UNAE 310: Reading Project

by sageandhoney

Below is my completed homework project for my class conducting the composting project, UNAE 310. I’m not sure if it was supposed to be this long or if I was overexcited with quotes from great books.  But here is my lengthy work:

Amy Harris

UNAE 310

1. Questions from The Rodale Book of Composting

“N-P-K”: the three “major elements—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium…” (22) needed by plants. These nutrients are released steadily by compost when growing plants need them the most. Though these are the main nutrients, there are a multitude of other essential micronutrients. The presence of these three macronutrients and the many micronutrients are crucial to quality compost. Diversity in the type of residuals and waste being composted, results in higher concentrations of these nutrients. Among the three main nutrients, “nitrogen is a vital component of all protein, essential for the formation of new plant protoplasm…phosphorus is necessary for photosynthesis, for energy transfers within plants, and for good flower and fruit growth…Potassium is used by plant in many life processes, including the manufacture and movement of sugar, and cell division.” (56-57). The compost project intends to, eventually, turn a profit from the compost production. Providing potential buyers with a quality product ensures credibility and sustainability as a business.

C/N: This describes the ratio of carbon to nitrogen and these “nutrients must be present in the correct ratio in your compost heap. The ideal C/N ration for most compost microorganisms is about 25:1…when too little carbon is present, making the C/N ration too low, nitrogen may be lost to the microorganisms because they are not given enough carbon to use with it.”(32).The result of this unwanted situation is the release of ammonia into the atmosphere and a distinctly rancid smell emitting from the compost heap. When the carbon materials are in excess, the composting process is slower, and therefore inefficient. Three common nitrogen sources are: alfalfa, banana residue, and poultry manure. Three common carbon sources are: straw, wood chips, and leaves.

Three composting systems:

Windrows and Piles: Both systems are “heaps for open composting” (155). They are often used “in large-scale agriculture or municipal composting operations” (156) and “can be practiced on any drained land” (156). Windrows and piles allow those composting the material to control all of the particles of their piles by determining how often they turn the piles. No confining structures are required and this method can be implemented on a large scale. The negative aspects of windrows and piles are their vulnerability to weather, necessitating equipment to protect the piles from flooding and evaporation. The size and height of the piles must also be monitored as “too shallow a pile loses heat too rapidly and too high a pile can become compressed by its own weight” (157).

Compost tumblers: These structures “have many advantages if you need only small amounts of compost or want an easy, foolproof method for composting kitchen wastes” (151). Minimalizing work, while keeping critters out of the compost is a major benefit of this system. Tumblers also provide compost in a short amount of time, control the heat of compost, and may even have a turning motor. This “foolproof” method does have its downsides: “the main drawback is that once the drum has reached capacity, you have to wait 2 weeks until that batch is finished before adding fresh materials” (151). This limitation does not allow for the constant adding of fresh materials which is needed by our composting project.

Composting with Earthworms: A pit must be dug “beneath the frost line and outfitted with a heavy, coarse screen on the bottom to keep out moles but allow the free passage of soil dwelling earthworms” (171). By maintaining the earthworm’s temperature and conditions, they are “capable of consuming their own weight in soil and organic matter each day, and leaving behind the richest and most productive compost known. The casting of earthworms contain from 5 to 11 times the amount of available N-P-K as the soil the worms ate to produce those castings” (166). The greatest benefit of composting with earthworms is their ability to produce the highest quality compost known, and the lessened amount of work. The disadvantage is maintaining the proper environment for the worms so they do not die, or become under or over fed. The earthworms will die if the heat is too intense, and materials must be shredded which “takes time and requires fossil energy” (170). Earthworms require protection and care if they are expected to produce great compost.

The three compost systems aforementioned are the most relevant for commercial scale composting. Each method is viable for our project, yet considering our options and the quality of the finished product, composting with earthworms is the most attractive method. There is room to implement worms into other types of composting as well, which may be considered as this project expands.

Anaerobic and aerobic composting: In anaerobic decomposition “the active microbes do not require oxygen” as opposed to aerobic composting where the “active microbes in the heat require oxygen” (33). Anaerobic composting is useful when little space is accessible for a compost heap. Composting occurs when organic material is placed in a plastic bag in the sun, and rolled each day. This process then “provides an ongoing means of composting kitchen garbage and a regular source of small amounts of finished compost” (165). Aerobic decomposition usually occurs where the oxygen source is plentiful and is more common than anaerobic composting. Oxygen is provided during periodic turning, and the oxygen creates air pockets in the compost where microbes are active. Aerobic composting is more popular in part because “aerobic bacteria are also thought to be more beneficial to the soil” (131). Aerobic composting is used in a commercial composting system, despite its being more labor intensive.

