Compost Hero: Ron Alexander

Compost image by Diana HouseCompost Hero Ron Alexander

As part of Global Green’s efforts to increase food scrap recovery and composting, we are seeking to build awareness and enthusiasm around the benefits of compost-rich soil. I caught up with Ron Alexander, a renowned expert in compost markets, to discuss the many uses of compost and strategies for increasing its use.

Global Green USA (GGUSA): How long have you been working in the dirt?

Ron Alexander (RA): I have been in the composting industry for 30 years. I initially trained as a horticulturist, and became a compost salesman back in 1984. I’ve worked with composters, landscapers and governments to develop markets for compost – and I’ve helped set the standard for specifications such as the national specifications for the use of compost for erosion control and sediment control.

GGUSA: What kinds of trends have you seen over the last 30 years?

RA: In general, there is much more awareness now of compost as a product than there has been in the past. Education has probably been both our greatest success and our greatest failure over the last 30 years. If you ask someone what recycling is, they all innately know now what to do with bottles and paper.  But if you ask them about composting, many of them don’t understand that compost really is the most basic form of recycling.

On the other hand, there are many community gardens that have been built with compost. The marketplace is more educated than it was, but I also believe we could be much further ahead.

GGUSA: California is in the middle of a drought. I would love to hear your thoughts on how compost can help mitigate the effects of the lack of rainfall.

RA: Compost will absorb, swell, and hold water in your soil like a sponge. In my experience, if you add compost to the soil you can use up to 30-50% less irrigation water and get the same results in terms of plant growth. It’s an absolute no-brainer.

Compost can also provide a lower cost system for managing stormwater by improving percolation rates through the topsoil layer. If you incorporate compost into soils, especially fine and clay soils which are problematic for accepting and percolating water, the compost creates very stable large pore spaces. Water sits in these pore spaces and gravity pulls it down, allowing more water to percolate through and into the groundwater. We can actually go to a new project site with innate drainage issues and use compost to help move the water off the surface – it’s a great system.

GGUSA: What kind of policies can help make this connection between the use of compost and reducing irrigation and water needs?

RA: A new regulation in Denver is a great example of what can be done. They have an interesting ordinance about putting irrigation systems in for home lawns – they require that you add compost to the soil before they give you the outdoor hookup for irrigation. We tend to put in high tech irrigation systems, but we are still ignoring the fact that we can modify the soil and not only use less irrigation water but, on top of that, the same amended soil will absorb a lot more rainfall and reduce impact on storm water management systems.

GGUSA: New food scraps diversion programs are being implemented throughout the country, which increases the volume of compost production. How can we build markets to meet increasing supply of compost from diverted food waste?

RA: While there’s an emerging trend of cities and states to ban or otherwise incentivize composting over landfill, more needs to be done to ensure incentives for purchasing the material. In supply-demand societies, as the customers demand more material, the production side gears up and produces more. In the compost case, it is the reverse. Because it’s being created as a result of environmental drivers, we have to create markets for it. That’s why we have to concentrate on market development.

Government agencies can help by requiring use of compost in their projects. And we cannot forget the broad benefits related to compost: it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, it conserves landfill space and water, it helps with erosion management, and it creates jobs. Huge benefits.

Read the full interview for more details on policy and market opportunities here.