So that will be a fantastic demonstration of closed-loop recycling.

EM: Yeah, it’s pretty perfect really.

RY: Yes it is, yeah.

EM: You said I remember, I was looking through some of your interviews on Youtube and stuff, and you mention that these very small anaerobic digestion systems are not very common here in the western world. But you would have known about…this would have been happening in other parts of the world?

RY: Yeah, so basically in the West we have quite a large number of industrial-sized digesters. And I think the incentives are mainly to do with the energy that’s produce, so there are green tariffs for the electricity or the heat that you produce using these systems.

In developing countries there are much more…many more micro-scale digesters. So they’re for maybe an individual smallholding or group of houses or something like that – similar to the scale we’re looking at. But because they tend to be in warmer climates, they need less technology, they don’t need to be heated generally. They’re often not stirred, whereas we have to keep it warm and keep it stirred and there’s other considerations in a cold climate.

So I think that what we’ve heard is that there’s more capacity in those micro-digesters in developing countries than there is in all the digesters combined in western countries. So there’s absolutely millions of digesters in China and India, for instance.

EM: That’s fascinating. And did you research about them to get started on your own or?

RY: We had a look at some of the designs, yeah. But they basically benefit because the labour there is a lot cheaper, whereas here it’s much more of the bill. And so in some cases…in China I believe they have somebody who’s trained to build these digesters and they build them into the ground – I’ve seen some built with bricks and cement, and they get the community involved in building it and that makes everything a lot cheaper.

So here, I mean it could happen in the same way here. I mean, we are developing a digester that is a lot lower cost than some of the others, just so that community groups can benefit from it. And one of the thoughts that we have is that we can troubleshoot the whole thing, get it to the point where it’s very robust and then have it is a kind of a kit that people can put together if they want so that would bring the cost right down again for them.

EM: Yeah that would be amazing.

RY: Mh-hm.

EM: So Clare, now on to you. I was very excited to read about your project Food Loop, a recycling project set up in Maiden Lane estates in London. I was especially taken by the idea of getting the community involved in the project itself. Maybe you could tell us a little more about that?

CB: Food Loop was born out of a DEFRA funded project. So DEFRA is the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. And the project was about looking into the barriers – what is it that makes it so difficult for people to separate their food waste and give it in a separated state? And we proposed to carry out this research project based on a principle that people don’t understand food waste as a resource. They look at food waste as a waste stream and they don’t see it as a resource, and if they were able to visualise that food waste is a biodegradable, natural, compostable product that turns into earth, then people would be able to associate that with the growth of new food and therefore, they would understand that it’s something precious.

We set out to explore, in very dense urban environments where food waste collection is actually very difficult, we set out to explore what the barriers were, and what might a community be able to do to in order to recycle their own food waste. This was together with Camden Council, the London borough of Camden. And the proposal was that we set up a machine to compost the residents’ own food waste, and we asked the residents to help us design a system which suited their needs. So we did that for two years: we set up the machine, a company was brought in to manage the actual collections…

We worked with the residents to design not only the communications but the whole system: how should it work, what do they thing the benefits might be…. And through talking to residents and working with them we kind of established that…we asked them what they thought would be a good idea to do with the compost. They said that they thought that it would be good to use it to – not only for growing food, we were thinking it would be about growing food – their idea was more about making the estate a more beautiful place to live.

So one of the things that came out of this project is that people who live in these, now this is quite a run-down estate, it’s quite a problematic estate and people have got more immediate problems than worrying about the environment in a wider sense. But the thing that they are very concerned about is: how they can improve their own local environment?

And now, two years down the line, it’s almost entirely run and managed by residents – volunteer residents. No one is paid, but we generate enough income. We get a little bit of money back through the North London Waste Authority, who reward community groups for biodegradable waste collection, and we sell a little bit of our product as a fertiliser and a slug repellant to urban food growers and urban gardeners.

EM: I’m just envisioning how it was when you started out and you went there for the first time and everything: how did you get the community involved – was there a lot of interest or?

CB: That’s a very good question. I think where the first issue is: how do you recruit people? 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 then we asked them if they’d like to be involved in some design work.

So lots of people actually said afterwards, you know, that they thought the design workshop was a cool thing (we were going to be designing the leaflets for the communication for this new project). So we had about 15…we had about 20 people sign up. Every time someone gave us their phone number or contact details, we gave them a tomato plant. 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.

