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From waste to resource, from fork to fork, from head to belly, from North to South… the idea of cycle and interdependence has been prevalent in recent years. Systemic or global thinking is gradually taking hold (think global to act local), the trend towards a circular economy seems unstoppable to the point that we are trying to reconnect each end of the cycle to a new beginning. Hey! I have a waste, who wants it? 

When it comes to organic matter (OM), how do we reconnect life to death and death to life? At a time when we feel the need to connect to the Earth, getting our hands dirty with clay is becoming a new paradigm in urban environments. The integration of Man in his living world, in his true essence, questions each « homo sapiens biologicus » thanks to his faculty of analysis and reflection. So, let’s go back to the origin of matter and life. 

The classification of « living » includes 3 kingdoms: eukaryotes (plants, animals, fungi), bacteria and archaea (type of extremophile bacteria(1)). Biology shows that living species work to make their own species thrive over time. This time is relative, as evolution indicates that species adjust and change according to the conditions of their environment. Man and Earth, united in the world, are evolving. Man feeds on nature, nature recycles Man, and vice versa. Scientific research helps us to understand the intimate and dependent relationships between living organisms and has demonstrated the pact that unites flowers with insects, bacteria with our digestive system or archaea that play a role in the cycle of nitrogen (nitrification process) and carbon, feeding plants and contributing to the production of the greenhouse effect (methanization).

All these relationships and balances are fragile but at the same time very solid. For a long time, Man refused to recognize that his relationship of domination and exploitation with nature could have an impact on these balances. At the height of mass tourism, for example (increased air travel), it was not imagined that human activity could have consequences for the environment. Today, we understand that weakening one link in the system weakens the whole and can lead to unexpected consequences. Some comparisons speak for themselves: if one wished to maintain the level of energy comfort If we were to replace fossil fuels with firewood, the earth would not have enough cultivable surface to produce the necessary biomass; even if it did have this surface, wooding the entire planet would cause a stronger reflection (darkening of the earth’s surface) which would increase the greenhouse effect linked to the sun’s rays. All this generates many questions: should we make GMO heating pellets, should we reduce the population, should we be cold in winter? Many questions are open to us and must be analyzed in the OM cycle in order to better understand the « real » solutions that will allow Man to integrate into his environment without causing too great an impact that would disturb the entire planetary ecosystem, and indeed the entire human species. 


Modern man, living in society, is socially organized. Everyone participates in the collective effort which, in turn, feeds progress,progress that has been nourished by the discovery of abundant fossil energy, minimizing our relationship to biological energy and, in fact, to human effort. This discovery disconnected us from the physical reality of our body. At the same time, the price of fossil energy being cheaper than the price of a worker (cost/energy ratio), machine work becomes more profitable. In the so-called modern society, Man has thus been essentially reduced to the role of researcher and manager of energy, the substance of machine work. This frantic race for energy is jubilant, it allows comfort by facilitating daily life, freeing up time for leisure and pleasure as a reward for the effort made. So we’ve been convinced that the blender that beats our egg whites into snow makes us happy, especially when time is short! Our neoliberal and capitalist society orchestrates this music that allows everyone to work, consume and express their individuality. Of course, the individual must flourish, but is this our role, our purpose in itself? And can we speak of fulfillment when the race for happiness through individual pleasures has triumphed? Integrating common sense into our societal behaviors can restore « being » where « having » dominates. 


The productivist society uses resources and raw materials to produce consumer goods. These goods thus produced create waste. The forest, on the contrary, does not create waste, it consumes, transforms, and shares the surplus! Each production has a role and is useful to someone else, forming interactions that have become more complex over time to build a system rich in diversity and resilient as a whole. Wouldn’t it be a greater certainty for the sustainability of human life if we were to get closer to the natural functioning of the forest? 

