It’s half past 8 a.m. on a cloudy morning when Carlos Huerta fires up his 15-ton loader and swings it into the yard. Three mounds of manure and organic material stand before him, heaped like giant, stinky haystacks.
His tractor’s blade sinks into the first. A rich, sweet odor lifts into the air, and the mound begins to let off steam.
“That means it’s cooking,” Huerta shouts from the cab.
To the untrained eye, these mounds might amount to little more than refuse. But Huerta, owner of New Green Organics, thinks of them as productive. Not only has he built his business around them, but, in his eyes, they also represent an opportunity for the community to tackle serious problems related to excessive waste, methane-gas emissions and land degradation.
The answer, he says, is evident in the steam. “That right there is really powerful in terms of waste reduction,” Huerta says of the steam. “It’s a sign that the pile is active. That means it’s breaking down, creating compost, and that compost is a world of difference from landfilling.”
Method behind the methane
Currently, the vast majority of organic waste in the El Paso area is dumped into local landfills. This material—such as food waste—decomposes over time, releasing methane gas into the atmosphere, said John Garza, City of El Paso Environmental Services deputy director.
“Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to the trapping of more heat in the earth’s atmosphere and affects climate change,” Garza wrote in an email.
“This climate change brings adverse weather conditions (droughts and floods) that ultimately impact agricultural production.”
Nationally, methane accounts for about 11 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. By reducing organic waste in local landfills, communities can play a role in taking a bite out of such emissions—an important step for combating climate change.
Composting, according to Huerta, offers a beneficial alternative to landfilling, a way to divert organic material and to put it to good use
elsewhere. “When you compost, the material goes back into the earth,” he said, “which is the most interesting thing to me. In a certain way, this material has been taken from the earth. But if you do this [composting] in a respectful way, it can return to the land at a great benefit.”
From zoo animals to soil amendments
So far this year, Huerta has diverted more than 3,000 cubic yards of organic waste from landfills.
At the New Green Organics site in Vinton, Texas, that material is piled, watered and turned in a complex process that eventually converts it into compost. Huerta then sells the finished product to local gardeners, ranchers, farmers and other clients in the area.
In 2014, he struck a deal with the El Paso Zoo to launch a pilot project that would divert large amounts of animal waste from landfills. Each month, Huerta receives manure shipments from the zoo, including output from zebras, elephants, giraffes, tapirs and antelopes.
Since its start, the project has diverted roughly 150 tons of animal manure each year from the landfill, turning what would be methane-producing waste into Zoo Doo, a locally available compost that builds healthy soils.
“I always say with compost, ‘the finished product is only as good as what you put into it,’” Huerta said. “The manure from the zoo’s animals offers biodiversity. It’s like an injection of nitrogen, which is crucial for good compost.”
Creating carbon sinks
Not only does the process reduce the material in terms of sheer volume, but it also adds to soil fertility, Huerta said, and ensures that food thrown away is not completely wasted.
Additionally, composting is a key ingredient to regenerative agriculture and carbon farming, methods which tap the power of photosynthesizing plants to sink carbon into organic soils. Applying compost to the land creates healthier topsoil, Huerta said, which in turn reduces erosion, sequesters greenhouse gases, and helps local farmers grow food.
The El Paso area faces considerable challenges with respect to encouraging waste diversion, Garza said.
The cost to bury waste here—where land is relatively abundant—is cheaper than on the east coast, where cities often have more robust composting programs. Cheap land tends to deflate the political will it might take to put such programs in place.
Nevertheless, from an economic perspective, there is still good reason to consider diverting as much material from local landfills as possible.
“This helps reduce costs because it delays the need to construct landfill cells,” Garza wrote. For Huerta, the benefits of composting go beyond economics.“I love everything about nature—the trees and soil and plants—and I’ve always liked physical work,” he said. “The notion that this is something positive and constructive—that’s what drives me. It’s a win-win for everybody: for the community and for the environment.”
Editor’s Note: Green in the Desert is a new column exploring sustainability and conservation efforts in the El Paso/Juarez area. Previous Columns can be read HERE.
Writer Chilton Tippin is project manager and communications coordinator for Wondor Eco:Nomics. He likes to write, bike, ski, climb and explore. In 2015, he walked across America.