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Trash to treasure December 29th, 2019 by

Food waste could be made into useful compost, instead of mixing it with plastic and other inorganic trash, as Ana recently explained on a panel discussion on Radio Cepra in Cochabamba. She was invited by a local NGO, Alerta Verde (Green Alert), along with two agronomists who encourage schools and families to make compost, and a student who is writing his thesis on urban families who compost. The first two panelists responded to the concerns of city dwellers: how to make compost while avoiding flies, rodents and bad smells. Old ideas from gardening manuals were recycled, such as adding a layer of barnyard manure to the compost, an impractical idea for city people who don’t have livestock.

The moderator, Arnold Brouwer, asked Ana to talk about her 20 years of experience making urban compost.  We are one of the few households that has been composting regularly in Cochabamba. There was a certain urgency to the question. During the recent unrest surrounding the Bolivian elections of 20 October 2019 (and the president’s exile), the people who live near Cochabamba’s municipal landfill blocked the entrance to the dump. It’s a long story, but the landfill’s neighbors are tired of the large, stinky dump and they took advantage of the turmoil to voice their anger. Their blockade was simply the latest in many protests.

Not for the first time, trash piled up in the streets. On 23 November, a convoy of 12 garbage trucks, with police and military escort, broke through the roadblock, but on the way out, local people attacked them and took eight soldiers hostage, besides smashing windshields and pelting the cars with stones. A settlement was negotiated the next day, but there have been constant demands since then for the city to take its waste elsewhere. Many people in the city have been left thinking that there must be a better way to manage our waste, and to make less of it.

The panelists on the radio talk show all agreed that the urban garbage is about 70% organic, including paper, garden trimmings and food waste that rots, becoming a smelly sludge that draws flies to the landfill. If the organic refuse could be composted, there would be less nuisance, and less garbage to collect and dispose of.

Arnold asked Ana how she makes compost. She explained to the radio-listeners how we dig a pit and fill it with organic waste from our kitchen. We also add old paper and some garden waste. When the pit is full, we usually cover it lightly with soil and leave it for up to year. Turning the waste definitely speeds up decomposition, and makes compost faster. But shoveling compost a lot of extra work. At our house we are not in a rush. We can wait a year for our compost to mature.

“So, this is relaxed composting,” Arnold quipped.

Ana agreed, but went on to paint a bigger picture. The city has a debt to the countryside. We bring in valuable organic matter, as food, and we let much of it rot, untreated and unrecycled, but mixed with inorganic trash, mainly plastic. While rubbish can be composted at home, it could be tackled by the local government.

Ana reminded the listeners that the recently abandoned train tracks from Cochabamba to Aiquile (a provincial town) are still usable. The municipal government could use the tracks to haul organic refuse out of the city and compost it on large, adjacent tracts of degraded land. The compost could be covered with some soil, and when ready, trees could be planted in the reclaimed land. This would still deprive the farms of organic matter, but it would make productive use of the organic fertilizer.

It was a creative solution, well suited to the conditions of semi-arid Cochabamba. Every town and city will have its own locally appropriate ways of recycling refuse. But we must stop wasting food. Whether it’s an orange peel or an aged salad, kitchen and garden refuse are a valuable resource that should be recycled as organic fertilizer.

Increasingly in developed and developing countries alike, composting organic waste is becoming a viable business. Some municipal governments in Europe make compost from green waste (such as lawn cuttings), and burn food waste to generate electricity. With a little will and imagination, tropical municipalities could find their own, locally-appropriate ways to recycle the trash.

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