Filed under: Permaculture, Real Science Content, sustainability | Tags: composting, greenwaste, parasites, recycling
I don’t know why Agent Orange’s First Official Joint Session made me think about parasites, but there you have it. This is actually something I’ve been dealing with for awhile now, and since the problem is only going to get worse unless (and until) we innovate our way out of this particular pickle.
The problem is fairly simple: if you want a sustainable society, you need to recycle almost everything. The problem with recycling stuff, especially organic materials, is that it makes controlling pests, pathogens, and parasites very, very hard, because they move very well in streams of unprocessed materials. After all, a large majority of species on Earth are parasites (per Zimmer’s Parasite Rex), and we, erm, they, evolved over the last billion-odd years in a world where the elements of organic matter are recycled extremely well, give or take some oil and coal fields. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that our attempts at recycling and repurposing are spreading parasites and pathogens all over the place.
The issue I’m dealing with now are the Polyphagous Shothole Borer and Kuroshio Shothole Borer, two non-native tiny beetles that are morphologically identical (DNA distinguishes them). They’re from southeast Asia, arrived in southern California probably on infested pallet wood a few years ago, and now they’re on the march. They’re sort of a perfect storm: there’s no sure cure (yet), they attack something like 100-odd different species of trees, from sycamores to avocados (meaning that both the Department of Forestry and the Department of Agriculture say the other one should deal with it), and they spread really, really rapidly. UC Irvine has spent tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars chopping down and grinding up all the big sycamores on their campus, as the beetles are killing every single one. The beetles are so small that, to kill them by grinding up wood, you’ve got to chip up infested wood in to pieces smaller than an inch across. Bigger than that–mulch say, or firewood–and the beetles can fly away and infest a living tree. Since the damned beetles inbreed (the males mate with their sisters inside the tree, rather than flying off to find unrelated females, and hence pheromone traps won’t work), even one pregnant female can start up a new infestation.
Scary, right? Well, Cal Recycle has a new law that California is supposed to stop throwing greenwaste (beetle-killed trees, for example) in landfills. Instead, greenwaste supposed to be mulched, ideally composted but not necessarily, and spread somewhere so that the carbon can become sequestered in the soil. Their target is things like ranch lands, landscaping mulch, and so forth. Since many California counties don’t have the huge mulching and composting facilities needed to handle all the greenwaste California produces, a lot of it is going to have to be trucked a long way to the few big facilities, then many more miles to where it gets used.
In theory, not throwing away greenwaste is a good thing. In a landfill it might decay anaerobically and emit methane, which is a worse greenhouse gas than CO2. All good so far. Unfortunately, moving massive amounts of greenwaste around and out of southern California is almost certainly going to move the Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer all over the place. So will the guys who collect dead wood for firewood and drive away with it (many farmers get rid of dead fruit trees by leaving it as free firewood by the side of the road. It saves thousands of dollars on chipping and grinding it). And don’t worry if you miss out. Climate modeling shows that these beetles will do just fine in Arizona, Florida, and Hawai’i. And the world is getting warmer, which has the beetles stroking their little mandibles with glee. North America will be theirs, unless the researchers can get about five million dollars to test and release the parasitoids they’ve found that will control the beetles…
Of course it gets worse. We’ve got, what, 100 species of Phytophthora running around in plant nurseries in California right now. Phytophthora infestans is Irish potato blight, P. ramorum is sudden oak death, and P. cinnamomi is devastating trees throughout Australia. And we’ve got them all in California, along with many others. Every nursery tested so far has at least one Phytophthora present, and we move nursery plants all over the world, exporting and important. The group I work with, California Native Plant Society, is starting to work with native plant nurseries to implement sanitation procedures to control the spread of these buggers, but it’s slow going, and doesn’t even touch the big commercial nurseries, which are probably infested as well. We’re such a melting pot for Phytophthoras that we don’t even know how many non-native species are present here. Some of them are new to science.
And if you want to take it personally, of course we can deal with the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria, or pesticide resistant pests, or drug resistant parasites, and so on.
These all get back to the basic problem: Yes, we can control the spread of any of these things, if we’re willing to pay the bill and restructure our lives around not spreading it. The problem is, it takes resources and energy to do so. Whether it’s something that infects plants or people, the simplest way to halt infections is to clean, sterilize, throw out infected material or incinerate it, and so on. If you want to stop the production of greenhouse gases, you can’t burn it, it might emit methane from a dump. Your best choice is to compost it, but that won’t necessarily sterilize it, or reuse and recycle it (you want to recycle and reuse medical waste? Good luck with it). To put it more generally, stopping infection is about stopping transmission. Living sustainably requires (ideally) facilitating the transmission of everything into a new use. Unfortunately, we live in a time when we’re going to need to do both increased sanitation (public health is more reliable than miracle drugs), and increased recycling. Simultaneously doing both of these safely or efficiently is a difficult problem.
Fortunately, with the case of greenwaste, it only took about a year of yelling for Cal Recycle to acknowledge that there was a real problem with their greenwaste plan. That’s pretty fast for a bureaucracy. I’ll give them credit for that. Getting the hospital workers to be better about sanitation seems to be a bit harder. But that’s another story…
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