Soils or Incineration - Gerry Gillespie


Australian Recycling and Composting activist and Author of “The Waste Between our Ears” Published by Acres Magazine USA

Gerry's book can be purchased from Acres Bookstore and all good bookstores.

Kindly writing this article for Circular Communities Cymru, who he is helping with food waste to soil system design, Gerry is a co-founder of Zero Waste International Trust and writes under that heading as a CREATIVE COMMONS contributor.

Wales, like all other nations, is feeling the assault on soils caused by years of chemical abuse, causing destruction to microbial species.

This agricultural abuse is supported by a creeping and worrying increase in what is glibly referred to as ‘Waste to Energy” around the world. This push for incineration is not supported by a perceived need to recycle or reduce waste. In fact, it is driven by the very opposite - greed and profit and an alarming disregard for human health.

Incineration financiers ignore the notion that the only things which burn in incinerators are organic in origin and a very important point, seldom used in the anti-incineration arguments, is that by burning organic material we are also burning the opportunity to turn around the devastation, destruction and loss we have caused to the soils which feed Wales and the world.

There has been a tendency to regard composting and the use of foliar biostimulants such as vermicast and hydrolysates as being insufficient to address this soils issue worldwide. However, I would argue the changing science on rhizophagy, quorum sensing and microbial stimulants in agriculture is demonstrating that farming could dramatically reduce if not eliminate the use of chemicals on farms if we relied on creating quality composts and biostimulants and managed their application.

The agrochemical Industry is as much a dinosaur as bankers who see profit before food.

We should be making it clear to bankers and others that by endorsing and financially supporting the destruction of organic materials through incineration, they are detracting from the ability of farmers to rebuild their production and simultaneously sealing the fate of communities world-wide.

The fact that eight of the world's largest insurers have recently launched a net zero initiative for the insurance sector, pledging to align their underwriting activities with the 1.5C warming pathway set out in the Paris Agreement by mid-century, will be the death knell for incineration. This, in combination with the Sustainability Development Goals (SDG’s) of the United Nations should complete the annihilation of the incineration industry through restriction of its access to finance.

We must broaden the argument to include the protection of our soils and our ability to grow food as far more important than the short-term profits of capitalists.

There is no context in which setting fire to reusable and recyclable materials makes sense. If you remove all of the materials in any waste stream, which can be recycled and all the materials which can be composted, there is little, if anything left to burn. Given the depleted condition of the world’s agricultural soils, burning compostable resources that can provide much-needed carbon and nutrients is a terrible waste.

Up to 70% of the resources in waste streams is organic material which can be turned into high-quality compost or foliar products and returned to our soils.

History has shown us that using compost on soils raises soil organic material and increases the human ability to continue to grow food on that land.

Increased soil organic material helps retain moisture, expands biological soil diversity, increases nutrient transfer, sequesters soil carbon to help reduce the effects of Climate Change, reduces farmers input costs and increases profits - all of which provides us with more reliable sources of food.

A document released by the UN in 2017 states that due to continuing soil degradation, humans had reached a point world-wide where we only had enough soil left for 60 more harvests.

This means under current management systems soils are degrading so quickly your own grandchildren’s children will not have enough soil for food production. Protecting our soils is a very urgent priority for all of us. We can help do this with processed organic materials.

More than half of the waste we produce is organic. If buried in landfill it creates methane and when incinerated it creates dioxin, furan and toxic ash. When composted this same material can help us ensure the long-term viability of our food production systems.

All clean organic material can go back to soil as quality compost if we get the material separated out from our waste streams and converted into quality products.

Organic waste is the principal tool we have to reconnect the public to the soil as their food producer and as such, the issue of separating organic waste from other wastes should be seen as a soil and food issue, not a waste or recycling issue.

A large number of councils in Wales now have source-separation systems for organic waste to reduce that waste in landfill.

Given the right tools, information and motivation, householders are readily prepared to ensure that their organic waste contains no contaminants such as metals, glass or plastic and can be used to ultimately grow food.

The Problems

One of the greatest issues facing agriculture is soil degradation. In addition to succession, the division of land, the ownership of property and the weather, are the ever-increasing costs of production and the demand from retailers for lower prices.

Described by one farmer as the only business where you ‘buy retail and sell wholesale’, farming is under ever-increasing financial pressure. However, along with all these issues, is the disconnect between the producer and the consumer and in this context, one big problem facing agriculture is a lack of awareness by the consumer of on-farm production costs and production difficulties.

Along with the need to keep the farmer financially viable there is an urgent need to raise community awareness of the importance of food production. While it may be opportune for economists and retailers to search elsewhere for cheaper food in the short term, it is dangerous - socially, politically and structurally - to assume we can purchase a substantial percentage of our food supply offshore.

Raising awareness of the need for local food production security, quality and quantity is crucial to our national and individual survival. The biggest social and political opportunity for agriculture everywhere, is to make the individual consumer aware of the importance of the producer for their very existence.

The genesis of this opportunity lies in the very soil itself.

Gerry photographed with the Zabbaleen Recycling Community in Cairo
Gerry photographed with the Zabbaleen Recycling Community in Cairo


The need to preserve our agricultural base is fundamental to the future of our national existence. The soil is the foundation stone of our human economy. We get food, clothing, housing and medicine from the soil. Up to 70% of all industrial inputs come from the soil. (Chino – ANOR). Awareness of the true value of soil and its need for protection should be enshrined in law.

While it appears that incinerators make money by generating energy, they actually make money through gate fees. They are built and paid for using household rates. We can divert a lot of the funds we are putting in landfill into creating new jobs and protecting our soils.

The removal of organic waste as a clean source-separated product for use on farms will mean that the ‘yuk’ factor is taken out of our mixed waste. It is when we mix food into our general waste that our waste problems begin.

In addition, raising the awareness in the urban community of the farmer as the producer of their food is key to the nation’s future and future of us all.

The soil is our mother, it warrants our protection.

- Gerry Gillespie July 2021

Get in touch

Keep up to date

with the latest news and innovation