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RE: [greenyes] Composting vs. Landfillling

Jeff's question, and John's comprehensive reply regarding decomposition in landfills and bioreactors makes me realize the real value and tremendous resource that this list represents.

I am interested, of course, in the food waste issue, because I have long been an advocate for keeping food discards (I won't even call them wastes, because they are truly a resource) out of landfills, far preferring to feed them to worms so that the result of their decomposition by the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, aided and eaten by the worms will recycle the nutrients back onto soil. It certainly doesn't take a year or three for this to happen in a vermicomposting system. When it is done at the household level, food discards don't even have to enter the collection and centralized processing systems. For those who think this is insignificant, consider that cities like Seattle and San Jose have thousands of people with worm bins keeping their organic food wastes out of collection and processing systems. Literally tons of worms processing tons of garbage. As effective larger onsite vermicomposting systems become available, this becomes even more significant.

I found much of interest in John's valuable report, and I will take time later to visit the references he cites. But in the meantime, I note his comments about lignin and the difficulty in getting it to degrade, with the possible result that newspaper and other high-lignin materials will not contribute to methane generation because of this difficulty in anaerobic conditions. Again, let's look to biology. Fungi are amazing producers of enzymes that break the ligno-cellulose bond. Working in aerobic conditions, degradation occurs readily. Shitake mushrooms working on spent grains from breweries, for example, are known to break this bond and make the resulting substrate more suitable for digestion by cows. We can eat the mushrooms, the cows digest the spent grain substrate first fed to mushrooms better than they would have otherwise. Less methane from the cows (fewer methane-laden burps and farts, hence less global warming), and they reportedly gain more weight from less feed and produce less manure.

Back to worms, newspaper, corrugated, other high cellulose materials are a component of worm beddings. In the diverse ecosystem of a worm bin, it takes just a couple of months, perhaps even weeks, for the fungi, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, and earthworms to break down these otherwise recalcitrant materials into more plant-available forms. The stable form, humus, is a large-complex molecule that has many binding sites to hold on to other nutrients in the system. When applied to gardens, or in fields, this nutrient-laden humus makes the heavy metals that can be problematic in landfills available as needed by plants that require trace quantities to support their most effective--and nutritious! growth.

It's taken the earth and its organisms billions of years to learn how to make things work. Learning's a process. It takes successes and it takes failures. As we learn from each other, let's also learn from the organisms that have truly learned how to recycle and make resources available to everyone.

Thanks, Jeff, for your initial question. Sometimes the greatest contribution to a list like this is the question that stimulates the kind of thoughtful and informative response that John gave. I hope my response adds more to the discussion.

Mary Appelhof

The context:

Jeff's comment: "With bioreactor landfills (or landfills that attempt to pass for them) becoming more commonplace, I believe that those of us putting public money into yardwaste and organics composting programs will come under increased pressure to justify the reasons for doing so."

Date: Mon, 20 Dec 2004 09:20:54 -0600
To: "'Aluotto, Jeff'" <Jeff.Aluotto@no.address>,
"'greenyes@no.address'" <greenyes@no.address>
From: "Reindl, John" <Reindl@no.address>
Subject: RE: [greenyes] Composting vs. Landfillling
Message-ID: <1AE676D5B7BB9C479D08D9278C6DFB5408405687@no.address>

Hi Jeff ~

This is a highly complex issue, with a lot of variables and =
so I hope that you will bear with me.

At least four issues need to be covered: (1) gas generation and its
disposition, (2) the acid phase of landfills, and (3) the impact of =
on degradation under anaerobic conditions, (4) the value of the =

First, the gas generation disposition.

Dane County explored this issue when it did its initial study on =
food from landfills. Our landfills recover methane gas and generate
electricity, selling over $1 million in power a year and the question =
about the effect of diverting food on electricity revenues. For over 10
years, we have not taken yard materials, so that was not an issue.=20

What we found was that the situation varies considerable with the
infrastructure of the gas collection system, but in our case, the
environmental benefits of diversion are great.

The issue hinges upon the relative time for materials to degrade, and =
based on the concept of a half-life. The basic idea is -- just like
radioactivity -- the decomposition of materials under either aerobic or
anaerobic conditions are likely to follow a first order decay curve. =
degradation under "average" conditions in a landfill according to a =
seminar presentation by Professor Bob Ham is that the half life of =
materials are:

food, garden debris 0.5 to 1.5 years
paper, wood 5 to 25 years

In a more recent study done for the Norwegian government, =
ved avfallsbehandling [Environmental Costs from Solid Waste =
ECON Senter for =F8konomisk analyse, December 2000), more detailed =
of half lives of solid waste in landfills are provided on page 74 as:

wet organics 2.8 years
paper 8.4 years
wood 10.5 years
textiles 10.5 years

For our existing landfill, we install the gas recovery system so that =
openings in the pipes to recover the gas are only in the layers that =
are at
least 5-7 years old. We do not want to draw oxygen through the surface =
the landfill into the lower layers because this will change the =
from an anaerobic to an aerobic situation and only under anaerobic
conditions will methane be produced.

