Saturday, January 16, 2016

Fertilizer Worth Dying For

Nitrogen fertilizer used to be really hard to come by.  If farmers needed to fertilize their fields with N they basically had two options: Plant legumes which use bacteria to elegantly pull nitrogen out of the air or apply manure. While these were important strategies, yields were often still held back by low levels of nitrogen.  This all changed in 1909 but that's a story for a different post.

As farmers recognized, manure was an important source of nutrients for their fields and bird manure, or gunao, was no exception.  The word guano comes from the Quecha for fertilizer or manure, wanu. Bird guano was an even more potent source of soil nutrients than the manure European farmers were used to, with NPK up to 16-12-3.  That's pretty high, cow manure has an NPK more like .75-.25-.5. In a world where everyone wanted nitrogen for their farms (and gun powder), bird guano was a valuable commodity.

So imagine finding literal mountains of the stuff.  That's what you get when you have thousands upon thousands of birds excreting their meals of seafood onto islands which receive little rainfall.  (If you want to see what that many birds looks like, check out this gallery or here).  The Chinchas Islands off the coast of Peru were one such island, with mounds of precious precious guano layered 150 feet deep.

Above, you can see the Islas Chinchas and a whole lotta guano.  The mountains of precious poop were excavated and loaded onto waiting ships.  These pictures from the 1860s show that the Islas Chinchas were quite busy extracting the guano and shipping it out to Europe and the Americas.  Fortunes were made (NYSE: GRATyntesfield) and Peru started raking in the dough.  So much dough that around the time these pictures were taken, the guano trade made up almost 60% of Peruvian government income.

More money more problems though.  Spain had never recognized Peru's independence in 1821 and was looking to reassert some level of dominance in the 1860s. After some financial and diplomatic bullying on the part of Spain that Peru did not submit to, Spain occupied the Chincha Islands in 1864, recognizing their economic value.  This was the opening act of the Chincha Islands War of 1864-1866 in which Chile, Ecuador, Boliva and Peru all allied against their former colonial master.  Despite naval superiority, Spain had no invasion force to land and nowhere to resupply.  The two year conflict ended when Spain pulled its forces out of the Pacific back to Europe by way of the Phillipines.

While the guano islands off the coast of South America was some fertilizer worth fighting over, the Chincha Islands War was a relatively small engagement.  The fighting over the nitrogen found in the Atacama desert would be a different story.

The Atacama desert is the driest desert on earth.  Scientists think the region has received no significant rainfall between 1570 and 1971 and that it has been extremely arid for around 200 million years.  This lack of rainfall created a region rich in Sodium nitrate, known also as Chilean saltpeter.  Potassium nitrate was also found in abundance. Miners started exploiting these reserves in the 1820s and soon the region would come to dominate the world market for nitrogen fertilizer for the next century. (More fortunes would be made here as well)

Many Chilean miners worked in the saltpeter mines despite much of the Atacama desert being located on Peruvian and Bolivian territory.  The Chilean owned Antofagasta Nitrate and Railway Company had an especially large stake in the region.  Bolivia had agreed in 1874 not to increase taxes on Chilean interests for 25 years, but in 1878 the Bolivian government imposed higher taxes on the Antofagasta company which were retroactive to 1874.  The company balked and so Bolivia moved to seize the company's assets. In response the Chilean army crossed the border and occupied the Bolivian port city of Antofagasta in the southern Atacama desert.

Needless to say, at this point tensions were running high.  15 days after occupation of Antofagasta by Chilean forces, Bolivia declared war. Peru, bound by a secret alliance treaty with Bolivia, declared war on Chile little more than a month later.  The War of the Pacific was a bloody conflict that would drag on for four years and ultimately deprive Bolivia of any access to the Pacific Ocean.  The area outlined in black below is the territory that victorious Chile took from both Bolivia and Peru in the conflict

Most historians have argued that the desire to control the vast nitrate deposits of the Atacama (as well as some guano rich islands) was the underlying cause of the war.  Bolivia to this day pressures the Chilean government to allow it a sovereign access point to the Pacific Ocean although with little effect. The saltpeter mines would be an important part of Chile's economy until the 1940s when synthetic nitrogen production made mining the Atacama for Sodium nitrate less profitable. 
Check out these Chilean archives for more great nitrate fertilizer posters.
It's easy to forget that all of this bloodshed was because people wanted to give their crops a little more nitrogen.  The important role that soil nitrogen plays in crop yield means that nitrogen fertilizer was critically important to agriculture and humanity. Agriculture's dependence on nitrogen fertilizer continues to this day. Currently the world uses 100 teragrams, or 100,000,000,000 kilograms of nitrogen fertilizer every year.  Without this annual addition of nitrogen to the worlds soils, our current agricultural system would collapse.  This Greek man sums up the situation quite nicely as he dumps a sack of Chilean nitrate all over the world.  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Dumps of the world

We'll travel to three far-flung dumps in this post.  While we're at each dump we'll take quick look at the issues around diverting organic waste.  Our first visit will be the Central Landfill in Sonoma County where we'll have a brief requiem for the Sonoma Compost Company.  Then, figure out where you put your passport because we're headed to Beirut to take in the political turmoil brought on by the closure of the city's main dump, Naameh.  Lastly we'll walk through Mbeusbeuss, the massive landfill on the outskirts of Dakar that makes the Central Landfill in Sonoma feel like a nature preserve.

