Memo 2: The History of Composting

History of Composting

2334 BC: The Akkadian Empire incorporated the use of manure within their agricultural practices in the Mesopotamian Valley. This practice was known and recorded on their clay tablets (Smith, Friend, and Johnson 2012).

18th to early 19th Century: Because the United States had an abundance of land rich with nutrients, many farmers disregarded the idea of sustainable farming practices. The use of composting as a means to maintain soil fertility was not considered a worthwhile practice to invest in, which led to significant depletion of vital nutrients in the soil (Blum 1992).

Mid 19th Century: The depletion of soil nutrients because of unsustainable farming practices led to a substantial decrease in crop production, especially in areas near the East Coast. The decline in crop production prompted farmers to explore better and more sustainable ways to farm. Composting was seen as a solution to the problem. Farmers now stressed the importance of reusing organic wastes produced in their own farms as a means to maintain soil fertility. The growth of urban cities such as New York and Philadelphia also played a role in the renewed interest towards composting in agriculture. Increased organic wastes produced from these cities were transported to farms that were then used as fertilizers, thus creating a sustainable relationship (Blum 1992).

Late 19th to early 20th Century: Interestingly enough, urbanization that originally fueled the idea of composting, was the same mechanism that started to undermine it. Further urbanization spurred demands of agriculture produce that could not be met by farmers who used compost as natural fertilizers. The previous sustainable relationship between the cities’ organic waste and farmers’ fertilizers began to deteriorate as the density of cities made it progressively challenging to recycle (Blum 1992).

1918: After World War I ended, an excess of nitrogen that was originally designed for explosives was redirected to the agricultural industry. Synthetic nitrogen was used as a form of inexpensive artificial fertilizer. Even government authorities encouraged farmers to utilize artificial fertilizers to eliminate food shortages and meet the demands of the growing urban population. Unfortunately, these artificial fertilizers contributed to the substantial deterioration of soil quality and soil erosion (Blum 1992).

 1920’s: Considered the pioneer in organic farming, Sir Albert Howard’s work in India concluded that the quality of crops was primarily dependent upon the health and fertility of the soil, which was in turn dependent upon humus. Humus, also known as stable organic matter, was in turn tied to the vitality of the soil. His invention of the Indore Process involved composting layers of vegetable and animal waste in trenches, alternated with animal manure. Farmers were also required to physically turn the compost twice every six months and maintain its moisture. This natural process was seen to have the capacity to salvage the soil nutrients depleted by artificial fertilizers (Blum 1992).

1930’s: Droughts and previous exhaustive farming practices led to the Dust Bowl in the United States, one of the most prominent agricultural catastrophes in history. The experience of the Dust Bowl triggered worldwide reflection and speculation upon past agricultural practices (Blum 1992).

1940’s: Environmental and soil conservationists extensively studied the makings of soil vitality and the causes that led to the Dust Bowl in 1930’s. The use of humus and composting resurfaced again as an environmentally sound agricultural practice worthy of looking into (Blum 1992).

1950’s: Composting in the United States began to develop not only as an agricultural practice, but also as a method to treat municipal solid waste. Big cities continued to produce vast amounts of waste because of increased wealth and population growth, which polluted the environment and reduced the efficiency of existing disposable methods. Organic activists and environmental conservationists also strongly advocated cities to use composting as a means for waste management (Blum 1992).

1960’s: J.I. Rodale, a notable advocate for organic farming and health in the United States, encouraged the use of composting in his publications. His publications provided alternative views of looking at agriculture and waste treatment (Blum 1992).

1970: From the 1950’s to 1970’s, various companies surfaced in the United States hoping to build a business in the composting industry. Composting plants sought to produce and sell compost as a form fertilizer, similar to certain countries in Europe. The majority of these companies failed due to lack of governmental policy and financial support (Blum 1992).

1980’s: Waste management in urban cities became a more and more crucial topic as landfill disposal costs escalated and the availability landfill space diminished. Alternative methods, such as composting, were explored (Blum 1992).

