OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Urban composting to improve soil and energy profiles

Create a circular food economy by diverting food waste to improve soil quality and crop yield while innovating energy production

Photo of Marium Husain
1 1

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

InFACT (Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://discovery.osu.edu/food-and-agricultural-transformation-infact

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • Just beginning now

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Columbus, Ohio

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

All 88 counties in the state of Ohio (total area: 116,096 km2)

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

I'm a physician researcher at The Ohio State University James Comprehensive Cancer Center and InFACT is the Food and AgriCultural Transformation initiative of The Ohio State University. Recognizing the realities of food insecurity and how our food system has environmental, political, economic and cultural challenges, InFACT was created to innovate the approach to creating resilient and sustainable food system. InFACT and Ohio State University's Extension office has relationships with farmers throughout Ohio and visit the surrounding farmlands frequently.  We want to optimize those relationships and promote the idea of a local circular economy with an urban-rural partnership.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Ohio is a diverse state in many respects. There are five major cities and 88 counties. The major cities tend to vote more liberal/Democratic and rural areas tend to vote more conservative/Republican. In 2018, Ohio was the third state on the list of states where refugees are resettling in the United States. There are a large number of Somali immigrants who settle in Ohio, specifically Columbus. Ohio’s main economy is in manufacturing and agriculture with many farmlands. The 4-H program started in Clark County, Ohio in 1902. Eight United States presidents were either born in Ohio or called Ohio home.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

116092

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

11689100

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

As Ohio is in the Midwest region, we have been spared from environmental disasters like hurricanes and wildfires. However, the region is threatened by increasing temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns, leading to poor farming conditions and poor crop yield. Farmers are having to rely on subsidies on a yearly basis and are not able to plan for sustainability for the next 50 years. In addition, the major cities, like Columbus, are attracting more visitors and residents moving to the state. Although this creates an economic opportunity, this also creates a problem of increased food demand (including diverse food) and then subsequent food waste issues. For example, Columbus has developed a Local Food Action Plan to address these issues of food security and waste within the city which comprises only one county. Implementation costs are another challenge. It costs $20 per ton to landfill and more than $50 per ton to make compost out of organics. In order for organics recycling to expand in Ohio, policy change is essential. The cost of hauling organics, even a short distance, usually exceeds the cost to landfill. Furthermore, Ohio has many manufacturing and agriculture jobs. Currently, the focus is on manufacturing which is facing a decrease in jobs secondary to automation and agriculture that is largely receives subsidies for corn production that is for non-food purposes or exports. During times of tariffs and trade wars, farmers and manufacturers were hardest hit in Ohio. This led to job and revenue losses. Whereas this current economy was beneficial to Ohio’s workers in the early 20th century, this may not be a sustainable economic model as tensions increase with foreign countries and weather patterns become more erratic. Furthermore, energy production in Ohio is largely fossil-fuel based with emphasis on fracking or coal-mining. There are opportunities for wind, solar and other renewable energy sources but this is still new and emerging. In addition, Ohio farmlands still utilize foreign migrant workers to harvest their yield. However, there are numerous reports of worker abuses, including physical and sexual. “These agricultural jobs have not traditionally been sought by Ohio citizens even in times of high unemployment” as they typically pay minimum wage and offer hardly any benefits. Can a food system be fair and sustainable if it does not treat its workers fairly?

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Environmental damage - we are diverting food waste from landfills that inevitably leads to methane production. This will also lead to decreased landfill sizes. By diverting food waste to composting sites, this will create more quality compost and eventual soil for farmlands and future crops, which are currently suffering from poor soil quality. Composting sites are less expensive, create a stable product that can be stored outside and emit much less methane than current anaerobic digestate (AD) processes. Food waste cannot be directly land applied and requires composting or anaerobic digesters (AD) to be stabilized and used in agriculture. Anaerobic digestate is odorous and still evolves methane. It often is stored in open lagoons which emit sufficient methane to erase the environmental benefits of their renewable energy production. Tank storage with secondary methane collection is a solution to this problem but requires a system many times larger and more expensive than the ones currently being built and used. Most digestates are subsurface injected due to strong odors similar to liquid manure. AD are expanding in the state, especially quasar. But each plant that is built requires significant public sector investment through federal grants or other incentives. Without support for the capital costs of these plants, they cannot be economically built. Most receive federal, state and local grants that support the capital investment. 

Increased food demand from increased population - much of food waste is still intact food that can still be eaten and/or donated to food pantries for food-insecure individuals and families. In addition, by focusing on locally-sourced food, composting for improved soil quality and increasing awareness of the impact of sustainable agriculture, more locally-sourced food will be provided by local farmlands instead of relying on imported food. 

