State Water Resources Research Institute Program

Project ID: 2012DC142B
Title: Composting Makes Sense
Project Type: Research
Start Date: 3/01/2012
End Date: 2/28/2013
Congressional District: DC
Focus Categories: Nutrients, Economics, Agriculture
Keywords: compost, nutrient management, stormwater management, sustainable urban infrastructure, waste management
Principal Investigators: Ways, Howar; Platt, Brenda (Institute for Local Self-Reliance)
Federal Funds: $ 0
Non-Federal Matching Funds: $ 21,900
Abstract: Despite decades of attention, the Chesapeake Bay watershed suffers from excessive nitrogen and phosphorus levels due to nutrient-laden run-off pollution. Excess fertilizers from farms and suburban lawns, sewage from septic systems, and sediment from construction projects wash off the land and into our waterways every time it rains. About 60% of soil that is washed away ends up in rivers, streams and lakes, contaminating waterways with soil's fertilizers and pesticides. Soil erosion also reduces the ability of soil to store water and support plant growth. Nationally, soil is being swept and washed away 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished, destroying acres of cropland, despite the fact that the need for food and other agricultural products continues to grow. The economic impact of soil erosion is enormous.

The good news is that many of these problems can be mitigated by expanding the use of compost made from animal manures and municipal yard trimmings and food scraps. Compost adds needed organic matter to soil, sequesters carbon in soil, improves plant growth, reduces water use by 10%, avoids landfill methane and waste incinerator emissions, reduces reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and helps prevent nutrient-run-off and soil erosion. It represents a win-win solution to urban food waste problems as well as rural animal manure problems. Furthermore, unlike recycling, composting is inherently local and part of the natural ecosystem. Recovered organics cannot be shipped abroad to be made into compost; this happens locally with myriad benefits to the local economy and environment.

While our soils erode and lose nutrients, we throw away millions of tons of food scraps and yard trimmings. Putrescible materials make landfills a top source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Trash is linked to climate change, contributes to air pollution in the region (as many DC-area jurisdictions rely on incineration), and impacts the region's watershed. Furthermore, the District and the Mid-Atlantic region in general lag behind the nation in composting programs and policies. While year-round yard trim collection programs are common around the country, DC only composts fall leaves. Food residuals composting is expanding across the country, but little infrastructure exists in our region.

The goal of the Composting Makes Sense Project is to research and document the watershed and other community benefits of composting organic discards to the District and the surrounding region, and to identify specific policies for implementation that will help expand the use of compost as a watershed protection method. University of the District of Columbia students will work under the guidance of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), a local nonprofit organization working to expand the use of compost in the region, to undertake this research.

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