1990’s: The Department of Sanitation of New York experimented with different pilot programs in Brooklyn and Staten Island to investigate the viability of composting in the city. The results of the pilot programs revealed that these methods were costly and inefficient to operate on a large scale. The composting technology also produced unflattering odors, and was considered by the Department of Sanitation to be an inappropriate way of waste management due to the density of the city. The pilot program designed to study residential backyard composting concluded that this method was a very successful method in recycling organic wastes. However, the DSNY also pointed out that backyard composting does not appeal to many people, and will have little to no effect on the city’s waste stream (“Composting Pilot Projects and Studies” 2013).

1992: After several pilot programs, New York City’s Solid Waste Management Plan continued to advocate for an in-depth exploration of composting as a potential waste management technique (Lange 2004).

 1992: The Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse, and Recycling started to host “Compost Givebacks” days and supplied free compost to the residents of New York. The compost was derived from The Fresh Kills Leaf Composting site. The NYC Department of Sanitation was stated to have the capacity to collect 15,000 tons of fall leaves and 2,500 tons of Christmas tress for composting (“Compost Giveback Program” 2013).

1993: The NYC Compost Project was established to educate New Yorkers and different organizations on composting. The NYC Compost Project is the primary sponsorship for a variety of other composting workshops and programs (“NYC Compost Project” 2013).

1997: The NYC Compost Project sold backyard-composting bins for $20 instead of its original price of $80 through the use of subsidies. The NYC Compost Project hoped to combine the sale of backyard composting bin with the efforts of “Compost Givebacks” days to encourage New Yorkers to manage their own waste through composting (“Compost Giveback Program” 2013).

1999: The Department of Sanitation launched a Backyard Composting Pilot project to investigate the plausibility of implementing a large-scale backyard-composting project in New York. The results of the pilot program revealed that New Yorkers who had access to backyards and an interest in composting were uncommon. Although the pilot project showed that backyard composting would not significantly reduce the exportation of municipal waste, the Department of Sanitation continued to encourage New Yorkers to compost because doing so would raise awareness of waste management (Lange 1999).

2001: The Fresh Kills Landfill located in Staten Island closed in 2001, eliminating New York City’s primary source of waste disposal. The closure of the Fresh Kills Landfills rendered New York completely dependent upon other facilities for the disposal of its wastes.  New York signed contracts with other waste management facilities, costing at an average of $70 per ton at the time (Lange 2004).

2000-2001: The Department of Sanitation conducted a research project to determine if mixed waste composting has the potential to further develop as a waste-management strategy for New York City. The projected collected 500 tons of mixed waste from Staten Island and was sent to Marlborough, Massachusetts. The waste was placed into rotating drums, which was then sorted and separated. The project discovered that this method could produce compost of worthy value, but the extensive screening of non-degradable materials before composting led to escalated costs (“Composting Pilot Projects and Studies” 2013).

2005: The Department of Sanitation partnered with the NYC Economic Development Corporation to analyze the possibility of a large-scale composting program that would use organic waste derived from the Fulton Fish Market and Hunts Point Produce Market. The Department of Sanitation hoped to reduce NYC waste and assist these wholesale markets in moderating their disposal costs. The project determined that anaerobic digestion is a technology worthy of further investigation in terms of waste management for these markets (“Composting Pilot Projects and Studies” 2013).

2011: The program known as GrowNYC was launched to gather organic waste from New York City residents. The waste collected from Greenmarkets would be sent to various compost sites for composting (“Grow NYC” 2013).

2012: The Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse, and Recycling created the NYC Compost Project Local Organics Recovery program to offer New Yorkers additional places to drop off their organic wastes (“NYC’s Local Organics Recover Programs” 2013).

2013: GrowNYC reached a milestone by collecting over one million pounds of organic waste since its implementation (“Grow NYC” 2013).

Works Cited

Blum, Barton. “Composting and the Roots of Sustainable Agriculture.” Agricultural History 66.2 (1992): 171–188. JSTOR. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

“Compost Giveback Program.”, 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

“Composting Pilot Projects and Studies.”, 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

“Grow NYC.” GrowNYC. GrowNYC, 2013. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

Lange, Robert. Municipal Solid Waste Composting Report. Rep., Jan. 2004. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

Lange, Robert. Rep. New York City Department of Sanitation, June 1999. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

“NYC Compost Project.”, 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

“NYC’s Local Organics Recovery Programs.” New York City Department of Sanitation, 2013. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

Smith, Martha, Duane Friend, and Holly Johnson. “Composting for the Homeowner.” Composting for the Homeowner. University of Illinois, 2012. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.


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