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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.''

Burr first erected a small demonstration plant in McKeesport, Pa., in the late '50s, selling the end product principally in Pittsburgh. But when he suggested to McKeesport officials that they should pay a small tipping fee for dropping the garbage at the plant, they objected and promptly banned the transportation of garbage through their streets from those neighboring towns that were prepared to pay. So Burr accepted an invitation to move his plant to Jamaica. It was to prove a mixed blessing.

In the city of Kingston, the effectiveness of the process was proved beyond doubt. But with independence came a left-wing government hostile to the business community. Burr was first required to double the labor force without increasing output. Even so the plant was able to operate; but when told that he had to hand over majority control to the government, Burr simply packed up and walked away, leaving the equipment to decay.

Since then a more moderate government has come to power, and Burr has been approached several times to reopen what is now conceded to be a much-needed ``fertilizer plant.'' (Jamaica has to import all its fertilizers). Burr's concern is that he does not want to invest in the island again only to have his former foes returned to power in a subsequent election.

Meanwhile, even in the US the road to success has been far from smooth for the Agripost company he founded to market and operate the Convertit system. One plant destined for Rochester, N.Y., was turned down in favor of an incinerator, which has since been closed by the Environmental Protection Agency. And after the city of Coral Gables, Fla., opted for the Burr system, Dade County pressure thwarted the decision, again in favor of a regional incinerator.

Bill Chapman, Coral Gables mayor at the time, contends the city was cheated. Today transport to and tipping fees at the regional incinerator cost Coral Gables five times its contracted price with Agripost. ``A transfer station, costing more than the Agripost plant we wanted, had to be built [to feed the incinerator]. That's just a place where garbage is dropped off and picked up again,'' Mr. Chapman said in a recent interview.

``I went down to look over the plant in Kingston,'' says Chapman. ``The system is simple, straightforward, meets all health requirements, and there's no smell within minutes of the fresh garbage being shredded. It's absolutely amazing! You could site it in the middle of town and except for the trucks no one would know it was a garbage processing plant.''

In the Convertit system, garbage is shredded twice, seeded with a proprietary bacterial innoculant, and stacked in windrows (all indoors) that are turned every three days. Windrow temperatures rise to a sterilizing 170 degrees F. Organic materials - paper, wood, food waste, etc. - are digested by the bacteria and their enzymes while the metal and other products are disintegrated by the chemical action within the pile. Even glass is dramatically altered, and any plastic is indistinguishable as a filler material.

The finished product is chemically stable, odor-free, and ready for spreading on any land surface. Tests show that, even if used as clean fill, it has a bearing capacity well in excess of average Florida soil. According to Burr, ``Even if I had to landfill it all, I could do so at half the cost of incineration.''

Capital costs for a Convertit system plant are put at $25,000 to $30,000 per daily ton of capacity, working an 8-hour day.

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