Central Landfill

The Sonoma Compost Company had operated atop the Central Landfill in Sonoma for 30 years, diverting Sonoma county's organic waste from landfills and turning it into valuable compost. The landfill portion of the Central Landfill opened in 1972, closed in 2005 over water contamination issues and reopened in 2010 after infrastructure repairs.  You'll notice in the map the windrows of the compost operation on the top left as well as the small subdivision (about 80% of it is visible in the photo) of Happy Acres in what is otherwise an agricultural area.  To make a long story short, a group of Happy Acres residents had been attempting to close the Sonoma Compost Company for years, many having moved into their subdivision knowing full well that there was an existing landfill located near by.  Eventually they landed on a clean water act lawsuit which got some traction.  During heavy rains, the compost company's 2 million gallon storm water collection pond overflowed twice, allowing water which had passed through compost to flow down towards Stemple Creek.  It seemed a deal might be reached with regulators to keep the compost operations open with the construction of an additional 3 million gallon storm water collection pond.  However Happy Valley residents, wary of the facility staying open, tried to halt construction of the additional pond with claims that this was potential habitat for the California Tiger Salamander. 

Another wrinkle in the story is that Republic Services took over control of the Central Landfill on April 1st 2015 in a 25 year contract with the county.  Previously the landfill had been run by the county with the Sonoma Compost Company operating as a tenant.  Given the sue happy neighbors, the deal included a clause which shifted all financial liability of the compost operation over to the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency.  The bottom line in all this is that once Republic controlled the landfill, the decision about whether to build the pond or not was in Republic's court. 

In order to build the pond on the landfill, Republic's permit would require some modifications. Despite the agreement that the county waste authority would be on the hook for current and future lawsuits, Republic was weary that this permit change could drag it into the ongoing Happy Acres legal battle and decided against the additional storm water collection pond.  In an interesting snippet from the Press Democrat, Rick Downey, division manager for Republic discussed the potential conflict of interest the company had:

"Downey acknowledged that the 25-acre compost area atop the landfill is prime space for his company to use to fill with garbage someday, but he denied that was part of the company’s decision-making in deciding not to allow the permit to be reopened to include the wastewater pond."

There is talk of a new composting facility being sited nearby or just to the west of the existing landfill, but for now organic waste is trucked out to composting facilities outside of Sonoma County. Costs have risen substantially for the disposal of organic waste and there's a lot more CO2 being put into the air by having to truck material so far out of the county.

If Republic had the contract for composting Sonoma County's organic waste instead of Sonoma Compost Company I have to imagine the construction of the additional storm water retention pond would have happened and composting would have continued in Sonoma County.  When governments hand over the operation of public resources to private entities though, those resources are understandably used for best interest of the private entity (within the terms of the contract of course). The best interest of the private entity may not always match up exactly with the best interest of the public.


The Naameh landfill set in the hills to the south of Beirut.  This photo is looking north and you can see the terraces on the hillside in the far left at the bottom left of the dump in the picture below.

What are these people protesting?  Poor waste management policies that's what.  Beirut had been sending its waste to the Naameh landfill south of the city since 1997.  The landfill was only meant to be a temporary solution until a more permanent dump site could be found. It's closure had been planned and postponed several times since 1997. By July 2015 the final closure date of the dump had arrived and the government still didn't know where it was going to send Beirut's trash.  In the end, Naameh was meant to only hold 2 million tons of trash, but by 2015 it had taken in 15 million tons.   After the official closure date, residents of Naameh blockaded roads to ensure no more trash entered the dump located there.

The government had offered a new contract for hauling the garbage but required the contractor secure a new dump site - not an easy task considering the government had failed to find a new site for years.  Given the onerous requirement of coming up with a new dump site, there were no bidders for the contract to haul Beirut's waste. When Naameh closed, the contract with the current hauler Sukleen ended and then the trash simply stopped being collected.  The result?  Rotting piles of trash in the streets and protests over government inaction.

The roots of this crisis lay in Lebanon's ineffective government which is divided along sectarian lines.  It's not like this problem happened over night seeing as how Naameh was only meant to be open until the early 2000s and the final closure date in 2015 was known for some time.  Clearly, the government should have been doing something to address this problem but was incapabale.

Could composting have prevented this huge smelly headache for the government and the people of Beirut?  Definitely.  For starters, the whole reason the trash smells is because there is compostable material decomposing anaerobically.  Remove the compostable material and you have a bunch of stable plastics and other waste which won't smell.  That alone would be a victory.  More importantly though by diverting organic materials from landfills, Beirut could have kept Naameh open closer to 2030.

