The Time-Value of bioCycle

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

BIOCYCLE’S 50th anniversary party in San Diego provides a perfect opportunity to write about the enormous contributions that have been made over the last five decades. Thinking about all the forward progress in organics utilization since 1960, I am humbled by the BioCycle legacy.

To really appreciate the enormity of the biological utilization challenge 50 years ago, we need to reflect on what was going on back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Fifty years ago there was no Environmental Protection Agency. No Clean Air, Clean Water, or Resource Conservation and Recovery Acts. Rainfall was acidic and rivers were burning.

There was a lot of anxiety over the environment and a full measure of denial with no agreement on how to constructively address these challenges. It was in this context that first Jerry Goldstein, and later Ina and their children, charted a course to develop seminal resources on biological solutions to surplus organic residuals. The JG Press established a vital communication and outreach link for implementation of biological reuse of organics.

No one works on the technology development frontier without brushing up against politics, but BioCycle has managed to stay rooted in science and technical foundations. The information that they have disseminated for 50 years has moved significant mountains. Not only is the science-side of environment and recycling less sexy than the politics, it is generally less lucrative. Still, effective policy development is nothing without the best science. It is this higher ground that Jerry Goldstein and his family have carved out for the last 50 years.

This accomplishment is even more significant when we look back at the communication and publishing technological challenges. There were no cell phones, no Internet, no Google search. There were no word processors or graphic design software programs.

DEFINITIVE CHAOS
There are few uniform definitions for organic residues. They tend to be heavily regulated by many different agencies. It gets even more challenging when you add regional and international variations. How does one aggregate data on organic resources on a national level when the feedstock of choice is called something different, all the time? The answer is with 50 years of determination.

Other more traditional commodities have an advantage. When we talk about a bushel of corn or a ton of coal, we understand what is physically and chemically meant by that. But what are the characteristics of a ton of manure, or restaurant food waste? Is brown grease a high BOD challenge or a bioenergy feedstock? Although definitional challenges persist, BioCycle has worked tirelessly at bringing uniformity and consistency to undervalued, biomass feedstocks.

As a PhD economist, my academic training was in quantitative computer modeling — which requires lots of reliable data — of which there is precious little on the residual organics frontier. I am a consummate data fanatic. My heart groans with empathy as I read of the resolve that is required to produce BioCycle’s landmark State of Garbage reports. Even in these modern times with extensive regulations and significant computer horsepower, it takes a true herculean effort to coordinate solid waste data from 50 states.

A Compost Science article from 1961 referes to U.S. Department of Agriculture data on organic fertilizer use from 1959. Across all organic materials it reports the U.S. used about 500,000 tons. As a USDA data expert, I set out to find current data; 50 years later, USDA reports that in 2007/08 the U.S. used about 600,000 tons of organic fertilizer. I know single communities that use that much. So that cannot be correct, but that is what its data reflect.

THE BILLION DOLLAR SUCCESS
In a similar context, the U.S. Department of Commerce keeps track of the economic impact of thousands of industry sectors and subsectors. Limited continuity over time results in data one year to be considered solid waste, while in a later year it might be considered a recycled cardboard product. Sincere attempts are made to coordinate these changes within the datasets, but the task is daunting.

The 2002 Economic Census lists the total receipts for that year in waste management and remediation services at $51 billion. I have identified about $8.3 billion as compost sales, recyclable sales and energy sales. This is not all of the compost or energy, but only that which was specifically recorded as derived from waste. While most of the $51 billion was spent on disposal services, we have a genuine silver lining of $8.3 billion of value-added, economic growth.

I knew value-added organics had to be bigger than that. I recalled large companies that specialize in recycled cardboard products, dug a little deeper and found economic data for “converted paper.” The converted paper industry makes paper and paperboard without a paper mill. This industry in 2002 was worth $83.7 billion. Now that is a value-added recycling program! Fifty years ago “converted paper” was still headed for the dump. We have been converting paper long enough that those feedstocks are likely no longer considered part of the waste stream reported above.

For five decades, the family of BioCycle publications has been a beacon of technical success and commercial hope. Their magazines and conferences have had a global reach long before the Internet made international access easy. For 50 years, they have been connecting science with entrepreneurs, adding credibility to this chaotic frontier. That is a humbling legacy. Happy Anniversary BioCycle!

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