We also had, which is not at all indifferent…because we were a funded research project; we also were able to give people a financial incentive. It wasn’t cash actually, but we were able to give them gardening related products when they spent a day with us in a workshop. So, it wasn’t really payment but it was again a little, little reward and that was quite lucky and I think, you know, it’s really nice to be able to give them something back.

EM: Yeah that’s a very clever point actually. That’s really cool. So Rokiah and Clare – I just asked you about your projects and now I’d like to ask the both of you: what barriers or roadblocks did you encounter when setting up? Clare you go first.

CB: Sometimes the bigger decisions take a long time, so even, for example, getting a memorandum of understanding which allowed SEED to run the project…well, we started running it anyway, but it took three months to have an actual piece of paper saying “Okay, you can run the project”.

RY: Yes, that definitely can happen. Our kind of barriers have been more in terms of legislative ones and the regulatory rules around animal byproducts in particular. So I know Clare, you’ve sort of sorted it out on your end, but we’re still a bit in limbo because the people who are deciding about anaerobic digestion at this small scale and whether or not it’s possible to distribute the digestate still haven’t really made up their minds.

So when we started the project they said, yes it’s fine to distribute, but we need an agreement with the people who are going to use it to say that they’re not going to put it near farmed animals. So we thought, okay that’s fine.  But now they’ve seemed to have changed their minds (laugh). So we’re in a slight quandary at the moment. iI’s something we hope we’re going to be able to work through, you know. It’s partly because it’s not really done that much at this scale, so everything’s a bit new.

CB: Yeah, we had similar issues, and actually we’ve only managed to have sign-off on distribution of the product (which is a critical part of the cycle, if you like)…. You can’t really make this work, this kind of project, unless you can close that loop by distributing the end product and (in theory) hopefully making some money out of it. And it’s taken us a good year and a half before we got that sorted and it’s partly as you say because the legislation is still slightly in flux and is still changing. We’ve managed to get away with quite a lot by being such a small scale that we fall under the radar.

So we, you have to…tick a certain amount of boxes, for example: you have to be producing less than a certain tonnage of compost per year, and you have to have a certain, less than a certain number of people working on the project, etc etc. And by slipping under that radar we actually have quite a degree of freedom – a much higher degree of freedom than a slightly bigger project might have like yours…

RY: Hmm…

CB: While you have the advantage of being a bigger project, in lots of ways that’s a good thing, but in lots of ways being small is an advantage too.

RY: It’s, I mean we are basically classified as the same scale as you guys, and it’s not so much to…we haven’t encountered the problems so much to do with scale, it’s more to do with the technology. So coming under the radar, we can also get the low-risk matrix position with the animal health, but because we’re not pasteurising, or we weren’t planning to, that’s the sticking point, basically. And they’re not happy for us to take it off-site at the moment. So that may change, but yeah…

And because your technology, the heat process is built in. And our process, the heat is built-in but it’s only to 40 degrees and to pasteurise it – to get it properly by animal bi-products regulations – you have to take it to 70 degrees for an hour and that kind of raises the energy costs, if you like, of the whole thing. So if we can prove we can kill off the pathogens we need to without doing that, we’re hoping that might be acceptable. But if we can’t, we might have to pasteurise, so that’s another cost on top of everything else.

EM: Right, and in a similar vein now, since this is going out to an international audience, maybe there’s some advice you might have for people who are started up something similar somewhere else? Or maybe there’s something you wish you’d known when you started out?

CB: When I started doing this stuff I really didn’t know anything about anything, and I had a hunch there was something in food waste but I didn’t really know any of the detail, or I didn’t really know where the clue was going to be. And it’s really important to do an initial phase of research. Research is really critical.

And another thing which I think is very important is not assuming that you know the answers and not being afraid to admit that you don’t have the answers, but to sort of state what you know and what you think the answers could be, and then use that as a starting point for a conversation with a whole host of experts who can set you straight.

So our project was kind of build on a vague notion: if you make the link between food waste and food-growing more evident, are people more likely to compost their food waste? That was the basic premise, and starting from there that was an idea that we visualised: our idea of getting people to collect and compost their food waste locally, and then grow things with the compost. And once we had done that we were able to use that basic visualisation as a kind of a starting point for a conversation with all kinds of different experts. Whether they were experts because they were people who lived on a housing estate, or they were experts within the local council, or whether they were from the waste management company that was sub-contracted by the council; we spoke to all these people and each of them added to our knowledge and slightly shifted our perception of what the solution needed to be. And that is a process that goes on I think continuously.

