WICHITA, Kan. -- Shredding used phone books and spreading them over farmland to make compost may be an idea whose time has come, say Kansas State University researchers.
Recently, they spread 50,000 pounds of phone books and 750 pounds of nitrogen over five acres of farmland near Wichita. Since paper can hold up to seven times its own weight in water and because moisture is so important to crops, the process could reduce soil erosion and boost crop yields.
But the project is being supported by the local city and county governments because it also is a new way to recycle paper and save landfill space. Thus, Sedgwick County Extension agent Bradley Goering thinks the project already is proving valuable.
"In Sedgwick County, approximately 400 tons of paper goes to the landfill each day," he said. "(County officials) have expressed an interest in finding a better way to recycle some of this paper. We think we can grind these old phone books up, add nitrogen and spread it over agriculture land, similar to a garden mulch."
As of the year 2001, Sedgwick County no longer will allow waste paper of any kind into the landfill. Until then, the Sedgwick County Extension office, the county commission, and the Soil Conservation Service are working together to implement a use for the paper.
The phone books, in 1,400-pound, five-foot-long bales, are ground into confetti-size pieces; combined with nitrogen; then spread at the rate of 10,000 pounds of paper and 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre.
The farm's soil acts as a compost agent. Research shows that the paper, which is more than half carbon, improves the quality of the soil and increases its organic matter.
Goering said the farmer likely will be paid for use of his land, perhaps as much as $50 per acre.
"So they've got more money to operate and the city and county also gets rid of some of the paper that's going to the landfill," he said.
It costs the local government from $30 to $50 per ton to haul paper to another state. If the paper can be applied to agricultural land, that money, instead, stays in the county and in farmers' pockets.
The K-State researchers still need to validate the carbon-nitrogen ratio. The ideal mixture would contain enough nitrogen so that the paper will decompose, but not hurt crop yields.
It will take approximately six weeks for the paper to decompose, Goering said. Just how well the paper compost works will not be known until crops are harvested next spring and summer.
Goering added that researchers have not found any detrimental effects on the environment caused by the ink or glue used in the recycled phone books.
Similar studies have been conducted in Texas and five other states. K-State's project was spurred by previous work by Jim Edwards, a professor at Auburn University.
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