Single-focused economy with job losses - more employment opportunities will be created through the need to compost food waste, collect food waste and invest in novel energy production with methane digesters from excess food waste. 

Limited energy profile - methane digesters are an emerging energy production source that can mitigate overburdening composting sites and vermin problems from excess food waste. In addition, it can capture the methane that would naturally be created by food waste and capitalize on an untapped energy source. 

Worker rights abuses - by increasing attention on locally-sourced food, food waste collection and the importance of sustainable agriculture, job opportunities in sustainable agriculture and a local circular-based food economy can become more competitive and attractive to the local population. This increased demand and competition will necessitate improved working environments and economic mobility for workers

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

We envision a local-based circular economy that focuses on environmentally-friendly jobs that can accommodate an increasing population while protecting workers rights as well. With a focus on food waste collection, this food would be diverted from landfills to composting sites and/or for energy production (via methane digesters). This will also have a positive impact on the environment by decreasing methane production from food waste buildup and encourage a more environmentally-friendly approach to food consumption in local communities. In order to accomplish this, there will be a need for more workers to collect the food waste, compost it and to invest in a new energy production: methane digesters. This will increase diverse employment opportunities than currently exist. As we have more of a population increase, the desire for more food variety will increase as well. Since the local economy will be more local food system-focused, more food crop varieties can be invested in where there is less dependence on foreign imports. The hope is that this focus on local economic gains gets translated into a new culture that new residents to Ohio will learn as the population increases. In addition, hunger can also be mitigated as a food-conscious society develops and minimizes food waste. In addition, more intact food can be diverted to local food pantries as well. With more job opportunities in composting and energy production, this will decrease unemployment and offer local residents a way out of hopelessness from job loss that leads to depression and other health effects, like opioid and alcohol addiction. Lastly, as this sector of the economy increases and more demand for these jobs increases, the jobs will become more competitive with improved salaries and benefits. As a result workers rights will have a new focus and the past neglect of physical and sexual abuse can be removed.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” As a physician I took an oath to care for patients based on the practice of Hippocrates. His quote embodies the impact of food on human health, but falls short of the full impact of food on humanity. Food impacts health and culture, identity, discourse, agriculture, economy. Food is one of the defining factors of what our civilization has and can become. The threat to food security and sustainability is a tragic reality for some, but will eventually become a reality for the majority as climate change and inevitable scarcity politics progress. “You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery” (Dr. Norman Borlaug). Many social ills are seen as patients come through the hospital doors, and you can’t focus on health without considering the social determinants of health. This is why we are proposing a vision of the future world of food and society that goes beyond just health.  

 

As Ohio is in the midwest region, we have been spared from environmental disasters like hurricanes and wildfires. However, the region is threatened by increasing temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns, leading to poor farming conditions and poor crop yield. Farmers are having to rely on subsidies on a yearly basis and are not able to plan sustainably for the next 50 years, let alone the next year. In addition, the major cities, like Columbus, are attracting more visitors and residents moving to the state. Although this creates an economic opportunity, this also creates a problem of increased food demand (including diverse food) and then subsequent food waste issues. We plan to divert food waste from landfills that inevitably leads to methane production. This will also lead to decreased landfill sizes. By diverting food waste to composting sites, this will create more quality compost and eventual soil for farmlands and future crops, which are currently suffering from poor soil quality. Food waste cannot be directly land applied and requires composting or anaerobic digestate to be stabilized and used in agriculture. Anaerobic digestate is odorous and still evolves methane. It often is stored in open lagoons which emit sufficient methane to erase the environmental benefits of their renewable energy production (ie. the methane they emit into the atmosphere during storage has more CO2eq than the amount of CO2eq that would be emitted from fossil fuels the renewable energy displaces). Columbus, specifically Franklin County, has developed a Local Food Action Plan to address these issues of food security and waste within the city which comprises only one county. 

As we will face more population increases, the desire for more food variety will increase as well. Since our vision consists of a local economy that will be more local food system-focused, more food crop varieties can be invested in where there is less dependence on foreign imports. The hope is that this focus on local economic gains gets translated into a new culture that new and old residents to Ohio will learn as the population increases. We hope to engender a more food-conscious society that understands the food access system, understands the connections between food waste and hunger and mitigates food waste in general. Much of food waste is still intact food that can still be eaten and/or donated to food pantries for food-insecure individuals and families. Hunger can also be mitigated as a result. In addition, by focusing on locally-sourced food and composting for improved soil quality and increasing awareness of the impact of sustainable agriculture, healthier food with high nutritional content (from improved soil quality) will be provided by local farmlands instead of relying on imported food. 

