a talk to the Composting Association Scotland's seminar, 'Planning, Permitting and Purchasing, Perth, 01 May 2008
It is good, if somewhat unexpected, to be here. I am not a government minister, in fact more often a government critic. So it’s hard to resist a platform which could have been Richard Lochhead’s or Michael Russell’s. I wish Richard Lochhead well with he and his wife’s new baby.
Like any good opening speaker, I'll start with some jokes, and I'll assume you're broadminded. Composting: in crude terms, in one sense, maybe stretching definitions a little, what we’re talking about here is shit - and boy are there lots of jokes about that. I particularly like the way the simple word can be used to help define almost any human framework of belief.
So an atheist, for example, would say “I can’t believe this shit!” whereas an agnostic: “Shit might have happened; then again, maybe not.”
Buddhist: Shit will happen, keep a clear mind.
Zen Buddhist: What is the sound of shit happening?
Calvinist: Shit happens because you don’t work.
Catholic: If shit happens, you deserve it.
Hindu: This shit has happened before.
Presbyterian: This shit was bound to happen.
Quaker: Let us not fight over this shit.
Capitalist: That’s MY shit.
Communist: It’s everybody’s shit.
Rastafarian: Let’s smoke this shit!
To get closer to our topic today:
Darwinist: This shit was once food.
Gardener: Shit helps plants grow.
Yes it does, and I guess in a nutshell that’s why we’re all here - going from shit to a lot of ps - Planning, Permitting and Purchasing. What I want to do this morning is outline my personal experience with composting, look briefly at the facts about composting trends in Scotland, and recent initiatives from government, and then go on to raise some general questions to get you thinking about approaches to the issue, and what needs to be done, by way of a warm-up act for the real experts that will follow me. And I’ll end with a few hopefully more highbrow thoughts than those I began with.
First, the usual caveats. It is daunting for a journalist to talk to people. I am more used to reporting what they say rather than having to say what I think myself. It is particularly daunting when you know that most of the audience will know more than you about the subject of your talk. So I stress that I am in no sense an expert, merely an observer, a writer, as well as a individual consumer and waste producer, waste disposer, waste recycler and composter. The views I express are mine, and mine alone, and not those of any of my employers. Please forgive me if I get anything wrong - and if I steal others’ ideas and pass them off as my own, but, hey, I’m a journalist, that’s part of what I do.
I remember my Dad’s compost heap in the garden. Just a heap of selected garden refuse, it was. But it used to smell of rotting grass, and I’d always be amazed at the heat it would generate. Then for a while I helped run an allotment in Edinburgh, and we were desperate for compost or manure. Some allotment holders used to follow horses round the street with shovels. We didn’t go that far, but I do remember going to Edinburgh zoo to pick up assorted animal manure and straw from camels, zebras, whatever. It was only once that we found an afterbirth in our sample.
Then I and my family lived in Germany for a few years in the 1990s. That was a culture change - seven waste streams I think we had, one of which was organic waste. It was a big wheelie bin which we were encouraged to fill with all kitchen waste, including meat. In the summer, the writhing maggots were a little offputting, but we persevered. I never saw it, but German friends told of going to the local council’s industrial-scale composting plant and marvelling at the wonder of it. All this shit turned into something useful.
Back in Edinburgh in the late 1990s I was, frankly, embarrassed by the return to a throwaway culture. Virtually nothing was recycled. But then, gradually, things began to change. Driven by the European landfill directive, which was pushing up the cost of landfill, the last Scottish Executive began to get serious about recycling, and started investing many millions of pounds to enable councils to boost recycling. And what a difference it has made.
In Edinburgh - and I know it’s different in other areas, but that’s another problem - we put the glass, tins and paper out one Wednesday, then cardboard and drinks cartons the next Wednesday. The brown wheelie bin for garden waste is now going out every other Wednesday, to go, I assume, to a composting plant. Like good citizens, we chopped up and put our Christmas tree in it, even if it did have to wait, along with heaps of other garden refuse until April to be collected. And of course, courtesy of the City of Edinburgh Council, I have a little green bin under my sink for food waste - this time not including meat - and a big green composting tub in the back garden full to the brim.