Currently about 50% of the solid waste produced in Lebanon is organic waste.  Of this, 9% is composted, which is actually an impressive amount.  However some rough math tells us that if all of the organic material going to Naameh was diverted and turned into compost, the government would have only filled it with 6 million tons of garbage or so instead of 15 million tons at this point.  Unfortunately the costs associated with composting in Lebanon are high, the demand for compost is low, the incoming materials are heavily contaminated, and so it is difficult to cover the high operation costs of composting.

Recently the government announced it had reached an agreement with a foreign contractor to remove all the trash from the streets of Beirut and all subsequently produced waste.  The waste will then be transported to another, as of yet undisclosed country.  The cost of this contract is surely staggering.  It seems safe to assume that the increased cost saving space in the Naameh by composting would have been cheaper than whatever Beirut will have to pay to haul trash to another country entirely.

Some interesting articles about the state of composting in Beirut:

Green Jobs Assessment in Lebanon

To Compost or to ??? An Overview from Lebanon


Two satellite photos of Mbeusbeuss.  You can see the massive mountains of trash rippling outward into the surrounding marsh and farm lands.

The sprawling dump of Mbeusbeuss handles all the waste for the city of Dakar.  It is in fact the westernmost dump of all the old world. The huge piles are sometimes burned sending massive black clouds hundreds of feet into the air.  I had some impressive photos of this but my camera walked off with somebody before I could upload them.  We were working about 3 km south of the dump and when the wind shifted in our direction it brought the most terrible, acrid, irritating smoke from the dump fires.  I can only imagine how bad it was at the dump itself.

Mbeusbuess is also home to well over a thousand souls who ply the trash looking for anything they can sell.  Along the roads inside the dump there are aggregaters who amass various items people have scavenged - glass bottles, woven nylon bags, metal, sandals etc. Within what seemed to be total anarchy there was a rudimentary system that had sprung up to sort through the incoming waste.

Residents of the dump use metal rods to pick through the trash spread about the dump.  The best items though are found in trash that nobody has scavenged yet.  When a truck arrives at the dump, people crowd around to be the first to pick through the fresh waste.

Among the various items scavenged for reuse at the dump was food waste.  This would be sold as feed for livestock.

If the costs for large scale composting are a challenge in Beirut, they are prohibitive in Senegal.  There was in fact an industrial scale composting facility for Dakar at one point:

Two industrial composting plants operated in Dakar, Senegal and Abidjan, CÔte d'Ivoire during the 1970s. These were financially unsuccessful, plagued by mechanical problems, and ultimately closed. - UN Environment Program

The problem with composting in a place like Dakar is that the infrastructure of a large composting facility is difficult to achieve and maintain.  If composting is to succeed in Dakar, it will probably have to be in decentralized locations and human scale without an extremely high level of mechanization.  Some estimates put the organic content of solid waste in Africa at around 70%.   Mbeusbeuss has wrought an enormous amount of pollution on waterways around it, sent toxic smoke into the lungs of surrounding residents and has literally swallowed up farm land in the neighboring communities.  Sadibou for example, who is pictured in an earlier post hilling up beds of rice, lost his family's plot of farm land when the dump overran it.  If 70% of the waste that has gone to Mbeusbeuss could have instead been composted and turned into a valuable resource, the size and harm of Mbeuss would be dramatically smaller.

Your own personal dump

Next time you're about to throw out an apple core stop and think where it's going.  Is it going out to a landfill or is it headed off to a composting facility.  Hopefully it's the latter but either way there is a complex system in place to take it off your hands and working hard to serve you, the waste producer.  (If you're composting it yourself it's actually a very simple and environmentally friendly system!)

Across all three of these dumps we've seen that the management of our solid waste and compost involves a massive amount of coordination on the part of government.  Even at Mbeusbeuss, fleets of garbage trucks must be coordinated to go out on different routes through the city of Dakar.  Waste management often ends up as a low priority for governments and this can end disastrously as with the crisis in Beirut.

Government inaction or the shifting of government responsibilities to private entities has been an issue with all three of these dumps.  At the Central Landfill in Sonoma County, the water retention pond required to continue operations at the facility might have been built had the landfill been operated the local government rather than a private company who had no real interest in whether the Sonoma Compost Company stayed open or not.  In Beirut, government inaction meant a new landfill site had not been found by the time the current dump of Naameh had to shut down.  A request for bids for the Beirut trash hauling and landfill contract went unanswered, highlighting that this was really a problem for government to solve, not private business. With the general lack of planning at Mbeusbeuss, the dump seems set to continue it's slow crawl over the surrounding communities despite talks of the necessity of closing it.

If for some reason you have managed to read this far, I think you'll agree that managing our waste requires serious long term planning.  Private enterprise can and certainly will be involved in this process.  Ultimately though, it will fall to governments to ensure that proper waste management plans are formulated and implemented.  Composting and the diversion of organic materials from landfills should be important considerations in these plans.  The repercussions of failure to adequately prepare for our waste streams aren't pretty (although they are smelly).  On the other hand, with proper planning, much of the waste we currently throw away can be turned into a valubale resource which can help combat climate change: compost.