You need to continuously change and flex and adapt your thinking to accommodate your learning. But also, you know, things are in flux all the time and I think it’s about being very, very light footed and flexible and you know, keep going. You have to keep at it.

EM: Hm, that’s excellent advice.

RY: Yes, I would agree. I just probably add – and this is advice I probably don’t follow very well (laughs) but it’s really valid nonetheless: don’t try to take on too much. It’s easy to get over-complicated with things sometimes. And you’ll get a lot of positive feedback from people because it’s a concept (waste of energy, closed-loop cycles), it’s a concept that everybody intrinsically likes that, you know, makes sense to them. People don’t like waste and they don’t like waste going to waste.

I’d say…I think what the usual kind of thing, when you’re setting up a project is to look at things like how much waste you have, or how much waste can you get your hands on, and what are the logistics of that. And then what would you like to use the gas and the digestate for – and bear in mind that the digestate is as important, if not more important, than the energy when you’re talking about anaerobic digestion. So it’s not just like an add-on, it’s one of the primary outputs and it often gets a bit overlooked.

But with our kind of digester for instance, the logistics are…basically we’ve got a 2 cubic meter digester. Once we’re fully up and running we’ll be putting in roughly 40 to 50 kilos a day, and pretty much most of that will come out as digestate a day. That’s liquid digestate. So it’s a lot of stuff to use and you have to sure that you’ve got the channels to route this stuff to, otherwise you’ll end up with a lot of surplus that you might end up having to put down the drain.

So, just work on developing the networks for using it, unless you can use it on site, which is perfect. And then think about – in terms of anaerobic digestion again – think about the gas use through the seasons, so not just a one-off use. Unless it’s vehicle fuel, which you can use all the way round the year. But heating you will need less of in the summer, obviously. So you could use it instead to heat hot water for teas and coffees or cooking or something like that. It could be a different use then.

EM: Well yeah, that’s great…great advice too.

CB: Well just building on Rokiah’s point though, I do remember one funding application that we did, which was all about closed-loop recycling, and the thing that they said was…they had three things you absolutely had to have nailed down in order to get this funding: you had to know where your feed stock was coming from, you had to know and have understood how you were going to process it, and you had to know what you were going to do with the output afterwards. So I think that what Rokiah said is absolutely critical, you know, if you get stuck with a growing mountain of, or you know, a waterfall of liquid compost you’ve got a problem (laughs).

EM: (Laughs) Oh my god…

CB: And it’s quite a big problem! Yeah, but if anyone is interested in the project, I’m always very happy to take people round to see our project, so you’re very welcome to pass that message on.

EM: Yes, definitely, anyone in London or England, please go check them out!

CB: I had two ladies come from Czechoslovakia, and they have subsequently set up a composting project and they’re in touch with me, and it’s always very satisfying, you know, because they came and took notes and everything and…. We are putting together a manual now because we’re…in the end of our project the idea is that we replicate what we’re doing, so we keep on developing these small scale recycling projects on housing estates.

RY: I guess I’d like to add, the same thing again: anybody who is interested in visiting our demonstration sites near Kings Cross is really welcome, and they could tie it in with, well they could visit both sites at the same time because they’re practically within walking distance so that’s really good.

CB: Oh yeah, they’re very close to each other, I completely forgot…

EM: (laughs) Right, cool. Okay guys it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the show!

CB: Yes thanks, thank you for your interest!

RY: Thank you!


Separate Collection: The San Francisco Story


This episode corresponds to Lesson 3 of our course.

In this first episode, we are talking to Robert Reed who represents Recology, a company specializing in resource recovery services in the San Francisco region.

Interview by Eleen Murphy


Thank you to BiobiN for making  this episode possible.

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. Whereever organic or wet materials are generated, BiobiN® is THE solution



: Robert you represent Recology, a company based in San Fransisco and specialising in resource recovery services. Could you briefly tell us a little bit more about the company and its activities?

RR: Yes. San Fransisico set a goal of achieving zero waste by 2020, maybe the most ambitious recycling goal that we’re aware of. So we’re doing everything we can to help the city achieve that goal. We’re also an employee-owned company, so the people driving the collection trucks, or working in the recycling plant, or working at the compost facilities all own the company.