Household-level and commercial level composting:

There are three categories of large scale composting systems: “windrows, static piles, and contained systems.” (245). Large scale composting requires the materials to be sorted, so items which cannot be composted are removed, and/or grinding so the residuals and wastes are smaller in size and therefore compost faster. Quality compost and attention to detail so the compost is not hazardous is required and essential in commercial composting. There are several mandatory steps to take concerning protecting public health, legality, and environmental protection imposed on large scale composting businesses. Household composting eliminates the need for commercial composting. The small scale composter does not have to meet any of the legal requirements, or purchase large scale equipment, to which a large scale company must adhere.

Food-web consumers:

The three levels of food-web consumers are categorized as “first-, second-, and third-level consumers….The organisms comprising each level of the food chain serve to keep the populations or the next lower level in check, so a balance can be maintained throughout the compost” (38). Actinomycetes and Fungi exist of this first-level chain. Actinomycetes “liberate carbon, nitrogen, and ammonia” (37) and fungi “obtain energy by breaking down organic matter in dead plants and animals” (37). On the second tier, organisms such as springtails, “feed by chewing decomposing plants, pollen, grains, and fungi” (39). Finally, on the third-level beetles and other small insects “feed on fungal spores” (42) and other smaller organisms.

2. Questions from Peer Research

Three college composting projects:

Ohio University Composting:
History: Initiated by The Department of Facilities Management, especially The Office of Sustainability. Funding:”
Ohio University received $350,000 in grant funding from the Division of Recycling and Litter Prevention within the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Funds were awarded through both the Market Development and College & University grant programs. We received an additional $35,105 for the solar array from the Department of Development’s Energy Loan Fund grant program. The additional funding was provided through the operational budgets of two Ohio University departments: Facilities Management and Auxiliaries.” (http://www.ohio.edu/sustainability/Compost.htm#System_funding). There are estimated pay back fees for the project after 8.35 years as money is saved in landfill disposal fees, chemical fertilizer, organic fertilizer, and food waste reductions. Facilities Management and Auxiliaries mainly support the project. The Office of Sustainability is responsible for this project. An estimated 50% of organic waste would be diverted from landfills, and ¼ less chemical fertilizer would be needed on the grounds, saving around $2500.

Davis Composting:

History: “Project Compost is a student-run, student-funded unit of the Associated Students of the University of California, Davis (ASUCD). Four student staff members, many interns, and even more wonderful volunteers cooperatively manage Project Compost” (http://projectcompost.ucdavis.edu/) Started from an internship with the campus recycling program and started with recyclable, not including food wastes. The student government funded project compost and they picked up pre consumer waste daily with the use of a borrowed vehicle. Project compost is run by 4 paid students, 3 volunteers, and 4 interns and funded by student government. These working members collect 800 pounds of pre consumer waste each day, 25 tons a month.

University of Iowa Compost:

History:Four students proposed a compost plan (almost mirroring our intended plan). “In January 2007, UI Facilities Management Landscape Services, Food Services in University Housing, and the Iowa City Wastewater Division of the Public Works Department agreed to a pilot project proposed by four students from a Civil and Environmental Engineering Sustainable Systems class.” (http://www.facilities.uiowa.edu/ec/compost.htm) 17 tons of food waste was converted into 45 cubic yards of compost to be used on the campus grounds. “This project allowed for food waste to be recycled into compost — saving water, energy, and creating a saleable product.” Funding from student government allowed administration, resident services, facilities management, Iowa City landfill, and administration or student group and city to pursue the pilot project. This project estimates to save $1000 annually, “compost facility will increase the sustainable use of our food and minimize the environmental impact of solid food waste…Some studies suggest that composting helps reduce the total greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, from a landfill.”

Relation to UNR compost project:

Each example has resources and information which can influence our project and be implemented into our prospectus. Our project differs as it employs worms to do the composting, but there are working models of this as well (http://www.bayworms.org/home.htm) which aim to meet the same environmental, economic and sustainable goals.

