Herbicide Carryover Creates Toxic Compost: A Speech From the 2013 Rachel Carson Council Open House

In ‘Silent Spring,’ Rachel Carson tried to open our eyes to the many dangers of pervasive chemicals and pesticides in our environment. Today, that challenge persists — including in the form of potent persistent herbicides that are contaminating our compost supply.

| June 25, 2013

One of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ contributing editors, expert gardener Barbara Pleasant, recently gave a speech at the Rachel Carson Council Open House in Silver Spring, Md.  The Rachel Carson Open House is an annual event that is free to the public. It takes place at the Maryland home, registered as a National Historic Landmark, where Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the book that launched the modern environmental movement. This is the full text of Pleasant’s talk on the issue of herbicide carryover creating toxic compost.

Being here today is a tremendous honor for me, and for the team at MOTHER EARTH NEWS. We work hard providing information to help people live more self-sufficient lives. Part of that involves showing people how to recycle their kitchen and garden waste into compost, which in turn enriches their gardens. Since 2009, we have been reporting on herbicide contamination threats to composting, starting just after the Rachel Carson Council raised a red flag on this important issue. Like the Rachel Carson Council, we are extremely concerned about “killer compost.”

But first, what is compost? Compost is what you get when materials that were once alive and are now dead are managed so that they rot into dark, crumbly organic matter that enriches soil and helps plants grow. Leaves, grass clippings, pulled weeds, and quite a lot of kitchen waste can be combined into a simple, self-perpetuating compost pile. There are perhaps 100 ways to compost, and nature is always on your side, because dead things naturally rot. Composting is the preferred way to recycle yard and kitchen wastes because the materials never leave the property.  

We gardeners make compost for the end result. It’s a scientific fact that soils amended with compost support healthier, more disease-resistant plants — so we can never get enough compost.

Towns and cities make compost to reduce how much garbage they must handle. Half of the states require that yard waste like leaves and grass clippings be diverted to a composting facility rather than being sent to landfills. In addition to saving landfill space, taking out the compostables reduces methane and other greenhouse gases produced by rotting garbage.

This year, more than 150 U.S. communities have started including compostable materials in their curbside recycling programs, usually by providing color-coded brown bins. The biggest curbside composting program in the country, in San Francisco, now collects 600 tons a day of compostable materials.

7/1/2013 11:23:23 AM

If you use manure from your own chickens or horses, is the potential toxicity from grain as high as it would be in compost that you bring in from a local composting facility?

6/26/2013 5:19:28 PM

Does OMRI certification mean that none of these toxic chemicals are in the compost?  I bought 10 yeards from an organization that I trust, but now your article brings doubts. 

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