AUSTIN, TEXAS — COMPOSTING has gone mainstream. Formerly the domain of a handful of dedicated organic farmers and backyard gardeners, compost piles have become de rigeur for about 10 percent of the population - or about 20 million people.
Driven by spiraling landfill costs, individuals and municipalities across the country have begun composting everything from leaves and grass to sludge and beer yeast. More people are saving food scraps and hauling them out to the compost heap - a development that, in many parts of the country, is changing the evocative smells of autumn. Burning leaves have become a thing of the past. The pungent air of compost has become the smell of the future.
Over the past five years, the number of composting programs in the United States has increased by some 500 percent and more than 3,000 composting projects are now turning waste products into a potent, low-cost fertilizer to control weeds and pests.
``You are taking organic materials that are otherwise thrown away and recovering the nutrients,'' says Richard Kashmanian, a composting expert with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C. ``By diverting them from the landfill, you have savings in space and cost. Plus, compost is humus, and that is the essence of soil fertility.''
Most composting programs are in states east of the Mississippi River, where landfill space is limited and disposal costs have become onerous. Some 17 states and the District of Columbia now prohibit the disposal of yard trimmings in landfills. By 1996, six more states will forbid the landfilling of plant debris.
Composting programs are thriving in other parts of the country, too. In Austin, Texas, sewage sludge is combined with wood chips and yard trimmings to produce a commercial product called Dillo Dirt. Last year, the city sold $79,000 worth of the product to Austin landscapers and homeowners. While the program does not turn a profit, city officials say it helps them avoid having to dispose of 25,000 tons of yard trimmings per year. Additional savings come from reduced disposal costs for sludge, a product many cities pay to get rid of.
By 1995, all yard waste collected by Austin crews will be composted. By 1998, the city will be saving over half a million dollars in tipping fees. ``As landfill costs go up, composting becomes more practical,'' says Joe Word, director of Austin's solid-waste program. ``By collecting grass, leaves, and tree limbs, we can divert 15 percent of the waste stream from the landfill.''
Composting programs are even more attractive in eastern states, where landfill costs are higher than in the West. For example, Austinites currently pay less than $20 per ton at the landfill. Residents of New Jersey may pay more than $100.
Demand for fertilizers and soil conditioners is stimulating the growth of composting programs, and many cities are marketing their composted materials. Milwaukee has had great success selling Milorganite, a sludge-based fertilizer sold in many gardening stores. Montgomery County, Md., which lies north of Washington, markets a sludge-based compost called ComPRO. ``The product is so popular, we can't keep up with demand,'' said Joe Keyser, who works on composting programs for the county. Last year, the county sold nearly $400,000 worth of composted products.
While the growth in composting is encouraging to solid-waste analysts, EPA officials are concerned that new landfill restrictions on yard materials will lead to an increase in leaf burning. ``Leaf burning is a very inefficient type of combustion,'' says EPA air-quality analyst Scott Voorhees.
There appears to be no end in sight to the boom in composting. And a bill recently introduced in the US House of Representatives could give composting a high-profile boost. The measure, written by Rep. George Hochbrueckner (D) of New York, would encourage governors and the president to begin composting at their residences. It's ``a wonderful demonstration project,'' says Ellen Joyce, an aide to the congressman.