Equipment and Composting:

  1. Front end loaders for windrows: “Regardless of the method, composting requires about a $12,600 equipment investment for using a tractor…Composting using a turner and tractor requires another $16,600 equipment investment, for a total of $29,200. The front end loader requires an additional $2,750 investment (for costs of a front-end loader at 15 percent of its use), for a total investment of $15,350.” (http://www.cias.wisc.edu/crops-and-livestock/windrow-composting-systems-can-be-feasable-cost-effective/). In another instance I found a front end loader priced at $220,000 (http://www.cityfarmer.org/paulcomp66.html). End loaders range from around $25,000 to $30,000 on EBay.
  2. In vessel aerobic composter: Depending on size prices range from $8,000-$179,000.(http://www.southdadeswcd.org/composters.htm) This model claims rapid composting, composting isolation, control of moisture, temperature and aeration, no offensive odors, rapid decomposition, and high quality product. The system contains an electric motor/gear and requires one person three to four hours each day. The system also claims, “The cost of the in-vessel aerobic composting equipment can be recouped in only two to three years” by saving money on costly commercial fertilizers.
  3. Stump grinders range greatly in price.EBay presents a stump grinder for $16,300. But, many different models and sizes exist which makes the price changeable.
  4. Price of worms and worm bins: the total cost for one bin with the necessary worms is approximately $5500. This would effectively compost somewhere around five-hundred or less pre consumer waste.
  5. Worm harvesters: For a large model which processes 100 pounds of casting in an hour without a motor the price is $895.

Determining which piece of equipment to purchase is extremely difficult as most of these pieces go hand in hand. They are essential to each other and the process of composting; therefore choosing one without the other undermines the entire process. But, choosing the worm and worm bin option uses the least amount of energy and costs less than many of the other options. The worm’s also double every six months, which makes this option more viable and cost efficient in the long run.

UNR Sustainability Benchmark Data:
In relevance to the composting project, the UNR Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory summary concludes that we consume 9,669 pounds of fertilizer, have 7233 tons of short tons of solid waste, and emit over 300,000 pounds of methane gas. The composting project could potentially reduce chemical fertilizers, the amount of solid waste, and the amount of methane as some studies show that composting helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Composting organic materials that have been diverted from landfills ultimately avoids the production of methane and leachate formulation in the landfills…Using compost can reduce the need for water, fertilizers, and pesticides. It serves as a marketable commodity and is a low-cost alternative to standard landfill cover and artificial soil amendments. Composting also extends municipal landfill life by diverting organic materials from landfills and provides a less costly alternative to conventional methods of remediating (cleaning) contaminated soil.” (http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/rrr/composting/benefits.htm). The information missing from the data collected includes each category of solid wastes and where the methane calculation is coming from. Contacting those who conducted this study or John Sagebiel would likely provide the missing information.

3. Questions from Natural Capitalism
Capitalism as if Living Systems Mattered” is described under several fundamental assumptions. In these assumptions the key shift in outlook is the “mind-set and set of values” (9). Unlike many mental models which counter the reality of the potential of living systems, natural capitalism stresses the value and absolute importance of these systems. Several key assumptions stated are: “The limiting factor to future economic development is the availability and functionality of natural capital, in particular, life-supporting services that have no substitutes and currently have no market value….Misconceived or badly designed business systems, population growth, and wasteful patterns of consumption are the primary causes of the loss of natural capital, and all three must be addressed to achieve a sustainable economy….One of the keys to the most beneficial employment of people, money, and the environment is radical increases in resource productivity” (9). This concept of viewing a business where “all forms of capital are fully valued, including human, manufactured, financial, and natural capital” (9) directly relates to the method we take in approaching our composting project. Eliminating unnecessary steps and simplifying our plan so that it is “based on the needs of people rather than business” (10) ensures the longevity and personal care for the project. By diminishing excess steps and focusing our energy on the efficiency of the flow of the project, we ensure that we save energy in the form of fossil fuels (limit excessive transportation and equipment use) and physical and emotion energy. Our business plan must be centered on a simplistic and efficient system using as few steps as possible. Diminishing unnecessary complexities makes the project easier for our class to grasp as well as future students and community members who help and learn from this project.

