Waste and Carbon dioxide: a missing link in sustainable waste management


In this interview with Bill Butterworth, an agriculture scientist and writer from Britain, we learn about how to deal with waste, what the links are with carbon dioxide, and how nature deals with waste. A sustainable future depends on valuing waste as a resource. Yet, humans throw away huge amounts of it. And nothing on Earth can really go "away". So instead of filling landfills, we should mimic nature's ways. We need to close the natural cycle that humanity has broken by throwing away waste. 

Mr Butterworth, what is waste exactly?

No such thing as food waste!
No such thing as food waste!

There are many types of waste. Organic waste is carbon-based. In nature, organic waste are dead organisms, such as fallen trees, leaves, carcasses, etc. In the human world, most people would first think of food waste, but there are also other wastes that can be returned to nature by recycling. For example, paper, natural fiber clothing and many industrial wastes can be composted. Chip board and kitchen and office cupboards are made from wood chip which is glued together with a glue which is compostable. Many such organic wastes also contain Nitrogen, an essential fertilizer. Treated sewage is safe to use on the land and replaces most the trace elements that we need. Most waste that contain Carbon can be recycled by composting. It might sound extreme, but the USA military wondered what to do with battlefield wastes, including the explosive TNT; composting worked safely and completely. 

Bill Butterworth, agricultural scientist.
Bill Butterworth, agricultural scientist.

And there are also many non-Carbon based wastes (not "organic") which can be recycled to soil. For example, the building industry waste of plasterboard is made up of natural Calcium sulphate in a sandwich of two pieces of thin cardboard. The soil micro-organisms, and plants (and ultimately us) can not only use, but need, the Calcium, the Sulphur and the Carbon in the cardboard. 

Could we compost everything? Not in practice. For example, glass and hard plastics don't work in composting but we can recycle these by other routes.

What are the greatest contributors to the planetary crisis we are facing?

From my point of view, two really great problems are too much carbon dioxide in the air, and too much urban waste. Most people will think that both things are unrelated, but that is because we have broken the natural cycle of life. They are two limbs of one great natural cycle that functions perfectly if natural processes are allowed to take place.

What is nature's way of processing organic waste?

Two things can happen with organic waste. In the soil, this organic waste is decomposed by microorganisms and turned into nutrients, so a new generation of plants can grow . This way, healthy black soil forms. It is rich in Carbon and it can sustain life (meaning, crops can grow on it). But if organic waste does not receive Oxygen, for example when it is somehow buried by a layer of mud in a lake, and covered by sediments (over long periods of time - thousands to millions of years), then other processes will take place. Brown coal, crude oil and gas are then the end-products of decomposition. These fossil fuels normally remain buried in the rocks, deep below the surface, and therefore under great pressure, for very long periods of time.

And what is the link between carbon dioxide and organic waste?

When you and I are alive and breathing, we breathe in Oxygen to burn sugars inside our bodies and produce energy. Then we breathe out Carbon dioxide. Fortunately, green plants, that feed on recycled organic waste from the soil, breathe in Carbon dioxide  via their leaves, and turn it into plant matter (which we can eat), and at the same time, release Oxygen into the air. Most soil organisms that process the dead plant debris (i.e. the waste), breathe Oxygen and breathe out Carbon dioxide, just like us. So, there is basically a full nutrient cycle between living organisms, organic waste and carbon dioxide.

We know that carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels have been higher in the past, how has nature dealt with it? Can you give an example?

Yes, in the geological past, nature has already shown it can tackle high levels of CO₂ , and much waste. A good example is that of the forests that existed during the Carboniferous Period. 360 million years ago, at the start of the Carboniferous Period, green-leaved plants became extremely abundant. The atmosphere was much warmer and contained much more carbon dioxide (around 4000 ppm, compared with around 400 ppm now), so plants grew very rapidly. During that time, many great forests got trapped and buried in swamps, and finally got covered by sediments, they were hence not fully decomposed in the topsoil. Instead, they were locked away in the earth's rocky layers and became petroleum. That way, nature has locked away enormous reserves of carbon for millions of years, and CO₂ levels dropped. Now, when we burn those fossilized, hydrocarbon fuels, we release the Carbon dioxide.

Is that not the same as landfill? Why is landfill so bad?

It is not the same, because much of the Carbon buried by geological processes remained locked up until now. Landfills are a threat because the organic materials are, of course, based on Carbon and the micro-organisms present will, in the absence of Oxygen, turn the Carbon into methane which, because it is near the surface, is released to the atmosphere. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. When it is fresh, it is up to 400 times worse than Carbon dioxide. That is very bad but, fortunately, methane deteriorates fairly quickly in air (but then makes, you have guessed it, Carbon dioxide). 

And more than that risk, by filling landfills, we're not using the great resource that waste really are.

And we have been releasing much of the buried Carbon, by burning fossil fuels, a process that must be reversed. What is the role of waste in this process?

Besides the big Carbon downdraw that is needed (through reforestation, stopping forest destruction, etc.), urban waste should be collected on a global scale to convert into natural fertilizer (compost). Food waste from cities, communities, households, schools, hospitals, etc., should be collected in hubs, and composted. The resulting healthy soils should be used to fertilize crops or grow trees. Globally, much of the food we need to live are produced using artificial fertilizers. The production of those fertilizers (mainly ammonia and urea, which contain Nitrogen) requires enormous amounts of electricity, generated by burning fossil fuels. And there is an additional another problem, these manufactured fertilisers are very pure. And that's not what we need. Artificial fertilizers do not have all the "impurities" which are the trace elements that the crops, trees and, indeed, ourselves, need. Composting urban wastes gives the soil micro-organisms, green-leaved plants and us, the trace elements we need for a sustainable future.

K.B.: Thank you very much, Bill, for sharing your expertise with us! It is important that we realise that recycling waste is not only useful, but an utter necessity, to reverse the effects of climate change and to continue providing food for all. 

Bill Butterworth is Director and writer at Land Research Online


Interview taken by Kathelijne Bonne, geologist and soil scientist. 

Good Climate News is an initiative of the Bonne sisters from Belgium, Elisabeth, Helena and Kathelijne.

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