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How recycling green waste benefits farming

Last Updated: 4:01pm BST 10/07/2007

Land Network has a 30 year history and is at the leading edge of recycling waste to productive land in farming, horticulture, forestry, amenity use and reclamation. General Secretary Bill Butterworth explains its work

Saudi proverb; "My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet airplane. His son will ride a camel."

Rape seed crops that re used to make biodiesel fuel
Rape seed crops that are used to make biodiesel fuel

Mick and Phil Bates farm around 800 acres near Gainsborough in the northern part of Lincolnshire.

For just over four years they have been taking green garden waste from their local West Kinsey District Council - and industrial waste to balance up the nutrients - to make compost.

Maybe a third of their land has now reached the point where there will be no more mineral fertiliser used on it.

Normally that fertiliser would have been imported into Lincolnshire. Instead, the green waste gives them a fee for taking it and, therefore, there is a "double wammy" for the local rural economy.

The cash the local ratepayers spend on recycling this waste is retained in the local economy and the farm does not spend cash on importing mineral fertiliser. However, there are some compelling and partly hidden real further advantages.

There are a number of problems related to mineral fertilisers. Firstly, nitrogen fertilisers are made by passing air through a two-meter diameter electric arc. That electricity is made by burning fossil fuel and that produces the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Secondly, these fertilisers are usually soluble and, for example, 40 to 45 per cent of the nitrogen in mineral nitrogen fertiliser washes out in rain in the form of nitrate. That pollutes the groundwater and, eventually, our rivers and drinking water.

The Bates are members of Land Network, the farmer-owned consortium with 19 farm sites spread over England and Wales. Land Network has the evidence that these composts completely eliminate nitrate leaching.

The Bates' operation is interesting from another point of view. They use the composts to fertilise their crops. One of those crops in rotation is oil seed rape. They harvest the rape and process it into biodiesel and bioglycerol heating oil.

The diesel can be used at the 100 per cent rate to drive vehicles. Amongst others, it is planned to use it to drive the refuse collection vehicles which deliver the green waste.

It is also planned to use the bioglycerol to heat the local school. (Mick Bates is Chairman of his local primary school governors.) Interestingly, neighbours of the Bates have seen their crops and asked to buy some of the compost.

Another member of the network is the Voase family who farm near Brandesburton in East Yorkshire. Martin and son Nic, with their respective families, farm 800 acres and they have been farming the recycle-to-land fertiliser route for over three years. About a quarter of their land now will not get mineral fertiliser. All the members of the network are moving in that direction.

Car being filled with diesel - It is planned to use the biodiesel to drive the refuse collection vehicles which deliver the green waste
It is planned to use the biodiesel to drive the refuse collection vehicles which deliver the green waste.


Central support in Land Network says that if the farms can get the wastes, it takes maybe three years for a piece of land to move its biological activity to the point where mineral fertilisers can be dropped.

These farms are moving in the direction of "going organic" with knock-on effects on the environment and human health. There is at least some hard evidence that foods grown on land where composts are used have more trace elements and that this has long term beneficial effects on the health of people who eat these foods.

There is a regulatory problem. There is maybe 100 million tonnes per annum of wastes produced in the UK which could go to land. Defra (The government's Department for Farming and Rural Affairs) makes the regulations and it sees fit to regulate how this recycling is done. Unfortunately, those regulations are often misguided, unscientific and counter-productive.

The Land Network programme was developed in the early 1990's under a DTI (Department of Trade and Industry as was) scheme and the plan was to have over 3,000 farms doing this recycling by now. It is the weight of regulation which has limited growth. Last year, 16 Land Network farms recycled some 100,000 tonnes. It could have been several million.

How does this affect you personally? Well, farmers as a whole still import approaching £1bn worth of mineral fertilisers every year. We could use urban wastes to avoid that import cost as we ought to be paying more attention to the nation's balance of payments.

Secondly, for every hectare of oil seed rape grown this way and turned into biofuels, it saves around 50 tonnes of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. (This is a serious contribution to reversing global warming.)

Thirdly, it cuts out nitrate pollution.

The problem with regulation is that it concentrates on controlling the bad guys. That is not a bad thing. However, it does tend to dominate and forget that regulators have a second and more important duty; to enable the good guys.

Bear in mind the Saudi proverb. "My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet airplane. His son will ride a camel."

If you, your children and your grandchildren are going to drive a car, then get a diesel car now and insist that the biodiesel fuel you buy is made from local wastes.

  • Bill Butterworth is a Chartered Environmentalist and was originally trained as an agricultural scientist. He is General Secretary of the Land Network farmers' consortium. You can contact him at

Taken from
16 July 2007 © Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2007.


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