Worldwatch Paper #135: Recycling Organic Waste: From Urban Pollutant to Farm Resource

August 1997
Gary Gardner
ISBN: 1-878071-37-8
59 pages

Metal, paper, and plastic are commonly recycled, but most of the world continues to throw away an abundant, reusable resource: organic matter. Today, we normally send organic garbage and sewage to landfills and incinerators, or dump them into rivers, bays, and oceans. And manure is increasingly dumped or overapplied to farmland because of large, centralized livestock production.

These disposal methods clog landfills, pollute air and drinking water, and encourage cities to invest in costly, water-intensive sewage infrastructure. They also promote excessive dependence on manufactured fertilizer, which creates its own problems, from ecosystem disruption to disease-prone soils.

Recycling organic matter from cities to farms would help solve many of these problems. Urban organic garbage and yard waste can be composted and used on farms. Human waste--if separated from industrial waste--can be processed into a clean, fertilizing product. And the production of manure can be managed to avoid dumping or overapplication.

Recycling will require that organic material be viewed as a resource, rather than a waste product. We need policies to educate municipal authorities and citizens about the value of recycling organic waste and the steps to achieve it. Initiatives to assist farmers in managing the quantities of nutrients and organic matter that are applied to their land can reduce pollution and rebuild soil. Once implemented, recycling of organic matter will make cities more sustainable, and save them money.