When we speak of rational management, it evokes wisdom, sobriety in abundance, respect for natural cycles, integration into its ecosystem … in fact, a series of philosophical and ethical concepts. Nature does not make choices out of interest, they are made through a series of chemical and biological reactions, the result of which leads to new reactions. In short, nature finds its own way and maintains it in a balanced way. The richness of today’s world in its diversity is the simple result of a series of complex reactions and relationships that have been balanced. 

In this terrestrial ensemble, the soil is the basis of all life forms. Without soil, there are no land plants, without land plants, there is no photosynthesis, no atmosphere, no oxygen and therefore no animals. All too often, we underestimate the vital importance of soil for all living beings, including humans. Forests have existed since the Devonian period (-420 million years). However, the first plants appeared during the Ordovician (-490 million years), so it took 70 million years of evolution for plants to organize themselves into forests. These forests are the product of chain reactions of the evolution of life, they have offered us fertile soils that we have domesticated to ensure the food necessary for the continuity of human life. 

But what is the complex functioning of forest soils? Plants feed on the sun and generate OM (photosynthesis), animals eat OM and use it to live. Animals are therefore dependent on plants, which in turn are dependent on the sun, which sends us its energy in the earth’s atmosphere. Plants also need soil to grow. We thus understand that the atmosphere and the mother rock (deep soil and mineral) are connected thanks to the living (organic). The soil is precious, the upper part (30cm) digests everything that falls on it, mineralizes it (minerals transformed into chemical form that can be assimilated by plants) and then recovers it (absorption of minerals by plants). This role of recycler is ensured thanks to the soil which shelters an abundant life such as bacteria, mushrooms, insects, springtails(2), myriapods(3), gastropods(4)… without forgetting the family of the earthworms which plays an essential role in the association of the mineral and organic world (manufacture of the clay-humic complex). Fungi transform lignin and carbon into humus (smallest OM molecule) which has vital properties (structure, mineral and water retention,…) to maintain a living soil. Humus is the skeleton of the soil and maintains carbon in organic form. All organisms that decompose OM work to eat and digest the architectural assemblies of living organisms (molecular structures) and gradually transform them into elementary bricks (cf. the periodic table of elements). These basic elements can then be assimilated again by the plants, and so on… The forest feeds itself through decomposing organisms living in or on the soil! 

Plants consume CO2, they use the sun’s energy to absorb C (carbon) and release O2 (oxygen). Animals consume O2 to breathe, use the energy of plants © and absorb their mineral salts and vitamins and finally reject CO2 (respiration) and mineral salts that cannot be assimilated or used (excrements). In such a complementary relationship between plants and animals, the waste of one is the resource of the other. Waste does not exist, everything is consumed and recycled! 


If you cut down a forest, it will grow back, but if you destroy the soil, the forest will not grow back! It’s a way of thinking by setting priorities. The current agriculture uses synthetic fertilizers (already mineralized) to feed the plants and protects them with fungicides, herbicides and insecticides to defend the fruit of the same plant. There is clearly a struggle in human agricultural technique against nature in order to exploit nature to feed man. These techniques attack the soils and the life that is sheltered in them, making them little by little inert and therefore without recycling capacity… The soil can no longer feed itself… But again, technology shows us that it can do without soil to cultivate (hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics) but that this is expensive in terms of fossil energy compared to the calories of food produced (the balance is negative). Even when using so-called « green » energies, these techniques are not in harmony with the natural ecosystem but only recreate a productive artificial mini-environment. Of course! But would we want to live without nature, even if technology allowed us to? If we realized that Man was progressively killing the sun and we found a way to live without the sun, would we destroy it as soon as possible? Would we be happy on a planet without sun? Let’s be serious and ask the question of limits. 

Man, when he moves away from what he is, aspires to a return to his roots, to return to the way nature works and to its processes. In this connection, composting is simply the technique of domesticating the decomposition process of the forest. It is a question of promoting the decomposition of OM in an aerobic process (in the presence of oxygen as in the living soil) to reproduce rapidly, under controlled conditions, what the soil and the forest have been doing at their own pace for millions of years. 

