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When the State of California required Los Angeles to reduce its landfill waste, the city had the perfect solution. A large percentage of what went into the dumps came from lawns, gardens and parks. Growers of tomatoes, peas and other vegetables noticed they were losing crops. The culprit was found to be Clopyralid (PDF), a widely-used dandelion herbicide, found to be present in the City-manufactured compost.

By collecting green waste, composting it and marketing it back to the public, the City not only reduced its waste by half, it made money to boot. Suddenly compost programs in Los Angeles, Spokane and other parts of the country came to a halt as the “contaminated compost” scandal spread.

Since leaves and yard wastes comprise such a large percentage of landfill volume, as much as 30 per cent depending on the season, many cities began to see the value of composting their green waste and recycling (Los Angeles reached 50 percent by including food, paper products and other soluble wastes).The city of Davis, California has had such a program since 1972.In that case, you’ve just spent hard-earned money for no good.“Managing compost is extremely difficult,” says David De Cou, executive director of the Organic Materials Review Institute in Eugene, Oregon.There’s a strong belief that the composting process creates something natural but that’s not always true, depending on what it’s made of.” Wise organic gardeners — most of you — already know the solution to this problem.

But before we state the obvious, let’s look at the history of problems associated with commercial compost and the efforts to remedy them.Even early on in these programs, there were concerns about the quality of the compost produced as well as the harmful ingredients it might contain.In the 1980s, scientists from Cornell University began monitoring compost produced at a pilot yard waste project in Westchester County, New York. Chlordane persists in the environment for decades (the major reason it was banned).Wellesley, Massachusetts began composting its leaves in the early 1970s after its community incinerator was closed for failing to meet air emission standards.At first, leaves were just piled and stored, but then the city began turning the huge piles and making finished compost and using it locally. In the late ’80s, the town began collecting debris from landscapers and other commercial operations in an effort to triple their compost production.Compounding the problem are persistent toxins from sprays used on forests (forest products make up a large share of commercial compost).