“Waste” is analyzed and described throughout Natural Capitalism because of the role it plays in today’s conventional capitalism model. Conventional capitalism processes raw materials and then, essentially, wastes these materials, necessitating the gathering of more raw materials. This linear model diminishes raw materials while increasing waste thus “The increasing removal of resources, their transport and use, and their replacement with waste steadily erodes our stock of natural capital” (7).Systems that exist lineally and continue to create waste are both environmentally and economically unsound. Hawkens and Lovins describe how “Resource productivity doesn’t just save resources and money; it can also improve the quality of life. Listen to the din of daily existence—the city and freeway traffic, the airplanes, the garbage trucks outside urban windows—and consider this: The waste and the noise are signs of inefficiency, and they represent money being thrown away” (13). Currently the noise I am hearing from the campus at the University of Nevada is incredibly loud, thus indicating the disregard for money we do not have. The trays in the cafeteria are loaded with excess food, the disproportionate food residuals are emptied into huge bins, and then the loud and obtrusive waste management team noisily pours the slop of leftover spaghetti and burger patties onto a mounting pile of plastic forks and Styrofoam cups. If each year these “wastes” spent comingling in the landfill paid one dollar to the university, we would be absolutely wealthy. Unfortunately, this is not the case; instead a vast amount of product is being unnecessarily disregarded. Our project lies in changing the regard for these products. The plastic and Styrofoam must be replaced with biodegradable or compostable materials, and the food residuals, naturally, must exit the waste stream. Instead of viewing food residuals as unwanted leftovers, we must view them as the essential factor in providing new life. Gradually and hopefully in the new system we are implementing there will be no waste. Waste will not be part of the vocabulary to describe the food residuals because they will hold as much importance as the fresh food itself.

“Muda” is defined by Taiichi Ohno, “the father of the Toyota Production System” (125), as “any human activity which absorbs resources but creates no value” (125). Ohno “opposed every form of waste” (125) and the innumerable and unnecessary processing steps taken to create and distribute products. Currently muda exists in full force on our campus. The university throws away tons of food, pays a company to dispose of this waste, purchases chemical fertilizer for the grass, throws away grass clippings, etc., etc. The “universal antidote to such wasteful practices is what Womack and Jones call “lean thinking,” a method that has four interlinked elements: the continuous flow of value, as defined by the customer, at the pull of the customer, in search of perfection” (127). This perfection is the opposite of muda because it fully captures the efficiency of a system. Our project aims to change the current flow on campus. Instead of throwing away food and grass clippings, and then buying fertilizer (all of which use unnecessary amount of fossil fuels contributing to muda), the new system we are attempting to implement at the university includes a shorter transportation of food residuals to a composting site where high quality compost is created, which in turn replaces the chemical fertilizer used on the lawns and plants. This eliminates muda in several steps concerning the food system at the university and could easily be implemented into many different systems.

“Biomimicry” is concept behind what compost essentially entails. Implementing biomimcry implies, “redesigning industrial systems on biological lines that change the

nature of industrial processes and materials, enabling the constant reuse of materials in continuous closed cycles, and often the elimination of toxicity” (10). The food system at the university is in dire need of redesign, and biomimcry is the answer. Changing the nature of food from toxic and wasteful to beneficial and useful is a key factor in this project. Composting, correctly, creates a product which is non toxic and can be used continuously in a cycle.

“Whole-life system costing” has several essential characteristics which require “not a change in what we know but a shift of what we already know into new patterns” (115). Instead of viewing a process in its separate parts, the whole-life system takes the process into account as a whole and recognizes the benefit of implementing a system that works together well. This costing system is centered on a baseline stated in Natural Capitalism: “Optimizing components in isolation tends to pessimize the whole system—and hence the bottom line. You can actually make a system less efficient while making each of its parts more efficient, simply by not properly linking up those components. If they’re not designed to work with one another, they’ll tend to work against one another” (117).The budget of our project, reflecting this concept, should be lessened if each method we implement complements the system as a whole.

4. Questions from Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry visits different types of agricultural systems around the world for perspective on which systems work sustainably, and which destroy natural resources and essentially fail to produce over long time periods. Chapter 2 is titled “Three Ways of Farming in the Southwest” whereupon he visits and discovers several different approaches to farming in the desert. In observing the Papago, Berry states: “In response to their meager land, the Papago developed a culture that was one of the grand human achievements. It was intricately respectful of the means of life, surpassingly careful of all the possibilities of survival. Their ideal was ‘survival, not triumph’…the people needed each other too much to risk individualism and dissent” (51). He contrasts this method of subsistence with industrial farming stating: “ This is modern industrial farming in its purest form: enormous, costly fields, dependent for their productivity on large machines, fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides….To set this squandering, urban-industrial “agribusiness” against the elegantly conservative traditional agriculture of the Papago is again to illustrate the difference between imposition and adaptation—between bigotryand force on the one hand and grace and skill on the other” (64). This adaptation to the capabilities of the land is relevant to our compost project because it helps determine which method to use based on observation of methods that work well in this area, and have worked well for a long span of time.