Basically, I’m happy with the system. It seems to work. I’m a little worried sometimes about whether everything I put out actually gets recycled - more about that in a minute - and I am a little concerned that some of items collected for recycling might end up in China. But I’d much rather be trying to do something that doing nothing. It seems to me an obvious fact that carrying on dumping our rubbish in holes in the ground is unsustainable.
And I can feel the heat from the compost tub in my back garden like I used to do in my Dad’s garden. I have had several excellent years of warm black mulch to feed my potatoes and other vegetables, I have learnt not to put in egg shells - they just don’t seem to decompose. And I have found all the random bits of plastic that have mistakenly found their way into our kitchen waste bin. There’s only one thing that so far I haven’t managed to do, and that is to persuade my 15-year old daughter of the value and worth taking the weekly trip into the garden to empty the kitchen waste bin into the compost tub. “Ugh, that’s disgusting” is her normal response. But we’ll get there.
Composting is without a shadow of a doubt a good thing. It’s good on so many levels, domestically, at a community level, regionally, nationally and internationally. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the ground, it’s good for the soul. Above all, it’s satisfying, deeply satisfying, to be able to use natural processes to break down waste and then recycle it to help plants grow.
To say all that of course is easy. What’s more difficult is to say where we are as a country, and where we should be going on composting policy. First some facts I gleaned yesterday from the most recent waste statistics made available by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).
In 2003-04 local authorities collected 113,944 tonnes of waste for composting, mostly by people bringing it to collection points or from kerbside collections. After taking account of the weight loss from the composting process, SEPA’s figures show that 32% of the compost was used as a soil conditioner and for landscaping, 23% was in the process of being composted, 22% was used for landfill restoration, 18% was in the somewhat opaque - at least to me - category of “meeting BSI PAS 100 Standard and not subsequently subjected to a disposal operation”. And finally five per cent - near 5,000 tonnes - were used as daily cover at landfill sites - an operation that is classed as disposal, not recycling. In 2003-04 local authorities also distributed 25,352 composters to households.
Move forward two years to 2005-06, and the figures change. According to SEPA, the total amount of waste collected for composting by local authorities was 319,422 tonnes - approaching three times more than in 2003-04. That is clearly a major improvement. However, the figures make plain that there were still problems in using some of the material for the purposes for which it was collected. After taking account of weight loss, 35% was used as a soil conditioner or for landscaping, 26% met the BSI PAS 100 standard, 11% was used for landfill restoration and much of the rest was unused or used for other undefined purposes. Unfortunately, though, 26,196 tonnes of all the waste collected for composting - eight per cent - was disposed of instead of being composted, according to SEPA’s figures, and a further 6,776 tonnes - two per cent - were used as daily cover for landfill, which is classed as disposal. So what that seems to mean to me is that in total a tenth of the waste collected for composting was dumped as landfill instead in 2005-06. By far the largest category included in that is mixed municipal waste from kerbside collections.
To me that seems to be a problem. If I, or another journalist, wrote a story saying that one in ten bins of waste collected for composting weren’t actually being composted but dumped instead, surely that would undermine confidence in the system? People would wonder why they were bothering to put out waste for composting when it wasn’t being composted. Perhaps someone can tell me if I have misunderstood something, or this has been addressed since, but, if not, I would suggest that it’s an issue that needs looking at.
Yesterday I also took a look at what the one-year-old Scottish government has done on composting. Since the last election, one news release has been issued mentioning compost. Under the banner ‘Towards a zero waste Scotland’ on 25 March the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, Richard Lochhead, launched the 2008 ‘Composting at Home Campaign’. Over 160,000 composting bins had so far been distributed to households, the release said. Lochhead launched the campaign in Fife, which at that time held the record for recycling or composting more waste than any other local authority - 36.2% - and were the first council to make a commitment to sending zero waste to landfill by 2020. The minister also said that a new ‘zero waste think tank’ involving 13 experts was holding its first meeting. Yesterday I also got a news release from the City of Edinburgh Council announcing ‘compost fun for everyone’ at the Seafield recycling centre this Sunday, as part of the ‘Composting at home’ campaign. Maybe I’ll try and get my daughter to go.