Given the short half life of food and garden debris, much will start to
degrade quickly and will do so aerobically, and then anaerobically. If =
gas extraction system is only recovering gas from layers that are at =
five years old, under the assumption of a half life of 1 year for food =
grass clippings and other wet organics, less than 6% of the original
material will typically be available, and we concluded for our system =
the contribution of this gas to our recovery system was negligible. =
this gas would largely escape to the atmosphere and contribute to =
warming. Thus, under our gas collection system configuration, diversion =
food and garden debris is beneficial from a gas and environmental =

Of course, a bio-reactor may have an entirely different gas collection
configuration, which would change the conclusions. Thus, the actual =
must be known before a definitive conclusion can be reached.

The acid phase of landfills.

The degradation of solid waste in a landfill goes through a series of =
distinct phases. To simplify things, one of the early stages is called =
"acid phase", because at this stage (soon after aerobic decomposition =
switched to anaerobic decomposition), the conditions in the landfill =
very acidic, dissolving out heavy metals in a leachate flush. This is a
condition that landfill operators would very much like to avoid if they =
The acids are basically caused by the decomposition of the materials in =
and garden debris and grass clippings. After the acid phase, the =
becomes basic and continues there for a long period of time.

Wisconsin has a work group to look at how to achieve quicker stability =
organics in landfills to reach the point where the organics would not =
be an
environmental risk. In looking at rapid decomposition in landfills, =
options are available -- (1) pump air into the landfill for the entire =
using an aerobic (i.e., composting) approach, (2) keep the air out, =
the landfill operate as an anaerobic system, or (3) do a hybrid, =
pumping air
into the site to get past the acid stage and then go anaerobic. It =
that the hybrid approach has a lot of advantages over the anaerobic =
because of the avoidance of the acid phase, but, it is more technically
complex and costly, and reduces the methane generation and income from =
degradable material. Thus, there are no clear winners. Viewed another =
there is no clear advantage to having the food and garden debris in the
site, since it is these materials that produce the acid phase.=20

Lignin and decomposition

The third issue to highlight is the impact of lignin on anaerobic
decomposition and whether a bio-reactor will work at all. There are =
stories of old landfills being dug up and the waste layers dated by =
the dates from the newspapers. This is because lignin is extremely =
to degradation in anaerobic conditions and newspapers have very high =
of lignin, on the order of 25-30%. A really good paper on the impact of
lignin to inhibit degradation is found on the Internet at Articles specifically =
lignin and degradation in landfills by Ham, et. al., can be found in
Environmental Science and Technology, 1995, pages 2305-2310 and the =
of Environmental Engineering, December 1998, pages 1193-1202.=20

What the research suggests is that bio-reactors -- being anaerobic =
-- are not going to achieve breakdown of the organics in newsprint and =
high lignin materials, and thus are not going to achieve true organic
stability. Thus, one of the major reasons for bio-reactors -- stability =
the organics and less long term care -- is very questionable.=20

Incidentally, the lignin issue also needs to be considered when =
the potential methane generation from landfills. While the newsprint =
other lignin-containing materials could theoretically produce methane, =
actual methane generation is minimal from these substrates and thus the
total potential generation must be correspondingly reduced. This will =
both the economics of the sites and as well as the calculations of
efficiencies. The literature that I have seen on both methane potential =
efficiencies, unfortunately, ignore this issue.=20

The economics of composting

In our area, we have found some interesting results vis-=E0-vis the =
issues. First, we have encouraged leaving grass clippings on the lawn =
home composting of garden debris, food and leaves. This has saved our
collection systems enormous amounts of money. On the other hand, we =
operate three yard material composting sites (mainly for leaves) and =
that there is extremely strong competition for our finished compost, =
some landscapers wanting to buy our sites so that they can have all the
compost. While in might be theoretically possible to recover compost =
bio-reactors, I am not aware of any successful operations of this type. =

So, in closing, this is a very complex subject. And, while I know that =
points do not completely answer your questions, I hope that they are of =

Best wishes,

John Reindl, Recycling Manager
Dane County, WI

Mary Appelhof, Author, Worms Eat My Garbage

"Changing the way the world thinks about garbage"

Subscribe to free WormEzine at

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