 

Ohio farmlands still utilize foreign migrant workers to harvest their yield. However, there are numerous reports of worker abuses, including physical and sexual. “These agricultural jobs have not traditionally been sought by Ohio citizens even in times of high unemployment” as they typically pay minimum wage and offer hardly any benefits. Can a food system be fair and sustainable if it does not treat its workers fairly? By increasing attention on locally-sourced food, food waste collection and the importance of sustainable agriculture, job opportunities in sustainable agriculture and a local circular-based food economy can become more competitive and attractive to the local population. This increased demand and competition will necessitate improved working environments and economic mobility for workers. 

While grasping onto optimistic realism a real challenge will be implementation costs. It costs $20 per ton to landfill and more than $50 per ton to make compost out of organics. In order for organics recycling to expand in Ohio, policy change is essential. Most local and state politicians will hesitate to spend money to provide services like curbside organics collection or composting because of culture and politics. Haulers control the collection of waste from urban areas and will not usually bid on contracts for collecting organics. They control landfills, but do not control composting facilities, and therefore will not haul to these facilities. The cost of hauling organics, even a short distance, usually exceeds the cost to landfill. Some success stories are in California, Washington, Vermont, Minnesota, Germany, and New York. Organics are banned from landfills in these places. Every business, home and apartment in the Bay Area has access to organics recycling through curbside collection. The materials used to package and serve foods is being critically assessed in these areas too. Plastic, styrofoam and other single-use non-compostable materials are being replaced by washable service ware or compostable materials. The composting programs happened in these areas because citizens valued recycling and allowed the government to collect extra taxes to pay for it. 

 

Energy production in Ohio is largely fossil-fuel based with emphasis on fracking or coal-mining. There are opportunities for wind, solar and other renewable energy sources but this is still new and emerging. Composting sites are less expensive, create a stable product that can be stored outside and emit much less methane than current anaerobic digestate processes. However, to plan for economies of scale and when considering Ohio’s demands, more systemic infrastructural changes and innovative ideas will be required. Methane digesters are an emerging energy production source that can mitigate overburdening composting sites and risking vermin problems from excess food waste. In addition, it can capture the methane that would naturally be created by food waste and capitalize on an untapped energy source. Anaerobic digesters are expanding in the state, especially quasar. But each plant that is built requires significant public sector investment through federal grants or other incentives. Without support for the capital costs of these plants, they cannot be economically built. Most receive federal, state and local grants that support the capital investment. 


Ohio has many manufacturing and agriculture jobs. Currently, the focus is on manufacturing which is facing a decrease in jobs secondary to automation and agriculture that largely receives subsidies for corn production that is for non-food purposes or exports. During times of tariffs and trade wars, farmers and manufacturers were hardest hit in Ohio. This led to job and revenue losses. Whereas this current economy was beneficial to Ohio’s workers in the early 20th century, this may not be a sustainable economic model as tensions increase with foreign countries and weather patterns become more erratic. We envision a local-based circular economy that focuses on environmentally-friendly jobs that can accommodate an increasing population while protecting workers rights as well. With a focus on food waste collection, this food would be diverted from landfills to composting sites and/or for energy production (via methane digester). In order to accomplish this, there will be a need for more workers to collect the food waste, compost it and to invest in a new energy production: methane digesters. This will increase diverse employment opportunities that currently do not exist. With more job opportunities in composting and energy production, this will offer local residents a way out of hopelessness from job loss that leads to depression and other health effects, like opioid and alcohol addiction. Lastly, as this sector of the economy increases and more demand for these jobs increases, the jobs will become more competitive with improved salaries and benefits, hopefully leading to a reduction in workers’ rights abuses. Carbon credits could improve the economics of organics recycling in Ohio. If credits for reducing methane emission were given for diverting food waste from landfills, and/or the increases in carbon sequestration that compost provides to OM depleted agricultural soils was accounted for, as is done in CA, this could help. 

 

Although it is difficult to predict what the future will hold in an unpredictable economic and political climate like today, we propose a bold vision for Ohio that has never been seen but is not impossible. “The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The one who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever been before.” We appreciate Einstein’s passion for the unseen, but we do not propose to walk alone in this vision. We understand that we will only see a world with food security and sustainability by pushing the limits of what we will allow as a society and working together. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • LinkedIn

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Comment
Spam
Photo of Itika Gupta
Team

Hi Marium Husain  Great to see you joining the Prize!
We noticed your submission is currently unpublished.
The Early Submission Deadline is almost there. Publish your Vision by 5:00pm EST on December 5, 2019 and have the opportunity to attend an invitation-only webinar with members of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Food team, the Sponsors of this Prize.
You can publish it by hitting the "Publish" button at the top of your facepost. You can also update your Vision at any time before 31 January 2020 by clicking on the "Edit Contribution" on top.
We're looking forward to seeing your submission in this Prize.