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Green grows garbage. `Convertit' process turns municipal trash into fertilizer

By Peter TongeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 1988

Pompano Beach, Fla.

WHEN Howard G. Burr pulled himself from the wreckage of his B-17 bomber in occupied Czechoslovakia toward the end of World War II, he promptly set a course for Allied lines in Belgium - and walked his way to freedom. It wasn't easy. The obstacles were many and the need to detour frequent, but he made it. In many ways that wartime experience was to be the proving ground for a much more daunting journey Burr would subsequently undertake - the arduous and often frustrating task of promoting simple, environmentally sound garbage disposal in the United States with a unique system of his own design.

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Plans are being completed for a Florida facility that will demonstrate Burr's ``Convertit'' process, which converts everything from the corn flakes box to the junked refrigerator, including auto tires and glass bottles, into a fertilizer and soil conditioner approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture.

Nothing remains for the landfill, which is what makes the method so remarkable. The plant is expected to come on stream by the middle of next summer.

The Convertit process is more than mere theory. Fourteen years of pilot-plant operation, briefly in the US during the '50s and for 12 subsequent years on the Caribbean island of Jamaica, have proved both the system and the end product. The bulk of the Jamaican product was exported to the US, and it was liberally used in landscaping the Disney World theme park in Orlando, Fla.

Burr foresaw the solid waste problems, now so obvious, as far back as 1951. At that time most people believed landfills would provide a timeless solution to solid waste. ``Why bother when we can bury it,'' was the standard reasoning of the day. Even so, Burr persisted with the ideas first sketched out on the drawing boards of his Pittsburg engineering company.

At first he experimented with waste separation, leaving only the organic matter for composting, but that appeared complicated and far from economic at the time. Besides, he recognized that society would much prefer a turn-key approach that would handle all household and commercial waste. But he was concerned that the nonorganic materials would contaminate the end product. Further research turned up facts about the waste stream that surprised him: The inorganic matter contains minerals and trace elements vital to vigorous plant growth.

In fact the USDA's 1957 Yearbook, entitled ``Soil'' and now considered a classic, has this to say on page 121: ``The modern American kitchen contains enough boron to produce 16 tons of alfalfa hay. This boron is in the enamel in freezers, stoves, refrigerators, sinks, dishes, and glassware.'' Several analyses of the Convertit compost bear this out and more. One, done in 1978 by Dr. J.F.T. Berlinner, a chemical and engineering consultant of Chicago, noted, ``There are at least 24 mineral elements present that serve as plant nutrients,'' including ``all 17 now established as essential to plant growth, and to seed and fruit formation.''