Knowing that resources are limited and that plants have a certain growing time, as a manager, humans can balance the recycling time and the growing time of plants in order to preserve the plant mass necessary for survival. Since fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) are extracted and burned, thus releasing carbon into the atmosphere, it is essential to save carbon in organic form to compensate for the current imbalances between the atmosphere and the earth, while at the same time getting out of dependence on fossil fuels (reduction of consumption). 


From there, it seems clever to make living organisms work to decompose OM (as natural as using the sun to make plants grow). There are simple home composting techniques that require only human biological energy and the help of our decomposing organisms. These techniques limit the consumption of fossil fuels and therefore the carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, they put Man to work! 

Currently, in Brussels, MO is taken care of by the community (organic household waste, toilet waste, garden and park waste, industrial waste,…). There are existing channels that offer solutions such as incineration with energy recovery, (bio)methanization (decomposition without oxygen, like in a stomach)… These solutions are energy consuming (transport, industries, hidden costs,…) and break the natural cycles (MO, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus…). The collection in Brussels (on a voluntary basis) of organic waste that is sent to the (bio)methanization plant in Ypres (about 130km away) illustrates this wastefulness. This technique transforms organic carbon into methane gas that will be burned to produce energy. The combustion of methane produces CO2 which is released by the plant. The residue of anaerobic digestion is a sludge rich in mineralized elements (what plants need) but poor in humus (what soils need). These plants have a high investment cost and are only profitable thanks to the green certificates granted. In short, an industry that consumes energy (cost) to produce energy (which brings in a profit in the form of subsidies). 

On the contrary, a domestic composting technique requires very little investment (and that may be the « problem »!), life works for free and the result is a fertile amendment for the soil and the crops. There is therefore no economic value created but a material that comes back to life to produce food, being part of a link with agriculture or forestry so that the waste becomes a resource. Thus the waste will no longer exist! It costs nothing and it doesn’t make any money, but, like a complementary currency, isn’t it the movement, the exchanges that are important and that create the real economy? 


This leads us to imagine a very localized management of MO treatment. The dense and concentrated urban context does not facilitate the feasibility of local management, not to mention the legal framework. In addition, waste in the city is easily mixed and poorly sorted. By limiting the types of waste, we will facilitate the solutions for their treatment. An obvious example — but not the worst — is the path of a banana peel with a small plastic advertising label on it, which after being eaten goes into the compost and 6–12 months later, this label ends up on the ground as pollution (we can still read the brand name on it). Why do you have to put an advertising logo on it? Why also pack, overpack? 

Several multidisciplinary actors at different scales are currently working on the co-creation of a decentralized OM management system in Brussels that would integrate decentralized composting and/or semi-industrial solutions(5). The goal is for the future system to make sense for everyone, with a view to territorial resilience. This is a huge challenge for society. It will have to make us evolve towards a system where the different actors (civil society, politics and industry) will have to collaborate in order to organize themselves locally, and this in a common planetary sense of integration of Man in his ecosystem. 

More on this in the next episode! 

Bertrand Vanbelle

This article initiates a cycle of articles that will make you turn your head to better land on your feet and acquire a vision without taboos about organic materials. It will allow you to integrate into our ecosystems and act as a manager of the living among micro-organisms, bacteria, fungi, plants, insects and bugs of all kinds. 

Next articles:

  • From the dry toilet to the recycling plant (and vice versa)! 
  • Theory and practice of home composting. Humusation », or the transformation 
  • of Man in humus. 
Notes et références
  1. Se dit d’un micro-organisme capable de survivre dans des conditions extrêmes (basses ou élevées) de température, de pression, de rayonnement, etc.
  2. Ordre de petits insectes primitifs, sans ailes ni métamorphoses, qui abondent dans le sol végétal et l’écorce des arbres.
  3. Arthropode terrestre au corps annelé muni de nombreuses pattes.
  4. Classe de mollusques qui rampent au moyen de leur pied ventral et possèdent une masse viscérale généralement enfermée dans une coquille univalve. L’escargot et la limace sont des gastéropodes.
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