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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 20, 2008

Organic waste can replenish the Earth

Illustration by Forest Byrd

The city of Albany has an incentive to bring more garbage to the rapidly filling dump on Rapp Road. The incentive is money.  The financially strapped city takes in millions of dollars from landfill users.

This works at cross-purposes to the now-accepted mantra for wise environmental stewardship: Reuse, recycle, and reduce.

Enter: The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Living up to its name — note the “conserve” in conservation — the DEC is issuing new directives to expand recycling programs with an emphasis on the commercial, industrial, and institutional sector, including schools.

In just over a year, it’s expected the Rapp Road dump will be filled. The last expansion eight years ago is falling five years short of predicted capacity. The expansion plan is unpopular. At a packed hearing on a proposal two years ago, residents objected to the stench and spoke out about the need to protect the ecologically sensitive Pine Bush.

Residents of Coeymans, where the city of Albany purchased a 363-acre parcel to build a new landfill, don’t want the garbage either.

The most sensible solution is to pare down waste. The DEC regulations are a step in the right direction. The DEC plan sets out a goal that the residential waste diversion and recycling for the dozen municipalities involved will grow from last year’s 15.5 percent to 29 percent in 2011.

But recycling alone isn’t enough. What is needed is a large-scale composting system, like some European countries have. Albany has a leaf-composting facility but a lot of yard waste isn’t composted. Every year, Americans throw away 24 million tons of leaves and grass; leaves alone can account for 75 percent of the solid waste in the fall.

The new DEC plan says that backyard composting and grass waste mulching “will be promoted wherever appropriate…through brochures and website postings.”

The kids at Farnsworth Middle School could teach us a lesson; they use rotating compost to fertilize their organic vegetable garden.

Promotional brochures and website postings are a start, but often people need more incentive. Why not require the dozen members of the Solid Waste Management Partnership that use the Rapp Road landfill to be part of a composting system? Residents with lawns and gardens could use their waste to fertilize and those not so inclined could contribute to the municipal system.

Two decades ago, recycling seemed like a hassle but now all of our municipalities have recycling programs in place and residents comply, many of them enthusiastically.

Composting doesn’t have to stop with yard waste. The average American family produces more than 1,200 pounds of organic garbage every year; about 70 percent of the garbage Americans create is compostable. Organic waste buried in a landfill releases explosive methane gas, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to air pollution and global warming.

Two years ago, an Albany Common Council member told us he remembered that, when he was a kid, the city collected food scraps separately and sold the scraps to local pig farmers. If municipalities supply residents with waste bins for recycling paper or plastic or metal, why not supply them with bins for composting food wastes?  Or why not require planning unit members to participate in municipal composting of organic waste?

Rather than filling dumps, polluting the environment, we can return our organic waste to the earth to replenish it naturally.

A system-wide approach can make a difference. The Guilderland School Board earlier this month decided to create a new post of conservation coordinator, likening it to the post of the energy manager who has saved the district thousands of dollars by getting students and staff to change their habits, for example, by turning off lights when they leave a classroom.

It’s expected the post will pay for itself as the coordinator increases recycling.

Similarly, the Solid Waste Planning Unit members will be paying to hire the consortium’s first-ever recycling coordinator. The new $100,000 post may seem extravagant with the state in a financial meltdown but such oversight is needed to make regional changes effective.

Old habits die hard. To preserve our earth, we need to make changes. Now.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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