Perhaps as old as agriculture itself, “landspreading” is the practice of returning to the soil a portion of the organic matter and fertilizing elements that might have been removed by harvested crops.
On the simplest level, this is what you do when you set your lawnmower to “mulch,” leaving the grass clippings on your lawn, allowing them to decompose into fertilizer rather than bagging and disposing of them in a landfill. It’s also what farmers do when they “plow under” the remains of a crop and let it compost over the winter.
However, in both these examples, the composted elements were already there.
A more illustrative example is what farmers do when they liquefy the manure from livestock and spread it across their fields. The manure wasn’t in the field in the first place (as were your grass clippings); and by landspreading the manure instead of disposing of it, they avoid the need for hazardous waste management.
What’s intriguing, however, is the fact that an organic waste that’s assessed to have ecological benefits neither needs to be onsite nor solely agricultural to be a candidate for landspreading.
Offsite non-agricultural waste for landspreading
While the Earth-friendly benefits of spreading grass clippings or cow manure across the soil is familiar to the general public, the ecological case for doing so with nonagricultural byproducts—most of it otherwise requiring hazardous waste disposal—might not be so evident.
Nonetheless, many of the wastes secondary to nonagricultural activities are recoverable for farming benefits or ecological improvements.
For example, the sludge and byproducts of many mining and industrial processes contain from 45 to 80 percent organic matter that’s capable of stimulating biological soil activity.
Some of these byproducts are also rich in calcium, which can prevent soils from becoming acidic. And composted sludge helps maintain humus in the soil, which aids water retention and fights against soil erosion.
Of course, only wastes proven beneficial for crop nutrition or soil improvement can be legally landspread. As well, whether directly or indirectly, waste considered for landspreading must not adversely affect animal, human, or plant health; crop or soil quality; or the aquatic environment.
Landspreading is prohibited near forests and pastures, frequently cultivated land, terrains that are steeply sloped, wherever there’s risk of heavy rain and flooding, or where soil is snow-covered or frozen.
In most jurisdictions, landspreading requires a preliminary study to assay the agricultural benefit of the waste under consideration, demonstrate its harmlessness, assess its impact, and determine the ability of the soil to receive it. And as with all operations having to do with hazardous waste removal, expert consultation is crucial. Consider:
If the EPA—or a local or regional authority—determines that you’re landspreading only to avoid waste management laws or regulations, you will be charged with “sham recycling” and endure the fines and repercussions thereto.
And this can happen simply because you and the authority disagree about the degree of benefit to you. More precisely, if the financial or operational benefit to you is “too small” and significantly less than would be the cost of hazardous waste disposal, you can be charged with sham recycling.
Landspreading can be a viable option to traditional methods of disposing hazardous waste within amenable scenarios and eco-environments.
The benefit to farmers is obvious, as they’re availed of a rich source of free or low-cost organic matter and fertilizing elements to replenish their croplands.
It’s also good for commercial and industrial waste generators as well as for the ecology, because the soil’s naturally occurring microbial population metabolizes, transforms, and assimilates waste constituents, rendering the waste benign and thereby nonhazardous.
But as with all matters having to do with hazardous material disposal, expert consultation is a crucial element in determining whether and how landspreading might work for you.