EM: Very interesting. I’d like to talk about the so-called organic “waste” generated by our communities around the world. What do you think it takes to change the way these materials are perceived, so that they become valuable in people’s eyes?

RR: Food scraps and plant cuttings, in my mind, are the most important “garbage” there is. That’s where the nutrients are, and that’s where a lot of the carbon is. So we don’t want those materials going to an incinerator to be destroyed. We don’t want those materials going to a landfill where they’ll decompose in an airless or anaerobic environment and produce greenhouse gases – including methane which is a very potent greenhouse gas. You know, all those things came from the earth and they need to go back to the earth. Compost provides farmers a viable alternative to using liquid or chemical fertilisers. So we need to help people understand that, and that composting is a big part of a solution to our environmental challenges. And once people understand that, then they say, “give me a kitchen pale, I want to be part of the solution. I don’t want to send my coffee grounds and peelings to a landfill or incinerator, I want to send it back to the farm.” You know, even the most jaded person who says “why should I do this?” we say “Well geez, do you like fresh peaches? Do you like table grapes and all those good things that they sell at the farmers market?”


“Well you can’t just take away from the organic farm, you have to put something on the farm so they can continue to grow these healthy foods and continue to bring them back to the city, so that they can go onto your table and you can enjoy them and they can support your good health”.

EM: So your main ambition is to educate people?

RR: Yes!

EM: So in San Francisco, are people into recycling? Have people embraced the program?

RR: Yes, most people have embraced these programs. We’re collecting 600 tons a day of food scraps for composting. But you know, if you do a waste characterisation on materials San Francisco are still sending to landfill, you still find 25, 30, 35 percent could be composted. So that tells you we can do a better job and we need to do a better job.

EM: And in addition to improving the soil and our carbon footprint, which we talk about in the lessons on Compostory.org, we often mention that the recovery of organics can benefit local economies. What’s your take on this?

RR: We really need to look at the big picture when it comes to costs, and when you do that, and you’re responsible, you quickly realise that we have to do these things. And by the way, recycling and composting creates many, many jobs and there’s been lots of the reports in the United States in the last two months that we can create tens of thousands of jobs by recycling and composting. Not many people work at landfills, not many people work at incinerators.

EM: Yeah. So are you seeing any trends emerging in the US?

RR: Yes. I think a major development occurred this summer when Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, announced that New York City was going to establish a food scrap compost program and switch from sending food scraps to landfills and incinerators and instead compost them. And then, you know, Boston Massachusetts and other cities started to get on the bandwagon. We’re starting to get our legs, we’re starting to get momentum, we need more composting facilities. We need more places to take this material.

EM: Definitely. So this is going out to an international audience. Is there any piece of advice you can give to the other communities listening in?

RR: This isn’t rocket science, this isn’t putting a man on the moon. There’s not a tremendous amount of engineering, we have all the answers and we have all the techniques. Do we have the will?

EM: That’s an important question. Any other advice?

RR: It’s important to have face-time with the residents and the businesses in your communities. I mean, it’s very helpful to use all this technology but it’s very important to get in front of people, and one of the things we’re trying to do is have tenant meetings at apartment buildings. We’ve been going to community meetings for years, and talking about recycling and composting. And we tour thousands of people, particularly younger people, through our recycling and composting facilities.

EM: So I presume it gets pretty popular once people realise it’s not, like, the hardest thing to do in the world.

RR: Come on, hard? It’s one of the easiest things to do! I mean you put your bottles, your cans, your paper cups and molded plastic packaging and other things that can be recycled into your recycle bin. It’s just as easy to throw those things in a recycle bin as it is to throw them in the garbage can. You know, participating in urban compost collection program is also extremely easy – thousands and thousands and thousands of people do it every day in San Francisco. They do it at home, they do it at work, they do it when they’re in the coffee shop – you just need the infrastructure.

EM: It’s a no-brainer really.

RR: It’s more than that. We have to do it! It’s not going to be that long before we don’t have enough food to feed everybody. We’re really using our topsoil and we’re losing every year. We can’t continue to just take away, we have to give back to the soil. We have to protect the soil, we have to get it back to the farm.

EM: Exactly. Unfortunately though Robert that’s all we have time for today, but that you for sharing your insights with us. Best of luck with Recology, let’s hope San Francisco reaches its zero waste target by 2020.

RR: We’re going to do everything we can to try to make that happen.