Now that all sounds good to me, but the question is, is it enough? It’s a pity the minister, or his deputy, couldn’t be here today to spell out their future thinking in more detail. I’m a little curious to know exactly what ‘zero waste’ actually means. That absolutely nothing is wasted, included egg shells and meat wastes? Is zero waste technically possible? I’m sure that when Richard Lochhead resurfaces from changing all those - doubtless washable and reusable - nappies, he will endeavour to enlighten us.
So in the absence of a government representative, I asked our good hosts today, the Composting Association Scotland's, what needed to be said about what needed to be done. First of all they stressed the need for action to cut waste and increase composting. The ripples of fear and sporadic shortages caused by the two days of industrial action over pensions at Grangemouth earlier this week is like a foretaste of things to come. When something like that happens it makes us realise how much we depend on oil, and how vulnerable the pattern of our daily lives becomes if someone threatens to turn off the tap. For me, it’s like a reminder of how fundamentally unsustainable our current fossil fuel lifestyle is. Boosting composting may seem like a small response, but it’s one of the many things we need to do to help cut the pollution that is disrupting the climate.
But in order to get serious about composting, says the Composting Association, we need to get serious about long term planning, something that is often lacking at the moment. We need to invest in equipment for the collection and processing of organic materials into compost with high quality assurance and ensuring that it is fit for use. This also requires adherence to all the requirements of getting proper permissions, and of course none of this comes cheap.
Compost has to be seen, says the association, as having a value and investment in the future of the country if for no other reason that its ability to enable us to grow more sustainable biofuels and biomass crops on land that would not otherwise be used for food production. Scotland has a massive landbank well placed to benefit greatly from such a strategy, and it’s perhaps time to ditch some old inhibitions and restrictive ideas.
I understand and sympathise with this plea, but I would add a few important riders. Biofuels might have a small contribution to make, but governments internationally have hugely exaggerated the benefits and ignored the potential pitfalls in promoting biofuels, especially at a time of an emerging world food crisis. That’s why the caveat that biofuels should only be grown on land that would not otherwise be used for food production is vital. We cannot take food from the mouths of the starving in order to fuel cars - as that’s what biofuels could do.
Another problem I see, directly linked to today’s themes of planning and permitting. Any major composting plants will have to win public support, and that’s going to be a problem. There will be the Nimby syndrome to overcome - Not In My Back Yard. Not to mention NANMBY - not anywhere near my back yard, or NOTE - not over there either, or NOPE - not on planet earth - or even BANANA - build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything. People will object to composting plants, some of them, I venture to suggest, with good reason. They are gong to be worried about smells, so that, for example, Edinburgh’s attempt to sell composting at Seafield this weekend will not be helped by the intermittent stink that emanates from the nearby sewage sludge treatment plant, on which SEPA took legal enforcement action last Friday. Similarly in Glasgow, the Daldowie sewage sludge treatment plant run by Scottish Power to make fuel pellets for Longannet has repeatedly been rated by SEPA as one of Scotland’s worst polluters, mostly to do with the pong it creates. Now I realise that these are not the same as composting plants, but I mention them just to illustrate the potential problems. Communities will be suspicious of plans for major composting plants, and worried. They will need to be won over, particular to new and unfamiliar concepts like anaerobic digestion. Plans for just such a plant in the English village of Ambridge have provoked fierce opposition, some informed some not. But of course that’s a fictional place from the BBC Radio Four soap, The Archers - but the point is still valid. Selling major innovations in composting will not be easy, and will require, skill, resources and, above all, complete honesty.
That’s more or less all I want to say, other than to leave you with two quotes that I think embody some of the essential wisdom of composting. The first is from an native American chief called Tahanie. He said: “You can tell how high a society is by how much of its garbage is recycled.” True, I would say, wouldn't you?
The second quote is a little longer, and comes from the Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, from the section named after the village of East Coker.
“In my beginning is my end. In succession Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass. Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires, Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth Which is already flesh, fur and faeces, Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.”