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Let It Rot 

Local governments give composting short shrift

Out here at the Los Reales Landfill, tiny dust clouds swell beneath rumbling garbage trucks. Ghostlike, the clouds obscure a vast residuum of city life--stinky diapers, half-gnawed wieners, rancid radishes, decrepit computers, soggy pizza boxes--that fills this surreal burial grounds.

Ironically, it's a tomb sculpted along nature's fine lines, says Jim Mikolaitis, Los Reales' engineering manager. Stretching across 220 acres, Tucson's landfill already rises 110 feet in spots. When the Arizona Department of Environment gives an expected thumbs-up, the dump will stretch for another 200-plus acres, complete with "little peaks and valleys," he says. "It will be designed to look like a natural landform, to blend in with the Santa Rita Mountains."

The highest "peak" will reach 250 feet above surrounding desert.

Where the city triumphs at landfill artistry, it fails miserably at diverting waste from the dump to start with. While blue-bin recycling is a growing success, about 25 percent of the landfill's yearly 550,000-ton input is yard and food waste. Additional tons of organic trash are hauled to several county landfills and transfer stations.

Making things worse, there's an easy way to keep this trash out of the landfill. It's called backyard composting--a notion that's received scant attention from local government mandarins. "We get a lot of people moving here from other cities who are terribly disappointed that composting isn't encouraged by our leaders," says Lois Lockhart, president of Tucson Organic Gardeners. With about 150 members, the group is a major booster of this humble practice.

There's one simple reason to compost, she says: "It saves tax money." Even if green waste is composted at the landfill, "it still has to be picked up by trucks that spew out fumes." Instead, "it can be used as (moisture-retaining) mulch around landscape plants, saving people up to 50 percent on watering bills."

In past years, the city ran a limited "Beat the Heap" program, Lockhart says, which included compost bins at bargain prices. Unfortunately, even that slim effort has tapered off. Both the city and county have also helped fund a composting brochure published by Organic Gardeners. "But now they tell us they simply don't have the resources," she says. Meanwhile, there's a "lack of information and education. And so many people want to know more about it."

Wilson Hughes says city budgets are tight, and as Tucson's waste-reduction planner, he "picked the low-hanging fruit first." That meant investing in the familiar "blue bins" for collecting recyclable bottles, cans and paper. "At some point, we'll start a compost operation," he says. "But the scale here, and the costs involved, hold us back on that."

Meanwhile, on the city Web site tucsonrecycles.org, there appears one slight paragraph on composting. "Beat the Heap Compost Bin Sales," it reads. "In partnership with the City of Tucson, composting workshops and bins for backyard composting are available from Tucson Organic Gardeners. Call 670-9158 for more information."

On the county Web site, under the listing "101 Ways to Reduce Waste," you'll find this: "Compost (let it rot)." And on another page: "Compost. You'll use less chemicals in your garden."

That's the extent of it.

It's not exactly overwhelming, admits Beth Gorman, program manager for the county's Department of Environmental Quality. Still, like the city, Pima County does "collect green waste at a couple of our landfills," she says. "They have chipper-shredders at the Ina Road Landfill and the Catalina Transfer Station" for green trimmings from commercial landscapers. "That waste is used for mulch, for erosion prevention at the landfill."

Gorman also suspects that change is afoot. "I have a feeling that, in the future, we will probably do more to encourage composting," she says, "anything we can do to help these landfills last longer--we're quickly running out of space. It's going to be a serious problem."

Other parts of the country recognized that "serious problem" long ago, and have taken steps to address it. For example, in Seattle--where kitchen scraps comprise one-third of a home's waste--backyard composting is a critical tool for extending the lives of landfills. The practice is supported through information hotlines, classes and the sale of low-cost compost bins. "Composting food wastes at home helps to save landfill space and saves money for both residents and the city," Carl Woestwin, program manager for Seattle Public Utilities, told BioCycle magazine. "When you add the economic benefit to the environmental benefit, it's a powerful equation."

Woestwin estimates that each backyard composter keeps 562 pounds of yard trimmings and nearly 290 pounds of food scraps out of the landfill each year.

And Tucson? We offer a few measly brochures.

Meanwhile, back at the Los Reales Landfill, those tiny dust clouds are settling upon mountains filled with growing heaps of green.

More by Tim Vanderpool

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