Composting Case Study: Holistic Waste Management

I’m not sure whether it is a quaint notion, or a condescending one, but there appears to be a sense among some people that sustainability is easy to ‘do’. I admit they are right in that it is easy to do poorly. To do it well takes a number of attributes: knowledge/understanding; commitment; experience; and, a holistic approach. It is not child’s play.

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I would argue that the last two are the most critical to achieving excellence, and that they go hand-in-glove. There is nothing wrong with commitment and knowledge – indeed, they are the essential starting points – but everyone should be prepared to make mistakes on the way.

Along the rocky road of mistakes and embarrassment is where one meets experience and holistic thinking. They do not come by Waiting for Godot, but by seeking the Good Life.

Of course making mistakes in the privacy of our own homes and sections is better than making them in public. But if one wants to reach out to their community, she or he must be prepared for public scrutiny, particularly from those who will take every opportunity to criticize the conservation movement.

This is the reality of the world we share, and unfortunately, this is where sustainability can get a bad reputation: when well-intentioned but inexperienced people take on public projects for which they are not qualified. There have been a number of such failed projects in Whanganui, and I wonder if those failures have diminished the potential for subsequent projects.

In almost every case, I put down failure to reductionist approaches to what are inherently holistic challenges. Put another way, applying simple solutions to complex problems. Nowhere is this more evident, in my experience, than with waste minimization efforts.

In schools and organizations, and at large events, I have observed the failure of recycling efforts as a failure of the planners – as well-intentioned as they may be – to design and manage the systems holistically.

In a strange and unpredicted series of events, I found myself facing exactly such a situation recently. I was volunteered by my wife to help a local organization minimize waste at a large community event. It was last minute, but I agreed to advise them, help them set up, and remove compostable material afterward.

Everything looked good until a series of reductionist interpretations of sustainability complicated what otherwise would have been a smooth, easy, excellent example of waste minimization.

First of all, a Council employee informed us there would be a charge for wheelie bins that had been purchased using ‘waste minimization fund’ dollars specifically for event use. Put simply, charging for bins is a barrier to waste minimization, and would appear to go against the spirit of money specifically earmarked for waste minimization. Pretty straightforward, eh?

Next, and much more complex, is the use of so-called bio-cups. When my wife told me that the caterers had agreed to purchase biodegradable products, my first reaction was not elation. Here is why.

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Following what was likely a best ever in NZ waste minimization programme at the Masters’ Games last February, I found my 30-day compost contaminated with 548-day ‘bio-cups’. In other words, the hot compost regimen I embrace produces an excellent, finished product in one month, but upon contacting the distributor of the cups, I was informed to expect 18 months.

I see bio-cups as a reductionist approach to a holistic challenge because somewhere in the world, a perhaps well-intentioned group of people invented a product to replace plastic cups. How honourable!

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But from a holistic perspective, bio-cups actually get in the way of waste minimization because they make the entire composting process much harder. On the one hand, I don’t know of many home composters who would tolerate a year and a half of plastic-looking cups lingering long after everything else had rotted down. On the other hand, I know of no commercial composting operations that would accept this product because time is money, and bio-cups would be seen as a contaminant that could result in them rejecting an entire load of green waste and redirecting it to landfill. Waste not minimized.

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So here we sit, Verti and I, sieving thousands of bio-cups out of our Master’s Games Gold Medal Compost. Despite how Verti makes it look, this is not child’s play.

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