The benefits to man practicing traditional farming are as plenty and as complex as the practice itself. Berry speculates on agriculture in very specific human terms: “In an organism, what is good for one part is good for another. What is good for the mind is good for the body; what is good for the arm is good for the heart. We know that sometimes a part may be sacrificed for the whole; a life may be saved by the amputation of an arm. But we also know that such remedies are desperate, irreversible, and destructive; it is impossible to improve the body by amputation. And such remedies do not imply a safe logic. As tendencies they are fatal: you cannot save your arm by the sacrifice of your life….In a biological pattern—as in the pattern of a community—the exploitive means and motives of industrial economics are immediately destructive and ultimately suicidal” (144). Apart from being an ingenious comparison, this excerpt applies to the composting project. In our project we must aim to make each product and addition contribute to the health of the whole. This practice emphasizes balance and knowledge of the system we are working with. Currently our system of food disposal offers no benefits to the community. By taking a different approach than our industrial models, our project serves to educate, exercise, encourage and inspire the community while contributing to health and economic viability.

The primary characteristics of traditional agriculture are: complexities, biological, circular, placement of farm based on natural resources, durable, conservative, increased lands productivity, adapted, work with the land, enrich soil health, benefit the health of man, communities, and the planet, and have no foreseeable end; they are successful. Mostly in opposition, the characteristics of industrial agriculture are: simplified, linear, placement of farm based on ability to use large machines, large, flat, irrigated fields, enormous, costly fields, dependent for their productivity on large machines, fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides (63), fossil water, inefficient, imposing, imported, force the land to conform, destroy soil health, human health and the planets health, they are destroying land and hence failing. Both traditional and industrialized agriculture depend on the health of the soil and the work of man, but these two essentials are approached vastly differently by each system. Both components of industrial and traditional agriculture characteristics are embedded in our composting project. While our project intends to follow tradition more than industrialization, we continue to depend of large machinery to bring us our food residuals, and then transport our finished project. But, hopefully, the projects effect in terms of enhancing our health, the community and the world’s health is effectual enough to make our system more traditional than industrial. As soon as we start trying to undermine biological systems we are in trouble, but as long as we work and adapt with the land we will maintain a mostly traditional model.

On his own farm Wendell Berry uses several old models of machinery. He has witnessed “how well designed and durable they are, and what good work they do” (105). But with the emergence of the tractor Berry states: “the coming of the tractor made it possible for a farmer to do more work, but not better” (105). The technology of modern industrial agriculture has allowed work to be done faster, but with less quality. Berry’s definition of a “good tool” is “one that permits a worker to work both better and faster” (108) and beyond this a good tool must be directed by a “healthy social purpose” (109). Enormous tractors employ neither the “better” part of the equation nor the “healthy social purpose” part of the equation, and therefore cannot be defined as a “good tool.” A positive approach to agricultural machinery is to apply all of the aspects of this equation to the tool in question. Quality must precede speed. In monetary terms and in questioning the quality of our finished product, Berry’s analysis is absolutely relevant to our composting project. If we use large machines which work too quickly and ruin the quality of our product we are essentially wasting our time and energy. But if we use the necessary tools to insure the greatest quality and efficiency in our work we are taking the steps to make us successful.
Three questions for Wendell Berry:

1. Do you have any internships available for farming, traveling, writing, or general life skills? (I want to work and learn from this guy)

2. What advice do you have for us to remain in line with tradition, adapt to the land, and which tools would you most highly recommend? (Other than horses, that may not be in the budget…)

3. In the midst of seeing such exemplary and dismal examples of agriculture how do you spread and maintain hope in a fully sustainable farming future?

5. Cradle to Cradle: Diminishing waste by continuous “repair, reuse and remanufacturing” (Natural Capitalism pg 19) of a product. Composting food is an ideal case of cradle to cradle where food residuals are repaired into compost, reused on either a lawn or garden, and then remanufactured into new food or healthy plants.

Precautionary Principle: the moral responsibility of taking actions that may cause irreversible harm to the society or the environment. Industrial agriculture most directly comes to mind as they are using toxins and chemicals and innumerable other dangerous substances. Our composting project is morally responsible for the way we conduct our system and the products we offer.

Ecological Footprint: a measurement of each individual’s personal demands and strains on the planet. It measures on a comparative scale, stating, for instance, that if everyone abused the planet like “you” we would need several additional planets. Lessening our individual and the universities impact on the environment is one of the key components providing influence and drive in our project.